The day it became obvious that power-sharing in Northern Ireland had collapsed, it made the headline of just one major British daily newspaper. On a day dominated by Meryl Streep’s comments on Donald Trump, Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned from his post, precipitating the next elections in Northern Ireland on 2 March.
Just eight months after the Northern Ireland Executive got its first real opposition in the form of the moderate Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), Ulster Unionists (UUP), and Alliance Party, the power-sharing arrangement has collapsed.
Arlene Foster, the First Minister, representing the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), has resisted calls to step down amid a scandal surrounding a badly designed renewable heating scheme (RHI/ ‘Cash for Ash’), widely acknowledged to have wasted about £490m of public money. The opposition parties leapt to denounce Foster for refusing to step aside for an independent investigation. Initially, the DUP’s partners in government, Sinn Féin, tried to weather the storm but their position became obviously untenable, which has led to them pulling out of government.
But this is not a problem that will be solved so easily by new elections. Both national governments in Dublin and London are worried that the election will worsen relations still further between the DUP and Sinn Féin. Sinn Féin have been buoyant for weeks, primed for an election they knew was in their hands to call, whipping up their base with denouncements of DUP corruption. The DUP, faced with financial scandal, has little choice but to hold on to their unionist vote with tribalist warnings against letting Sinn Féin become the largest party.
Unless the coming elections produce a stunning upset, both parties will be required to cooperate to get the Executive running again.
The UK press does not seem too interested in what is happening just yet. Perhaps their ears will prick to attention if the Supreme Court rules in the coming days that the invocation of Article 50 requires a legislative consent motion in Stormont – this would surely delay Brexit for months as the parties form the new executive.
And what if a new executive cannot be formed? After three weeks, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has the option of calling yet more elections, or instituting direct rule from Westminster, making legislative consent impossible and delaying Article 50 still further. Brokenshire has insisted he is “not contemplating alternatives” to the current devolved institutions.
Even if the Supreme Court rules consent from Stormont unnecessary for Article 50 invocation, Brexit will have even more implications for Northern Ireland than first imagined.
Even the moderate SDLP have said they would resist direct rule from Westminster in the context of Brexit, insisting that a joint British-Irish authority would be needed to protect their interests in the negotiations.
Borders, market access and corporation tax competition are all sensitive issues which are likely to come up in the Brexit negotiations – and we are faced with the possibility the constituent nation most directly affected by them will lack a coherent voice to make their case.
Brokenshire has said that Northern Irish ministers, who remain in place in a caretaker capacity, will continue to be invited to meetings on Brexit – but they are not allowed to take major decisions without consulting the Executive, which will not exist until agreement is reached. Will that arrangement stand up to scrutiny beyond the March election, in the run-up to the planned Article 50 deadline?
It is easy to imagine the republican parties tiring of this sticking plaster solution very quickly.
The Northern Irish public are used to political crises in Stormont. In the past, they have been solved by a “package of measures” negotiated with the national governments. But there is a sense that this crisis is different, and represents an ominous start to a new chapter in Stormont politics. It is a chapter that could yet have serious consequences for Theresa May’s government as it draws up its plans to leave the EU.
Whichever way the Supreme Court rules in the coming days, this election cannot be ignored.
Main photo by Robert Young – https://www.flickr.com/photos/robertpaulyoung/