We look to be heading back to a suspension
Normalcy does not suit Northern Irish politics. A political structure designed to overcome the legacy of the seventeenth century (with a good deal of success, it has to be said), is in severe danger of being incapable of handling the practicalities of the twenty-first.
It’s not unusual for a coalition to break down over some disagreement of policy or administration, and for elections to follow. It is, by contrast, unusual for the parties concerned to be obliged by law to work together again after the election.
Such is the situation in Northern Ireland. The St Andrews agreement means that the largest party in the largest designation – which is likely to be the DUP, as unionists should outnumber nationalists in the new Assembly – will be able to nominate the First Minister. They will nominate Arlene Foster, First Minister before the election and the minister responsible for the RHI scandal. The largest party in the next largest designation – Sinn Fein – gets to nominate the Deputy First Minister. And as this is back with the status quo ante the election, they might well not nominate anyone, which is what they did to prompt the election in the first place.
In any other legislature, discussions would then go on with the other parties to see if either of the big two could form a different coalition or govern as a minority but Ulster doesn’t have any other legislature and those talks can’t happen: the rules are prescriptive and because they’re so prescriptive, there’s probably now at least a 75% chance of a suspension of the Assembly and Executive.
And this is why Stormont isn’t any other legislature and how the shadows of the Boyne still intrude. In a normal polity, the DUP would have suffered from the RHI overspend and lost vote share either to their main opponent (Sinn Fein in this case) or a rival party occupying a similar position on the spectrum (the UUP). In fact, while the DUP share did drop slightly, the higher turnout means that they won a good deal more votes than last May. Incompetence in office remains trivial as against breaking solidarity with the community.
Which is a problem because as long as voters remain stuck so rigidly in the habit of voting on community lines, true accountability will be difficult. Even the theoretical option of switching to another party within the relevant designation is limited when the risk of doing so is that it hands the prestige of being the largest party to the other side. Indeed, as this election has shown, even attempting true accountability risks losing the whole settlement.
Does this matter? After all, Stormont has been suspended before since the end of the Troubles. It does matter. For one thing, the Troubles were never really over: the terror threat within the province is still Severe. But the other reason Northern Ireland might soon be back in the news is Brexit.
The UK’s decision to leave the EU raises a lot of difficult questions about how that will impact north of the border (and indeed, on the border). Will there be a hard border with customs? Will freedom of movement be retained, to the Republic at least? How will customs be applied if the UK leaves the customs union? And so on. The lack of a First Ministerial pair and an Executive will make those negotiations even harder.
That shouldn’t be allowed to continue. There needs to be change and pressure needs to be brought to bear on the DUP and Sinn Fein to share power, either with each other or with smaller parties.