Explaining the Northern Ireland’s Assembly Crisis: Will Stormont return?

On January 10th 2017, the Northern Ireland Assembly, also known as Stormont, collapsed and does not appear likely to return at any point for the foreseeable future. The cause of the collapse was the withdrawal of the junior partner, Sinn Fein, from the governing coalition with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), following a botched handling of a renewable energy scheme. Yet there are much deeper issues that divided the two parties making their coalition highly unstable. The roots of Northern Ireland’s divided society and the cause of Stormont’s collapse can be traced back to 1800.

Prior to Ireland’s incorporation into the United Kingdom (UK) by the 1800 Act of Union, which created the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, Ireland had been ruled by a Lord Lieutenant appointed by the British Monarchy. The Act of Union dissolved the Irish Parliament, instead granting Ireland 100 Members of Parliament who would sit in the UK House of Commons.

At the time, the majority of the Irish population was Roman Catholic with 74% of the population reporting as such in the 1911 Census. The British government perceived the Catholic population as a threat because the latter held their allegiance to the Pope in Rome, and not to the British Monarchy. Thus, the Irish were seen as a disloyal part of the UK population,  leading to repressive British measures to control them. As part of these measures, Catholics held very few rights and suffered discrimination in land ownership and the franchise. It is unsurprising then, that British rule proved unpopular, causing Ireland to revolt six times prior to the Irish War of Independence in 1918. Even Canadian lands served as a battleground as Irish revolutionaries from 1866-71 mounted raids into Ontario and Quebec from the United States to divert British Forces from Ireland.

Irish Independence and Home Rule, Ireland having its own parliament, was bitterly opposed by the Conservative and Unionist Party while the Liberal Party was broadly in favour of Home Rule, although failed to implement it despite four bills in 1886, 1893, 1914 and 1920.

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Map of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The unlabeled grey country is the Republic of Ireland. 

Forming Northern Ireland and the fight for Catholic Civil Rights

Northern Ireland was formed in 1921 after the Irish War of Independence. Northern Ireland’s population consisted mainly of Protestant immigrants from Scotland, brought over to secure Ulster, one of Ireland’s four traditional provinces. The Protestants had no desire to be a minority in the newly independent Catholic Irish Free State.

Traditionally the northern province of Ulster consisted of 9 counties, its complete integration into Northern Ireland would have rendered Protestants a minority in Northern Ireland. On the other hand, forming a small state of the 4 counties with a large Protestant majority would have been unsustainable. Ultimately, a compromise was struck of 6 counties with a fair-sized Protestant majority population, despite 2 of these counties, County Fermanagh and County Tyrone, having majority  Catholic populations. Therefore, under the 1922 Anglo-Irish treaty, Britain unilaterally partitioned Ireland, creating a Protestant majority state, Northern Ireland. Uniquely in the UK, under the 1920 Government of Ireland Act, Northern Ireland would be granted its own devolved bicameral legislature, the Northern Ireland Parliament. Wales and Scotland would not receive their own devolved administrations until 1997.

The Northern Ireland government was dominated by the Protestant majority, who favoured Northern Ireland remaining a constituent part of the UK – a position known as Unionism. Unionism’s opposing ideology is Nationalism, which in Northern Ireland means support for Irish reunification, a desire of many Catholics. The Catholic population was politically and socially repressed in many ways. For example, elections to Stormont used the  first-past-the-post, a system that favours the majority population. In addition, seats were gerrymandered to ensure Protestant majorities. Catholics were also subject to discrimination in employment and housing, resulting in burgeoning Catholic ghettos

Civil rights movements emerged in the late 1960s to challenge Catholic discrimination. However, this activism was soon overtaken by increasing unionist violence, followed by campaigns by the nationalist Irish Republican Army (IRA). This violence developed into  the “Troubles”, a euphemism for a 30-year bloody conflict in which 3,600 people lost their lives ensued. Stormont proved unable to contain the violence, thereby compelling the deployment of the British army under Operation Banner in 1969. By 1972, the UK Government imposed direct rule, suspending Stormont, and taking direct responsibility for tackling the Troubles.

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Mural of the events of Bloody Sunday as protesters attempt bring their mortally wounded friend through British lines.

