Northern Ireland’s arrangements need overhauling before they break down
No-one cares about Northern Ireland. Lots of people say they do of course but in reality, as long as bombs aren’t going off (or, at worst, are only going off in Derry or Strabane or the like), then it’s either left to get on by itself, an insoluble problem best left alone, or a political football to be kicked in the interests of whoever’s kicking it. If they did care, it would have had a much higher profile during the Brexit debate, and would have been treated with greater respect and awareness during the negotiations afterwards.
Actually, that’s not fair. A few people do genuinely care. Theresa May, to her credit, was one – and trying, and inevitably failing, to reconcile its unique – and internationally odd – position with the legalities of Brexit was a prime reason for her downfall. Arlene Foster is another; a woman whose own family suffered terribly during the Troubles and who, despite that, made significant personal gestures towards cross-community cooperation.
That said, both women were in excellent positions to define a solution that might have worked and both failed to do so. May had a surprisingly open hand after winning the Tory leadership so easily. It was her speech to the Tory conference which closed off the possibility of some EEA-type arrangement which could have kept something close to the N Ireland status quo. And at the other end of May’s term, the DUP grossly miscalculated by rejecting May’s deal with its whole-UK backstop. Indeed, it miscalculated in backing Brexit in the first place, though that was before Foster’s leadership.
For all the talk of the need to respect the Good Friday Agreement from EU and American politicians, this almost invariably meant keeping an open border on the island of Ireland; it did not mean keeping open borders within the UK. That failure to understand, or respect, the equivalence of those issues was a serious failing – as, in political terms, was the failure of Unionists to make the case at the time.
In truth though, the GFA was built on the assumption that both the UK and RoI would remain members of the EU (indeed, EU membership is explicitly mentioned within the Treaty), and removing that foundation inevitably severely damaged that built on top of it.
Maybe that’s not a bad thing, though the question as to whether it might be or not has barely been raised, never mind answered. Indeed, it’s probably a form of heresy to even suggest it, such is its power. Again, that’s understandable: it was the GFA that proved the route out of the Troubles and there’s a natural fear that without it, violence might return.
But that’s to discount that violence might return with it – or even because of it. The Agreement does not seek to resolve differences between communities: that would have been far too big an ask. Instead, it seeks instead to regulate and manage them. Even there, its record is decidedly patchy, with direct rule from London having to have been reimposed on multiple occasions. And there’s already been one major rewriting, with the St Andrews Agreement. The notion that the GFA is sacrosanct and ideal flies somewhat in the face of the evidence. It is, however, deeply symbolic and symbols matter – hence the pretence.
But is it a bad thing if Brexit has necessitated a rewriting of N Ireland’s arrangements? Well, that depends: firstly, on whether such a rewrite is done, and secondly, on whether if it is done, it’s done well.
I’ll give one other example of why the current arrangements are problematic, this time having nothing to do with Brexit (or not directly). The biggest revolution in Ulster voting these last five years has been the advance of the Alliance party. Having spent most of the time since the 1980s with support in mid- to high single figures, Alliance polled some 16.8% at the 2019 general election and is polling at similar levels for the N Ireland Assembly, only 6% behind Sinn Fein in first place.
If Alliance did win, this would give them the First Ministership, despite them coming from the smallest community group, being neither nationalist nor unionist*. The Deputy FM would then go to the largest party from the largest community, meaning that either the DUP or Sinn Fein would miss out on the joint-leadership which is also a founding feature and principle of the GFA. (Of course, a cross-community government might still be formed – and you’d think Alliance would be keen in these circumstances to attempt that – but that could well be easier to suggest than to execute).
Obviously, that might well not happen whenever the next election is (scheduled for next year but that assumes Foster’s replacement can be confirmed), but the mere chance that it plausibly could demonstrates the problem with overly rigid rules that don’t keep up with developments.
So what is the solution? To answer that, we first need to ask the basic question: what is the root problem? And the answer – where we started – is that the central assumption underpinning the GFA no longer applies: N Ireland cannot pretend to be Schroedinger’s Province, both Irish and British at the same time, as long as you don’t lift the lid. Brexit has lifted the lid.
However, if it cannot be both at the same time, then it should at least have the right to choose. Anger in Unionist circles is not merely because they’ve lost out badly from Brexit but because those decisions were taken over their heads, with the NI Protocol dividing the province from Britain while binding it to the Republic. And that points to both a border poll and a recognition that if the poll goes in favour of the UK, then both the Protocol and the GFA will need revisiting.
No-one will particularly like that prescription. Unionists will fear losing a border poll and with it, their identity and heritage. Nationalists will fear the loss of the considerable gains they’ve made and a new division. All sides (including non-aligned) will fear that to place such stakes on the table invites violence as both protest and political tactic. And yet the alternative – to bumble along in the hope that the inevitable breakdown doesn’t come, or comes on someone else’s watch – is hardly responsible either. But surely better for political leaders to take the initiative and guide events as best they can? That is, after all, what leadership is about.
* There’s a common misconception that the FM is nominated by the largest party from the largest ‘community’ in the Assembly (i.e. unionist, nationalist or other). They’re not. There’s an overriding provision that the FM is always nominated by the largest party. See paragraph 6 of Section 16C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998