New report: Northern Ireland: challenges for the next Westminster government…

Alan Whysall is a former civil servant in the Northern Ireland Office who advised British ministers throughout the negotiations that led to the 1998 Agreement. He is now an Honorary Senior Research Associate at the Unit, specialising in politics in Northern Ireland. He is the author of Northern Ireland: Challenges for the Next Government.

A new report from the Constitution Unit, Northern Ireland: Challenges for the Next Westminster Government, is now published. It sets out the challenges in Northern Ireland that will face a new government at Westminster, of whatever complexion, and urges a distinctly new approach.

The Northern Ireland political institutions resumed in February, and Northern Ireland has attracted predictably little attention in the rest of the UK since. The manifestos of the ConservativeLabour and Liberal Democrat parties contained little about Northern Ireland to surprise.

This new report suggests that Northern Ireland needs much sensitivity and some priority in London, however, among all the other problems the new government will need to deal with, including at times attention from Number 10.

We cannot assume that the Agreement settlement is now back on the right path

It should not be assumed that the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are guaranteed to function stably after the election. There is still discontent within the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over the deal that took the party back into government, and its support is down following that deal, and the abrupt departure from politics of its champion, former party leader Jeffrey Donaldson. Several DUP seats are too close to call in this election, including that of the new leader Gavin Robinson.

Even if the institutions do survive, however, they are liable to be hindered, perhaps gravely, by continuing controversy over EU issues.

Nor should it be assumed – as has often been the case in recent years – that if the institutions are in being, all is well with the wider Belfast/Good Friday Agreement settlement.

The institutions have often delivered poor government, with difficult decisions repeatedly dodged. That is one of the reasons behind the financial crisis that has bitten Northern Ireland already, and is liable to return; and behind acute problems in the public services.

And other aspects of the settlement have suffered amid the polarisation of the Brexit years. Much progress towards reconciliation has stalled; controversy has erupted over aspects of the past; paramilitary organisations continue in being, occasionally killing and maiming, and more often practising gangsterism.

All in all, the progress of earlier Agreement years has stalled, and the settlement it embodies appears to be on less sound foundations.

Meanwhile there is now a vigorous movement calling for Irish unity, an issue effectively dormant for the best part of two decades after the Agreement. We are probably a good way off a majority for unity in Northern Ireland  – but significant numbers of people appear to think that it will shortly come, and constitutional issues are again at the centre of politics. And the Union and unity camps are in stark opposition to one another, with few people exploring possible advance by agreement.

The role of London

London in recent years has been widely accused of insensitivity and worse. Brexit created many controversies. Many accused London of partisanship towards unionism – though unionists often accused it of betrayal. It has implemented widely unpopular policies dictated by London political imperatives, notably the legislation on ‘Legacy’, ending prosecutions for crimes committed during the Troubles, a step almost universally opposed in Northern Ireland.

Polling has shown an almost complete lack of confidence in London in all parts of the community at most times in recent years. There were exceptions: during the short period in which Julian Smith was Secretary of State, he earned great respect in all parts of the political spectrum, and secured the return of the institutions in 2020 after the first breakdown – but he was very quickly sacked by number 10 over Brexit politics.

At the same time, relationships with partners in the peace process further afield have become particularly strained – with Dublin, the US and Brussels.

Why should the next government care?

There are arguments of principle, and self-interest. Much may still go awry in Northern Ireland, with human consequences: there are serious implications for future stability and prosperity. But such developments also risk being a distraction for London, potentially reputationally damaging. If London is able to secure progress, conversely, there are prizes for statesmanship internationally, perhaps domestically.

What should the next government do?

The report suggests the next government should seek to make a distinctly new start, in its policies, and in the way it goes about business.

It might therefore reflect on all the key aspects of policy and take a more proactive and strategic approach than London has recently shown, with the objective of making progress on all aspects of the Agreement agenda. It might cautiously seek to set out elements of a vision for the future, one capable of reviving some of the popular hope and momentum for positive politics that the original Agreement generated.

This is not to suggest that London barge into devolved policy: the emphasis should be on partnership and encouragement, but Secretaries of State, though they now have many fewer powers than in the past, do have the capacity for influencing the political climate.

It should also seek to be different in the way it works. It should show conspicuous evenhandedness between parties and political traditions, which is essential to discharging the honest broker role governments have in the past taken on.

Fundamentally, it needs to rebuild trust in Northern Ireland, and beyond. A better relationship with Dublin is central to that.

And it might better seek to engage wider society in Northern Ireland, in search of new ideas to sustain constructive politics.

Indications that the Prime Minister is personally committed to success in Northern Ireland are important. All in all, there is a need to show that London both understands and cares, a sense distinctly missing in recent years.

The report published today makes suggestions about what a new London government could do as regards specific areas of policy – though it does not claim to offer a comprehensive set of answers, rather to be an agenda for discussion.

Among the suggestions are that a new government could seek to encourage the devolved institutions towards a more constructive approach to Europe, making the most of the advantages that Northern Ireland’s position under the Protocol offers. It might also take a more active role as regards failures of public policy and public services, encouraging a good government agenda. The looming financial crunch offers both a challenge and an opportunity here.

Pressure may grow for reform of the institutions, and the government may at least wish to encourage further debates: at some stage, change may become inevitable. On the intractable legacy issues, the legal challenges to the present government’s policy probably means some sharp changes are inevitable – though there are no obviously good answers, and great sensitivity is required.

There will be much pressure over constitutional issues. The Secretary of State has a key role here: to hold a border poll, which must be called if it appears likely there would be a majority for Irish unity. Again, many may be dissatisfied with the answers that a Secretary of State can practically and legally give: the key is to build trust that responsibilities will be faithfully and lawfully discharged.

But in the constitutional field, new ideas are required, and particularly on consensual ways forward.

That indeed is the key challenge across the board for a new Secretary of State, and a new government: to bolster constructive politics under the Agreement; for which much new thinking is required, of a kind we have seen quite little of in the last decade.

To read a full analysis and discussion of the matters discussed in this post, Alan’s report, Northern Ireland: Challenges for the Next Government, is available to download. 

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