In just over a month’s time, Northern Ireland goes to the polls for the Stormont elections. Shortly after that, the Assembly could fall over. Again.
The Democratic Unionists, who look set to remain for now the largest party of capital-U Unionism, have already walked out of the Executive over the Protocol. But the real danger is that Sinn Féin could win the election and with it, the right to nominate the next First Minister.
In practical terms, this means very little. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister are in truth co-equal positions.
But the symbolism matters, which is why the phoney distinction was offered as a sop to the Unionist ego back in 1998. Like so many of the clever wheezes New Labour employed in Northern Ireland, it has proved rather short sighted.
It is past time that the Government acted
In fact, this looming crisis has been both accelerated and rendered much more toxic by a second bit of New Labour cleverness: the 2006 St Andrews Agreement. This was the deal which set the seal on the ascendancy of the DUP and Sinn Féin over their more moderate counterparts, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. For the former parties demanded, and the witless Peter Hain granted, a change to how the posts of First Minister and Deputy First Minister are nominated.
MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) in the NI Assembly organise themselves into designations: unionist, and nationalist. Prior to St Andrews, the First Minister was nominated by the largest designation. If there were more unionist MLAs than nationalist, the unionists got the “top job”.
After 2006, the right to the shiniest title went instead to the largest party. It no longer mattered whether there were more unionists than nationalists; what mattered was whether the biggest unionist party was bigger than the biggest nationalist one. And, eventually, vice versa.
From the perspective of the DUP and Sinn Féin, the electoral logic is impeccable. The old system allowed voters to choose between competing visions for unionism or nationalism without undermining their side’s overall position — this is what allowed them to eclipse the UUP and the SDLP.
The new system, in contrast, creates a powerful incentive for each community’s core voters to cluster behind the dominant party on each side, and for those parties to focus on pandering to, energising and indeed scaring that core vote to keep it corralled behind them.
As a result, both major parties have grown less attractive to moderate or swing voters, whilst their smaller rivals are deprived of the oxygen needed to challenge them. Worse, from a certain perspective, neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin have an electoral stake in the overall strength of their side.
Thus we find the DUP rallying support in a frenzied attempt to close the gap with Sinn Féin, even as overall support for unionist parties declines. All they can offer is keeping the other lot out, a message potent enough to tie up a big chunk of the unionist vote in a strategic dead end but not nearly attractive enough to build a broad, sustainable coalition for securing Ulster’s place in the United Kingdom.
As all sides remain for the moment committed to Northern Ireland’s rather abject system of devolved government, it is past time that the Government acted to put Stormont on a more sustainable footing.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland is British
Happily, Brandon Lewis — not coincidentally one of the longest-serving Northern Irish Secretaries in recent years — may be open to reform. The Financial Times reports “officials” as saying that HM Government is “interested” in formally reorganising the Executive to have joint First Ministers. Nor is he averse to cracking down on New Labour’s mistakes, as Government sources say upcoming legislation will annul the controversial “comfort letters” issued to on-the-run IRA terrorists.
Unfortunately, a post-election collapse will put him in a tricky position. Returning to the pre-St Andrews system for nominations is the right thing to do, but neither of the big parties will support it. Sinn Féin in particular will point out that the rules are only being changed because they won, and they’ll have a point.
But a responsible approach to the long-term interests of Northern Ireland has to include facing down the self-interested and short-termist demands of its biggest parties from time to time.
Too many of Lewis’ predecessors have failed to grasp this, preferring instead to bribe Stormont back onto its feet and bask in five minutes of good headlines about how “historic” it all is. The result a series of shoddy deals, from St Andrews to Julian Smith’s unworkable “New Decade, New Approach”, and such a level of accumulated dysfunction that the Assembly collapsing for years on end is the new normal.
Under the terms of the Belfast Agreement, Northern Ireland is British. That means that Her Majesty’s Government is ultimately responsible for ensuring that its citizens receive not just peace, but order and good government too. This duty has been too long neglected.
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