During the Troubles, both sides committed atrocities. For instance, 1972 saw Bloody Sunday where British paratroopers killed 14 peaceful protesters.  The IRA blew up the Conservative Party Conference to try and kill Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher in the Brighton bombing of 1984. The Troubles ended with the 1998 Good Friday Peace Agreement, wherein firstly, the Irish government recognised Northern Ireland as part of the UK. Secondly, the Agreement made Northern Ireland’s continued union within the UK conditional upon the wishes of majority of the population of Northern Ireland, allowing for the possibility of an eventual unified Ireland.  Thirdly, the agreement allowed Northern Ireland citizens to be granted Irish citizenship should they wish; the majority of Northern Ireland Catholics hold Irish rather than UK passports. The Agreement satisfied Unionists as Northern Ireland was finally recognised as a legitimate part of the UK. The Agreement satisfied Nationalists as although Northern Ireland remained physically separate from Ireland, through Irish citizenship rights, the two nations became closer together and the Nationalists could have their Irish heritage recognised. The Agreement culminated in a restored Stormont, using the single transferable vote (STV) for elections.

Northern Ireland’s Electoral Complexity & Policy Disagreements

STV is a proportional electoral system in which candidates compete in multi-member seats to achieve more proportional representation. To ensure power sharing and to prevent any single community dominating, a complex system of checks and balances was put in place. Executive positions are handed proportionally to parties participating in government. In addition, each community holds a veto, or a “petition of concern”, which enables them to block disputed legislation if activated by 30 of 108 members of the legislative assembly. To be overturned, it requires a super-majority of both unionists and nationalist members. The Executive must consist of the largest nationalist and unionist parties – the larger party selects the First Minister and the smaller party the Deputy First Minister. Failure of the two largest parties to participate in the Executive, results in the suspension of Stormont. Additionally, the Agreement was subject to referendums in both Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic receiving an overwhelming majority in favour in both.

The Executive and Stormont has been suspended several times, the longest period being between 2002-2007. After the 2012-16 Stormont session successfully completed its term, new elections were held as planned. The largest party was the DUP, a right-wing hard-line unionist one, whilst the second largest party was Sinn Fein, a left-wing hard-line nationalist one. Eventually, both parties entered a coalition, with DUP leader Arlene Foster becoming First Minister and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuiness, becoming Deputy First Minister. In contrast to the previous term, the three-other major Northern Ireland parties choose not to join Sinn Fein and the DUP in coalition but formed Stormont’s first official opposition. These three parties are the moderate right-wing unionist  Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the moderate nationalist left-wing Social Democrat and Labour Party (SDLP) and the non-sectarian liberal Alliance Party.

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The unlikely duo: First Minister of Northern Ireland Arlene Foster, DUP and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness, Sinn Fein.

Less than year after its inauguration, the Executive collapsed and Stormont was suspended due to the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister. The primary cause of his resignation was the disastrous Renewable Heat Incentive or cash-for-ash scandal. The Scandal involved Stormont paying businesses to use renewable energy. But since the subsidies were considerably more than the market price of energy, there were a significant number of fraudulent claims as many businesses consumed more heating than necessary to increase energy consumption and claim more money. For instance, one farmer heated an empty barn to claim the subsidy. The policy was ill-monitored and is projected to cost Stormont around £500 million over the next 20 years.  Arlene Foster refused to step down during the investigation or accept responsibility for her actions in implementing the policy.

Other policy disagreements also explain the reasons behind Martin McGuinness’ resignation. On the linguistic front, Irish does not hold official language status in Northern Ireland, a norm that Sinn Fein seek to change. In addition, there is conflict over Brexit, with the DUP having backed ‘Leave’, and Sinn Fein having voted for ‘Remain’. To complicate matters further, the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to remain within the European Union. Finally, two key social issues divide views within and across the religious divide. Abortion and gay marriage are supported by Sinn Fein, whilst opposed by the DUP. Currently, both are illegal in Northern Ireland, but legal in the rest of the UK. Thus, with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister being at almost direct loggerheads with each other, Stormont was bound to run into existential problems sooner or later.

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Martin McGuinness with founder of the DUP and former First Minister, Ian Paisley with former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmon. McGuinness and Paisley were known as the chucky brother.

2017 Snap Elections

After Sinn Fein failed to nominate a new Deputy First Minister, the UK government Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire called for snap elections in March 2017. During the campaign, Arlene Foster refused to sanction an Irish Language Act stating that “if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more”, referring to the possibility of Sinn Fein making further demands. This statement also resulted in Sinn Fein activists turning up to vote on election day in crocodile outfitsMartin McGuinness died before the election at which he intended to step down, being replaced as leader by Michelle O’Neill, who refused to go into coalition with the DUP while Arlene Foster remained in charge.

