New Approach, Old Problems

The recent deal to re-establish Northern Ireland's Assembly may have broken a deadlock but it doesn't resolve any of the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the peace process - and is likely to lead to another wave of punishing austerity.

Last Friday evening, Sinn Féin became the last of Northern Ireland’s five main parties to confirm its support for the New Decade, New Approach agreement published by the British and Irish governments to re-establish the region’s devolved political institutions. This came three years to the day since Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in protest at the implication of senior DUP figures in the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) public finance scandal and the party’s trenchant opposition to basic rights for Irish language speakers, women and the LGBT community.

Having endured a difficult interregnum, Sinn Féin and the DUP were coming under increased pressure to reach a deal before a ‘final deadline’ imposed by the British government’s Northern Ireland Secretary, Julian Smith. The recent UK general election was a bruising experience for both parties. Most significantly, the DUP lost two of its ten seats to Remain candidates and a huge number of votes to the Alliance Party, a civic Unionist formation, having done much to alienate the sections of Unionism who are younger, more socially liberal, concentrated in affluent urban areas and pro-EU in their orientation. Whereas political Unionism had been gradually re-dividing along social, generational and ideological lines, recent events have occasioned a sudden disruption to leave hardline Unionism a minority in the Assembly, Belfast City Council and Westminster for the first time in the history of the state. Not only had the illusion of political power in London quickly evaporated, but the DUP’s capacity to lead a hegemonic Unionist project at home lay gravely damaged.

For Sinn Féin, not even John Finucane’s historic victory over the DUP’s chief Brexit strategist Nigel Dodds in North Belfast could disguise what was an otherwise poor election performance, as the party lost support in every other constituency and in various different directions. Most notably, in the Foyle constituency of Derry, the incumbent Elisha McCallion was trounced by Colum Eastwood, leader of the centrist nationalist SDLP. The reasons for Sinn Féin’s problems are disparate, ranging from Catholic conservative anger at its recent support for abortion reform to working-class discontent over its perceived acquiescence to Tory welfare cuts.

More broadly, the party was the casualty of a ‘plague on both your houses’ sentiment that had developed among people concerned by the failure to restore devolution amidst mounting crises in the north’s public services. This marked the third consecutive northern election in which Sinn Féin had taken a hit, on top of the devastating loss of two MEPs and half of its local council seats south of the border last May. Grassroots dissatisfaction with the republican party’s northern strategy was also in evidence at the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in November, when John O’Dowd took the unprecedented step of challenging Michelle O’Neill for the Deputy Leader position, winning one-third of the vote despite there being no public hustings or media opportunities in which to set out his stall. 

Compromise Agreement

Both Sinn Féin and the DUP were therefore propelled towards a deal by the need to restore confidence among erstwhile supporters and avoid the further punishment of a fresh Assembly election. That Westminster had already legislated for same-sex marriage and abortion decriminalisation made this task easier, although conservative forces in both main communities will now be looking to narrow the parameters for abortion provision. On the controversial Petition of Concern (PoC) mechanism, which previously enabled the DUP’s 30 MLAs to veto progressive legislation, New Decade, New Approach falls short of longstanding proposals for a complete overhaul, instead pledging that a PoC must now be triggered by two or more parties. Of course, the DUP’s reduced complement of 28 MLAs since the 2017 Assembly election means that the arithmetic already makes this the case. 

Much of the focus of the all-party talks centred on the detail of an Irish Language Act, provided for by the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and the subject of a deal jettisoned by DUP hardliners back in 2018. Sinn Féin negotiators knew they would not be easily forgiven for entering into government without strong protections for the Irish language and its speakers, having long identified a standalone Irish Language Act as a red line issue. For its part, the DUP had expended so much energy denigrating the language over the past few years, encouraging working-class Unionist communities down the cul-de-sac of a culture war, that some form of sop was required to help them retrieve the situation. 

Consequently, the resulting New Decade, New Approach document contains no provision for a standalone Irish Language Act, but rather outlines a three-pronged approach to new legal protections for the Irish language, Ulster Scots & Ulster/British culture, and broader aspects of culture and identity. Irish language activists have branded these proposals “an historic advance for the Irish language community,” while noting that they “fall far short of the commitments made in the 2006 St Andrews Agreement’ and contain ‘glaring gaps” that will need to be tested when it comes to official status, visibility and the promotion of Irish medium education. Whereas the commitment to protect, enhance and develop Ulster/British traditions is not radically different to what was on offer two years ago, the changed political context means that it is now acceptable to a weakened DUP. For militant elements such as the Orange Order, however, even this is a compromise too far. Their culture war is set to continue unabated, exerting pressure on the main party of political Unionism to retain some of its narrow ethnic trappings. 

The stability of power-sharing may also prove vulnerable to disputes over the legacy of the thirty-year conflict in the north of Ireland. This is a major issue of contestation which remains unresolved despite numerous talks processes and major political agreements since 1998. New Decade, New Approach commits the British government to introduce legislation implementing 2014 Stormont House Agreement within 100 days, establishing new agencies to deal with criminal investigations, a truth recovery process and an oral history archive. However, this sits uneasily alongside Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s reckless pledge to end the prosecution of British army veterans for offences committed during the Troubles. