Brexit Divide Leaves Northern Ireland Politics In Limbo
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Divisions over Britain’s exit from the European Union are blocking the region’s efforts to get a government up and running again.
By Arthur Beesley
In a civil service office overshadowed by the mothballed Stormont Parliament Buildings, where schoolchildren on guided tours are as common a sight as politicians, negotiations to revive Northern Ireland’s government are staggering on.
It is now two months since the fatal shooting of Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old journalist, for whose killing the outlawed nationalist group the New IRA accepted responsibility. Six weeks have passed since public anger at McKee’s shooting impelled the main parties in the region to begin talks with the U.K. and Irish governments to revive the power-sharing government in Belfast that collapsed at the start of 2017.
But there is still no sign of agreement and, while London and Dublin are still pressing for a deal within “weeks not months,” some participants believe the talks could drag into the autumn after a summer pause. One official close to the talks says “fragile potential” for a deal had opened up, but cautioned it was “far from certain” the deadlock could be broken.
“There is definitely a genuine effort from all parties but there are still definitely issues to be bridged,” this person says.
You now have leave and remain on top of unionist and nationalist.
Katy Hayward, Queen’s University Belfast
The issue that makes agreement particularly important to deliver — but all the harder to achieve — is Brexit. More than any other region of the U.K., Northern Ireland is likely to be profoundly affected by Britain’s departure from the EU — because of the 310-mile border with the republic, close economic ties with the republic and the risk of a return to violence.
The two main protagonists in the Stormont talks are on opposing sides of the Brexit divide. The Democratic Unionists, the dominant pro-British party, back leaving the EU and fiercely oppose the so-called backstop to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland because it would treat the region differently from the rest of the U.K. Sinn Féin, the biggest Irish nationalist party, opposes Brexit and supports the backstop.
“In this febrile Brexit environment, compromise is difficult for the DUP and Sinn Féin,” says Katy Hayward, a political sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast. “You now have leave and remain on top of unionist and nationalist.”
At present, Northern Ireland has no formal voice in the Brexit discussions, because of the power-sharing government’s collapse. Stephen Kelly, chief of Manufacturing NI, an industry group, also notes the impact on overall regional policy of the impasse at Stormont.
“We’re at a stage now where we’re running out of road in terms of the lack of decision-making,” he says, highlighting business frustration at rule over the region by civil servants whose powers are limited.
The Northern Ireland government collapsed when Sinn Féin withdrew in January 2017, citing the DUP’s conduct over a botched renewable energy scheme. The program could ultimately leave the region’s taxpayers a bill of £490M because of its failure to include cost control measures.
There has been some progress in the talks to reconvene the government, notably on measures to boost the transparency and stability of power-sharing institutions once Stormont comes back. But the biggest issues dividing the sides remain in place. Sinn Féin supports same-sex marriage and legislation to protect Irish language speakers. The DUP opposes both.
A previous effort to revive the assembly came close to reconciling the parties’ differences over these topics in February 2018 but ultimately fell short. A further barrier is a report awaited from a long-running public inquiry into the botched energy scheme. The findings were expected before summer but they are unlikely to be published before autumn. Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, once had ministerial responsibility for the scheme and Sinn Féin could be deterred from entering into any deal with her if her future was in doubt.
The talks follow big gains in recent European and local elections for the centrist cross-community Alliance party, which strongly favors a resumption of power-sharing. One DUP figure privately acknowledged growing public pressure on the Unionists and Sinn Féin to strike a deal, saying there was “no reward for intransigence.”
But Hayward said there was resistance to compromise within both parties, with “supporters who do not want to see concessions,” despite the indication from the elections “that people want politics to be working again and the institutions up and running.”
Brexit and the DUP’s role in politics at Westminster have further complicated calculations. The pro-British party provides Prime Minister Theresa May with her majority in the House of Commons and its support will be vital for her successor too. The two-year agreement for it to provide backing for the Conservatives on votes of confidence and Brexit issues expires this summer.
The prospect of the DUP extending this “confidence-and-supply” deal is “problematic,” according to one person connected with Sinn Féin, since such an arrangement would bolster the DUP in its dealings with London. Northern Irish business is also deeply anxious about the rising risk of a no-deal Brexit, and its impact on the region’s economy.
But May’s failure to push through Brexit was largely due to the DUP’s rejection of the backstop. In a region where a 56 percent majority voted in the 2016 referendum to remain in the EU, the party’s stance has worsened tension with Sinn Féin and led to friction with business and the farming community.
Kelly of Manufacturing NI argues there is unlikely to be any agreement in Stormont while Brexit policy remains in paralysis. “Things still need to be settled on Brexit before business would have confidence that there will be a deal,” he says. “We’re not expecting any breakthrough.”
But he adds at least that while the discussions continue there is still hope: “I wouldn’t say that there’s guarded optimism. I wouldn’t go as far as that but business is pleased that at least they’re talking.”
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