To save money, Stormont was reduced from 108 to 90 seats, affecting all parties. The election was a disaster for unionist parties. The DUP dropped from 38 to 28 seats, costing them their ability to veto legislation under the ‘petition of concern’ procedure. Sinn Fein lost only 1 seat out of 28, and came within 1,168 first preference votes of overtaking the DUP, and becoming the largest party. The UUP dropped from 16 seats to 10 being overtaken by the SDLP, who had remained consistent on 12 seats. Alliance remained in fifth place retaining their 8 seats. Overall, the two main unionist parties dropped from 54 to 38 seats while the two main nationalist parties went from 40 to 39 seats, reflecting the gradual change in the balance of power between nationalists and unionists.

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James Brokenshire , former Secretary State of Northern Ireland proved unable to play the role of neutral arbitrator between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Despite discontent from her party, Foster remained leader of the DUP. She seemed to weaken her position on the Irish Language Act by visiting a Catholic school and giving an Irish greeting to the students she met. However, no progress on restoring devolution has been seen. Sinn Fein, however, lost the upper hand after UK Prime Minister Theresa May called a snap general election in April 2017. The Conservative Party having had a small but clear majority ended up winning just 318 of 650 seats, leaving them short of a majority. The DUP being the only right-wing party at Westminster were a natural choice for the Conservatives, with whom they entered into a supply and confidence agreement. The DUP agreed to support the Conservatives on no-confidence, Budget, and Brexit votes in exchange for £1 billion for Northern Ireland, and support in restoring Stormont. Ultimately, the DUP saw no reason to return to negotiations on Stormont, now participating in the UK government, and able to pull the strings if direct rule was imposed on Northern Ireland.

On February 18th 2018, there was talk of a final deal to restore Stormont, containing an Irish and Ulster Scot Language Act. Despite the existence of an alleged draft deal, the DUP claimed otherwise. Disputes led to a collapse of the deal and talks have now been suspended. Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley is currently drawing up a Northern Ireland budget, meaning direct rule has been re-established for the foreseeable future.

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New Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spent the majority of her Birthday in talks about possible cuts to Stormont Member’s pay.

How can Stormont be Revived?

One possible solution to the crisis is to hold fresh elections. Such elections would determine how support for each party currently stands. They may also instill renewed momentum to either party to continue the talks given a fresh mandate from the electorate.  The likely result of any such election would be the DUP and Sinn Fein remaining the largest unionist and nationalist parties and therefore obligated under the Good Friday Agreement to go into an unstable coalition with each other. The rule on the Executive consisting of the largest unionist and nationalist parties could be changed to mandating the Executive can be formed by any unionist party and any nationalist party. Thereby not making the only option a DUP-Sinn Fein coalition.  Unfortunately, a moderate coalition between the UUP, SDLP and Alliance may fall a long way short of a majority. A number of three-party coalitions could work with the combinations being: DUP, SDLP, Alliance; Sinn Fein, UUP, Alliance or in both cases the Alliance being replaced by support from the smaller parties such as the Greens and Independents. However, in any of these combinations, the SDLP and UUP would likely suffer heavily in any subsequent elections for being perceived as selling out to the opposite community, essentially destroying the moderate voices in the debate.

Another short-term solution, although unpopular among both nationalists and unionists, would be UK government intervention. For instance, Ruth Davidson, the leader of the Scottish Conservative Party attacks the DUP record on social issues and expressed concern about the impact of their inclusion in the UK Government may have on LGBT rights. As a follow-up, Labour MP Stella Creasy put a bill which would allow Northern Irish women access to abortion on the British National Health Service, when previously they had to get it done privately. Faced with the threat of a backbench rebellion, the UK government gave in and passed the bill in 2017. While this bill does not fully lift the restrictions Northern Ireland women face, it offers an example as to how the UK Parliament can intervene in Northern Ireland social issues, and prevent them from being a source of division between Sinn Fein and the DUP.

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The EU Parliament in Brussels. Sinn Fein is lobbying the EU to help achieve its goal of a reunified Ireland while the DUP pushes the UK Government for greatest possible separation from the EU.

Stormont is unlikely to return anytime soon as neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP have any interest in restoring Stormont. The DUP until the next UK General Election, which is due in 2022, can influence the UK Government due to the lack of a majority Government. In fact, the DUP almost prevented an agreement being reached on Stage One of the Brexit negotiations over plans for the Irish Border. Of the four constituent parts of the UK, Northern Ireland and Scotland voted Remain while England and Wales voted Leave. Sinn Fein sees the perfect opportunity to bring about Irish reunification with Northern Ireland, and leaving the EU against its will. To that effect, Sinn Fein has been lobbying the Irish Government as well as meeting EU heads of states and bureaucrats to push for a referendum on reunification. Until both parties bore of their adventures, Stormont will be quiet for a long while to come.

Edited by Arnavi Mehta.