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How Long Can the UK Government Ignore the Collapse of Governance in Northern Ireland?

Rather than adapting to a new political landscape, leaders are laying roadblocks in place, writes Emma DeSouza

Stormont in Belfast, Northern Ireland. Photo: Peter Morrison/AP/Alamy

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Northern Ireland has been without a functioning government for 735 days. The previous collapse in 2017 went on for 1,097 days. Artificial deadlines have come and gone, the bluff of fresh elections has been called, and rudderless leadership steers Northern Ireland further out to sea. This isn’t just a crisis of power-sharing – this is the final gasp. 

Following almost two years of political inertia, a last-ditch attempt at restoring power-sharing was made this week after Sinn Féin tabled a Northern Ireland Assembly recall motion. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) labelled the recall a “stunt” that would “achieve nothing”.

Speaking in the chamber on Wednesday, First Minister designate Michelle O’Neill MLA said the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are in “free-fall”.

“There is a dangerous attempt under way to discard the democratic outcome of the Assembly election, and this threatens our democratic governance, public administration, reconciliation, and the fabric of this society,” she told the Assembly, adding that, “this sitting may well be the final one of this Assembly.”

There was a sad ‘end of days’ feel as party MLAs took their turns to speak, knowing full-well that the DUP was going to block the election of a speaker and Stormont would not be restored before the legal deadline of 18 January.

The Assembly recall came one day ahead of the largest day of industrial action in a generation in Northern Ireland. The region was brought to a halt as 170,000 public sector workers took to the streets on Thursday over inadequacies in pay and conditions – an outcome that could have been avoided had the DUP returned to Stormont and accepted the UK Government’s financial package of £3 billion.

With another artificial deadline behind us, the question is: what next? How long can the UK Government abdicate on its duty to intervene?


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Ideology and Institutions

In the event of a collapse of power-sharing, so-called direct rule has previously been instated wherein Westminster-based politicians make decisions regarding Northern Ireland.

Direct rule hasn’t been implemented since 2007, and isn’t favoured by any of the key stakeholders, but it is unconscionable that the current approach continues wherein unelected civil servants, who the UK Government have burdened with the responsibilities of a halfway-house of governance, are liable for managing Northern Ireland.

‘Indirect’ rule is less accountable, less transparent, and less effective than any alternative. Yet Heaton-Harris is on course to continue fence-sitting.

Speaking in the House of Commons on Thursday, Mr Heaton-Harris said there was “no way” his Government wanted to go down the route of direct rule from Westminster, nor does it “want to go down the route of joint authority [with Dublin]”. 

Ultimately, Heaton-Harris has underestimated the ideological fanaticism of a party built on the mantra of “never surrender” – there is no carrot or stick that will lure the DUP back into power-sharing under a nationalist First Minister. At times, it can seem hard to imagine them agreeing to anything short of a wall between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland or a paved land-bridge to the so-called ‘mainland’. 

In the end, the only way Northern Ireland will have stable governance is by reforming how the institutions operate. But, rather than adapting to a new political landscape, political leaders are laying vague and formidable roadblocks in place.

Speaking at a conference in Belfast last year, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said that “any conversation about reform can only begin once the institutions are up and running again and if it attracts widespread consent”.

Ireland’s Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has also voiced support for conversations on reform only taking place once Stormont is restored: “If there is going to be any change of rules, well then they should be negotiated by the two governments and the main parties and put into place in advance of the next Assembly elections.”

If the support of the DUP was a prerequisite to the Good Friday Agreement, there would have never been a peace settlement. Rewarding a party that is demonstrably content to block not only the formation of Northern Ireland’s Assembly, but any potential advancement toward Stormont reform, is an effective strategy to trap Northern Ireland in political limbo. Would a self-serving political party benefiting from such a veto give it up?

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A Way Forward?

The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, following a lengthy examination of the effectiveness of Stormont, delivered several recommendations for reform in December.

They recommendations included rebranding the titles of First and Deputy First Minister to ‘Joint First Ministers’, with both being elected by a two-thirds supermajority. Any two members from any two parties would be eligible for election, rather than just the largest two parties, and the election of a speaker would also be determined by a two-thirds supermajority.

Had these recommendations been brought forward, a speaker could have been elected this week and Stormont would most likely have been restored.

It was the people of the island of Ireland who voted for Northern Ireland’s power-sharing arrangements in good faith and in the best interest of all citizens. That good faith has been eroded by decades of closed party talks, back-room deals, and abject abuse of the system.

The people again deserve a voice that reflects their best interest and modern socio-political needs – many of which are vastly different a quarter-century removed from those agreed in 1998.

It is time to bring societal agency back into the conversation by establishing a Northern Ireland Citizens’ Assembly on Stormont reform, with the recommendations gathered therein compiled and put to a referendum. Polling indicates a considerable wave of support for reform, with a 2023 LucidTalk poll showing 63% of respondents favour removing the ability of any one party to collapse the institutions.

Twenty-five years can feel like a lifetime. What was integral in 1998 may not be applicable today. The Good Friday Agreement is a living document with reform baked-in; the treaty should be allowed the space to evolve in line with the society – stunting that evolution only serves to damage faith in the structures that govern us. 

Following the failed Assembly recall, Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) MLA, and former party leader, Mike Nesbitt said: “As a citizen of this country, I felt huge hope on 10 April 1998. As a politician, I felt deep despair today, 17 January 2024. I fear I have sat in that Assembly chamber for the last time.”

Power-sharing, as we know it, is over. Direct rule has been ruled out. So who will be selected to govern Northern Ireland? And will they be a strong enough leader to embrace reform in the best interest of its citizens?

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