The same, but different

The same, but different? A return to power-sharing in Northern Ireland

Published: 15 February 2024

Dr Clare Rice is a political analyst and researcher, specialising in Northern Ireland, power-sharing, Brexit and identity. 

It’s hard not to question where and when challenges might arise that could trigger the next political crisis in Northern Ireland when the process of stop-start politics has become a perverse norm of governance here. Has anything changed this time around, and what does it mean for the future of power-sharing? 

The context of this revival is different to any we have seen previously – while all have happened within their own circumstances, this one has a particularly complex backdrop embedded in Brexit. The institutions were collapsed in February 2022 by the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) in protest at the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, part of the post-Brexit arrangements agreed between the UK and the EU. In an effort to ensure changes were secured to these arrangements, the party refused to return to power-sharing, and detailed Seven Tests that any arrangements would have to meet before a return would be countenanced. 

In looking across the complex mire of, inter alia, international law, EU internal market law, the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement 1998, the content of the UK-EU deal, and political dynamics in Westminster, it was clear that a solution that would satisfy all of these elements was going to be difficult to find. The 2023 Windsor Framework presented an attempt at addressing some of the challenges with the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland, but for the DUP, it did not go far enough. Having been betrayed by previous Prime Ministers along the Brexit journey, the party was eager to see action, and not merely words, before ending its boycott of the institutions. 

A protracted period of bilateral discussions between the DUP and the UK Government aimed to assuage the DUP’s concerns about the arrangements, particularly in relation to trade. This alone was complex, but an additional question around public finances also became embroiled in the conundrum, with parties from across the political spectrum pressing the UK Government for additional funding to support public services. Both strands came together in January, with the publication of a deal between the DUP and the UK Government, and agreement with Northern Ireland’s parties on a financial package of £3.3billion. 

In terms of the deal with the DUP, the details were captured in the ‘Safeguarding the Union’ Command Paper, and focused on two core elements: trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland’s status within the UK (see here, for example, for in-depth analysis of its content). While offering sufficient assurances for the DUP such that the party was confident it could argue its tests had been met and that power-sharing could be restored, the deal itself has done little to help contribute towards political stability going forward. 

Firstly, that the UK Government entered into such a negotiation with a single party is, at best, disconcerting, particularly given that one of the main tenets of this was in relation to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. While there are different views on this, it is considered by some to go as far as undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement’s principle of parity of esteem for unionists and nationalists, as well as negating the ‘rigorous impartiality’ that the UK Government committed to in its role in Northern Ireland. What the longer-term impact will be of the decision to pursue negotiations of this nature and in this way remains to be seen. 

Secondly, the DUP’s return to power-sharing has added further to divisions both within the party and within unionism. Fractures have been present for some time across both, and undoubtedly contributed to the decision to collapse the institutions in 2022. With a General Election fast approaching, these are likely to become more pronounced, potentially influencing responses to issues arising within the Assembly. While there are no obvious intentions at this stage for the institutions to be collapsed again by either the DUP or Sinn Féin, the Assembly and Executive will face financial difficulties of a magnitude they haven’t experienced before, and with the wider political climate remaining volatile, there is every chance that the present resilience might not be found further down the line to withstand these challenges. 

As such, the deal might have succeeded in leading to power-sharing being restored, but, if anything, it has only helped to make things more difficult going forward. 

The financial deal reached involved discussions with all the Executive parties but there has been unanimous agreement that the £3.3billion amount that this package totals is insufficient to address the breadth of needs in Northern Ireland. In recent days, the new Finance Minister has been advised that the Executive must raise a minimum of £113million in the first year of returning to power-sharing. While the UK Government asserts that all parties have committed to introducing alternative revenue-raising measures as part of the funding deal reached, the parties contest this. Alternative measures potentially include water charges, increased household rates, and prescription charges, all of which are generating public concern in light of the cost-of-living crisis, which is hitting particularly acutely in Northern Ireland. 

Seemingly unavoidable in this picture is that it will be people in Northern Ireland who will continue to be collateral damage in the political wrangling over financing a public sector and services that have been historically underfunded, and are thus necessitating additional support just to be brought to a level on a par with elsewhere in the UK. That in itself will exert additional pressures on politicians and parties in the time ahead. 

There is a lot to be far from optimistic about, but hope must spring eternal when it comes to politics here. While there is almost always one eye to what the next jolt to the system might be, for the moment there is political will to make it work, and the power of that cannot be overlooked. However, without further institutional reform, it is this alone that is being relied upon for sustained governance.  

There were always going to be difficult decisions to be made, and the protracted collapse of the last two years, in addition to 2017-2020, have only made the task now all the more difficult. Just over a week after getting started again, there is no way of knowing how successful or otherwise this attempt will be, but as things stand, there is a consensus across the Assembly that this needs to work, and a sense of political will sufficiently broad for this to be the case. How long that remains is what will determine the longevity of this stretch of governance. 

In this way, so much of the context might be different, but the outlook remains much the same as ever. 

 

Dr Clare Rice is a political analyst and researcher, specialising in Northern Ireland, power-sharing, Brexit and identity. 

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