Leo Varadkar

A red card for devolution in Northern Ireland?

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16th August 2023

A red card for devolution in Northern Ireland?

Last week the Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar made a landmark visit to Windsor Park, home of the Northern Ireland national football team and Linfield Football Club, making him the first Taoiseach to do so. The request to visit Windsor Park was made by the Irish Department of Foreign Affairs, signalling a desire to build relationships in Northern Ireland (or telling of the Taoiseach’s love of a good photo opportunity, depending on who you ask..!).

At a press conference at Windsor Park, speaking on the importance of the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Taoiseach said:

“If it’s the case that the institutions can’t be re-established in the Autumn, well, then I do think at that point we have to start having conversations about alternatives, about plan B.”

The Taoiseach was then asked by Gareth Gordon, BBC News NI’s political correspondent, if he was referring to joint authority shared between the UK and Irish Governments; to which Mr Varadkar pointed out there was no provision for joint authority in the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement, but nor was there any provision for direct rule by the UK Government. The Taoiseach followed up:

“We are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement and if the Good Friday Agreement isn’t working, if institutions aren’t functioning, well, then it makes sense that the British and Irish governments work together to talk about what arrangements could be put in place.”

It has been rumoured for months now that we can expect a return of the Northern Ireland Executive in September / October time, but as this looks increasingly unlikely, what’s next if the institutions at Stormont aren’t restored in the Autumn?

Another Assembly Election?

The last Assembly Election took place in May 2022 but due to the DUP’s refusal to appoint a Speaker of the House and form an Executive, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Chris Heaton-Harris MP, confirmed that he had a legal obligation to call an additional Assembly Election if no Executive was formed by 27th October 2022. This deadline passed and was extended by legislation at Westminster, and this deadline currently sits at 18th January 2024. Between now and then, the Secretary of State could call an election, but he also has form for extending this deadline, so it is still possible that by 18th January 2024, we still won’t have a date for an Assembly Election.

Direct Rule?

Northern Ireland is no stranger to direct rule, when the UK Government takes direct responsibility for government decisions in Northern Ireland and the ministers of the Northern Ireland Office (NIO) instruct the Northern Ireland Civil Service. Direct rule was in place for 26 years at the height of the Troubles, until 1998 when in accordance with the Good Friday / Belfast Agreement, the power-sharing Executive was established. Since 1998, direct rule has been imposed on a number of occasions, including between 2002 and 2007 due to a breakdown in relations between political parties. The UK Government is reluctant to impose direct rule, with the Secretary of State previously saying it had not previously had “great outcomes… It’s something I’m really very wary of.” In addition to this, nationalist politicians in Northern Ireland have strongly said there can be no return to direct rule in the absence of an Executive, and have called for joint authority.

Joint Authority?

Joint Authority, which would give both the UK and Irish Governments responsibility for decisions in Northern Ireland, has been widely discussed, particularly by nationalist politicians. Sinn Féin’s First Minister in waiting, Michelle O’Neill, has previously said, “We have a special and unique circumstance because of the Good Friday Agreement and there isn’t any other alternative. In fact, probably the alternative to power-sharing would be some arrangement between the British and Irish government.” The NIO quickly rejected this idea, saying, “We are not considering any changes to the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement and we will not consider joint authority.”

What’s next?

If the UK Government is “very wary” of direct rule and is “not considering” joint authority, the reality is there are no options available other than the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive. Whilst it looks unlikely that the Taoiseach’s idea of a “Plan B” will be fulfilled, the NIO has said the UK and Irish Governments have “long agreed to co-operation in line with the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement, including through the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The UK Government firmly believes that the three-stranded approach set out in the agreement offers the best route to securing the timely restoration of the NI institutions, and our commitment to it remains unchanged.”

Realistically, the Northern Ireland Executive is the only show in town.

The ball is in the DUP’s court (or football pitch). Speaking after his “very useful” meeting with the Taoiseach last week, DUP leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said, “Our focus at the moment is on resolving the major problems that were created by the Northern Ireland Protocol. We continue to engage with the government, that engagement has intensified in recent weeks, and I hope that within the next few weeks we will have a definitive response from the government and we will be able to put a proposition forward.”

Speaking after her meeting with Mr Varadkar, Alliance Party leader Naomi Long said, “It has been clear now for some time that whilst some kind of a deal that could restore devolution is not necessarily that far away, neither is it any closer than it appeared to be at any time frankly throughout the Spring,” and said there was “a short window of opportunity” to resolve the situation now.

The UK Government cannot kick the can down the road forever, giving extensions to deadlines before calling an election hasn’t worked to date, and in the meantime public services have been left to suffer with no ministerial direction. If, as expected, an Executive is not formed in the Autumn, surely the UK Government will be left with no choice but to look at a “Plan B”.

Whatever is next, the MCE team can provide you with a robust insight into politics in Northern Ireland. With our first-hand experience and contacts in all levels of government and government officials, we are uniquely positioned to offer advice and guidance. For more information on how we can help you, get in touch.

By Lindsay Millar

Photo: Daniel Fayeun / PA, from irishnews.com