After three years of stasis, devolution in Northern Ireland is grinding back into gear, following the publication at the end of last week of New Decade, New Approach – the Irish and British governments’ plan to get power-sharing back on the road. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith has achieved what his two predecessors in the role could not. His Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, also emerges from the successful conclusion of Stormont talks appearing statesmanlike, and he will undoubtedly hope that this plays to his advantage as a teetering Fine Gael government stares into an increasingly imminent general election. The decision by both governments to overturn the traditional negotiating timetable and publish the text of the agreement before securing full and final buy-in from all of the parties was both novel and bold, and minimised the likelihood that it would be torpedoed. The move secured broad – if cautious – public support for the deal, and put pressure on the parties to support (or at least acquiesce to) it.
However, and as the University of Liverpool’s Jon Tonge has noted, the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland owes as much, if not more, to the political context than it does to the political skill of either the Tánaiste or the Secretary of State. The writing has been on the wall since the landslide Conservative victory in December brought the DUP’s pivotal role in events at Westminster to a definitive and unceremonious end. The extent of public anger in Northern Ireland in the face of a crisis in Northern Ireland’s health service, and the electoral challenge confronting both the DUP and Sinn Féin from, among others, the cross-community Alliance Party, had also created new political incentives for both parties to ‘get back in’ and avoid new Assembly elections.
As argued by the Belfast Telegraph’s Suzanne Breen, there is not all that much that is actually new in New Decade, New Approach (a summary of the its key provisions is available here). Particularly on the key issue of the Irish Language, the deal is in large part a re-heating of what had previously been agreed before the DUP had pulled the plug in February 2018: a three-stranded approach provides new legal protections for the Irish Language, Ulster-Scots and cultural identity more generally. Tonge describes the deal as ‘something old, something borrowed and something red, white and blue’, noting, in particular the number of new commissioners it creates, their loosely-defined job descriptions and ambiguous powers of enforcement. The functioning of the Assembly, and particularly the controversial ‘petition of concern’ will be reformed, if somewhat equivocally. As Tonge notes,
“Petitions of concern (PoCs) will be "returned to their intended purpose" - which was never actually defined in their two brief mentions in the Good Friday Agreement. The plan says they will now require support from at least two parties states the plan. But given 28 is the highest number of MLAs held by a single party (the DUP) no party can go solo anyway. So it's hardly a major change. That said, there is some laudable text introducing greater precision over how PoCs are deployed and at which stages of the legislative process.”
There are also measures to promote greater transparency and accountability (though Sam McBride has argued that the deal may actually function to reduce these further), and to promote greater sustainability of the institutions. There is also a pledge to ensure – finally – the full and expedited establishment of the mechanisms for dealing with the past outlined in the Stormont House Agreement (which sits uncomfortably next to the Conservatives’ destabilising and deeply unhelpful manifesto commitment on ending the prosecution of veterans charged with Troubles-era offences). Above all, the deal promised a huge cash injection to buttress Northern Ireland’s crumbling public services, though there have already been worrying signs of backtracking by the UK government in this regard.
Included on the long list of issues now confronting Northern Ireland’s new Ministerial team is the perennial one of Brexit. Specifically, with the passage of Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal all-but assured, Northern Ireland now faces the prospect of entering the ‘frontstop’: of the creation of a new customs and regulatory border in the Irish Sea, and a rolling cycle of Assembly votes on maintaining alignment with the EU. The establishment of new and complicated governance structures and key decisions on tariffs and standards are all forthcoming, while it remains far from clear that a new and comprehensive deal can be secured between the UK and the EU before year’s end. The UK government’s promise of ‘unfettered access’ to ‘mainland’ British markets for Northern Ireland’s businesses (reiterated in the text of New Decade, New Approach) continues to be at odds with the reality of its Brexit deal. Earlier this month a last-ditch cross-party effort, involving DUP, SDLP and Alliance MPs, to enshrine this unfettered access in law was voted down when the government refused to support it. As Katy Hayward has suggested, far from being in a “sitting-pretty, best of both worlds, scenario”, the incoming Northern Ireland Executive finds itself at risk of “being caught between a rock and a hard place when it comes to implementation of the [Ireland/Northern Ireland] protocol”.