Northern Ireland Assembly Elections
Collapse of Northern Ireland’s shared Executive
Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin stepped down as Deputy First Minister on Monday over a dispute with Arlene Foster, First Minister and Leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), causing the collapse of the Government and an election to be called.
The resignation was caused by a public inquiry being held into a government energy scheme. The scheme was reported to be significantly over budget and likely to cost the taxpayer £490 million, which prompted McGuinness to suggest Foster step aside for its duration, as precedent would dictate she would. Foster’s refusal was cited by McGuinness as final evidence of irreconcilable differences between the two, following widening divergence between Stormont’s (Northern Ireland Assembly) two major parties. Sinn Féin were required to nominate a replacement for McGuinness as Deputy-First Minister within a week.
However, by 5pm on Monday 16th January no name had been submitted and James Brokenshire MP, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, announced that the Assembly would be dissolved with immediate effect and fresh elections held on Thursday 2nd March.
Cross-community power sharing
Under the complex rules of power sharing in Northern Ireland, a government must be formed through participation from all sides of the community; officially defined as republicans, unionists and others. Certain Stormont decisions require cross-community support, not just majority support, meaning the support of a certain percentage of each constituent part of the community is necessary.
Elections are conducted using Single Transferable Vote (STV) to deliver a proportionally representative legislative assembly. The system aims to represent the population more accurately than a majoritarian system such as the UK. It ensures that one section of the population cannot gain a majority.
The joint office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister must always be held by two different representatives of the community. The largest party nominates the First Minister, with the next largest party to represent a different community designation nominating the Deputy.
The remainder of the Executive remains multi-party, determined by the d’Hondt System based on seats won by parties in the national elections.
James Brokenshire was cautious when speaking yesterday and made clear he fully expected the elections to go ahead as laid out. However, there has been speculation that elections may not successfully lead to a new Executive being formed. If Sinn Féin remains one of the two largest parties in the Stormont, they could still refuse to nominate a member to the joint office.
Suspension of devolved power in Northern Ireland
The first devolved assembly was set up in 1998, however the assembly was dissolved in October 2002 after three Sinn Féin members were arrested on spying charges.
It wasn’t until 2006 in Scotland, with the passing of the St Andrews Agreement following tripartite talks between DUP, Sinn Féin and the British government, that the process of forming a new legislative assembly began.
In 2010, the longest talks in the 20 year peace process resulted in the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. Policing and justice powers were devolved to Stormont and the way paved for fresh elections, which many had feared would not be possible without such a deal.
Direct or joint rule
The indefinite suspension of devolved power between 2002 and 2006 meant a return to direct rule from Westminster, with the expansion of the British Northern Ireland Office. The precedent, if a similar circumstance were to arise, is five ministerial positions in the UK Government, each holding designated responsibility for certain areas of legislature.
The possibility of joint-rule had been advocated by Colum Eastwood, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) leader. Joint rule would involve both the British government in Westminster and the Irish government in Dublin sharing ministerial responsibilities for Northern Irish policy during any suspension. The leader of Stormont’s main republican opposition party has stated this would be the only acceptable way forward should an Executive not be formed following an election.
Implications for the British government
Assurances made by Theresa May in a last minute attempt to bring Sinn Féin back into the fold and avert elections included Northern Ireland’s role in Brexit negotiations. Such comments will not go unnoticed by Nicola Sturgeon, who is likely to use this to push for more concessions on devolved leaders’ influence in negotiations than May offered in this week’s Brexit speech; while calls for joint rule, in protest to an alleged right wing British government, will only embolden Sturgeon’s own independence vision and claim.
Civil service and government capacity
During the coming months Britain will compensate for the lack of a devolved assembly in Stormont, however the risk is that this becomes a semi-permanent arrangement with the need for British official’s to facilitate a transition back to devolved rule, as they did in 2006.
As the civil service and government prepare for the most significant negotiations since WWII, while incorporating departmental changes as a result of this into their operations, any protracted reconciliation is likely to further stretch provision and distract from matters of domestic policy.
With pressure building over the land border between Northern Ireland and Republic of Ireland, soon to be a border between Britain and the EU, a return to unstable political relations in Northern Ireland will not be welcomed ahead of Brexit negotiations. If the Supreme Court rules that devolved nations must consent to triggering Article 50, the situation in Northern Ireland may be set on a collision course with May’s roadmap for a ‘smooth Brexit’.
Fraser Burt, Research Executive
Email Fraser: Fraser@mailpbconsulting.com