Why did Stormont collapse and what are the obstacles to restoring powersharing?
Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith has held bilateral meetings with the leaders of the five parties at Stormont House ahead of a looming deadline in January.
Here are some key questions about the political situation.
– Why did Stormont collapse and why is it still down, three years on?
The institutions collapsed in January 2017 amid a row about a botched green energy scheme. Sinn Fein had demanded that DUP leader and then first minister Arlene Foster step down temporarily to facilitate an investigation into her handling of the ill-fated Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme. When she refused, the late Sinn Fein deputy first minister Martin McGuinness resigned – a move that pulled down the powersharing executive. The row over the RHI scheme destroyed relations between the erstwhile coalition partners, sparking a range of further disputes over traditional issues that had, until that stage at least, not boiled over to threaten the stability of the executive. A wrangle over proposed legislation for Irish language speakers and the region’s ban on same-sex marriage soon emerged as further roadblocks in the path of a return to devolution. Ironically, the bust-up which caused the collapse – the RHI scheme – soon faded into the background and, even though a public inquiry report on the error-ridden scheme is due, it is no longer one of the issues considered pivotal to restoration.
– Has the general election changed things?
Arguably, yes. The DUP and Sinn Fein both had disappointing elections. The DUP lost two of its 10 Westminster seats and while Sinn Fein still has seven seats, its vote fell by a quarter on the last election and the party suffered an extremely embarrassing defeat in Foyle, where the SDLP trounced a Sinn Fein incumbent with a 17,000 majority. Many have interpreted the outcome as the public judgment on the two largest parties’ failure to restore powersharing. Both acknowledge the impasse was raised consistently on the doorsteps by a frustrated and increasingly angry electorate. The election also provided further evidence of a shift towards more centre-ground politics in Northern Ireland – a trend borne out by another positive showing for the cross-community Alliance Party. The results have served as a stark reminder to the big parties that the electorate’s support cannot be taken for granted and has undoubtedly created a fresh impetus to get Stormont back up and running.
– Is there any other reason the parties appear suddenly so keen to strike a deal?
The powersharing impasse created a slow-burning crisis in Northern Ireland’s public services. With no elected ministers and the Government reluctant to reintroduce direct rule, civil servants have been left to run departments in a strange governance limbo-land. The situation has been getting gradually worse over three years as more and more decisions have been left untaken. But the situation arguably reached tipping point in recent weeks when workers in the region’s struggling health service embarked on industrial action to highlight problems such as pay, spiralling waiting lists and staffing shortages. An unprecedented strike by nurses is scheduled for Wednesday amid mounting public fury that patients are suffering while politicians continue to argue. There is little doubt the intense focus on the problems facing the health service has lit a metaphorical fire under politicians’ feet, providing further impetus to get back round the negotiation table.
– So what are the remaining disputes?
Same-sex marriage has effectively been taken off the table as a consequence of legislation passed by MPs at Westminster earlier this year that ended the prohibition, with the first marriages due in February. But the Irish language remains a key logjam. Sinn Fein has consistently made a standalone Irish Language Act a prerequisite of any deal to restore devolution. The DUP has expressed a willingness to legislate to protect the language, but only as part of broader culture laws which also include the Ulster Scots tradition. So the row is essentially more about presentation than substance, as both sides agree to the principle of legislating to protect the language, but are at odds over what those laws are called and whether they are contained in a standalone Bill or as part of a wider piece of legislation.
Away from the language issue, there is an acknowledgement among all the parties that Stormont’s structures and practices require an overhaul. There is not yet consensus on the shape of those reforms, however. One of the key issues that needs addressing is the controversial petition of concern voting mechanism. The mechanism, which enables large parties to effectively block change even if a majority of other MLAs agree to it, was a peace process construct designed to offer protections for minorities. But there is a widespread sense that it has been abused, with parties using it for issues unrelated to the traditional community divide, such as on same-sex marriage and to prevent the censure of party ministers.
– And there’s yet another deadline?
Yes, January 13. The three-year crisis has been marked by a series of missed deadlines, with the parties kicking away successive lines in the sand either drawn by the UK Government or set by legislation. There is another one approaching. On January 13, legislation that has given civil servants extra powers to operate in the governance vacuum expires. Secretary of State Julian Smith will then be under a legal duty to call another snap Assembly election. Whether this deadline will prove any more meaningful than the others that have come and gone is yet to be seen.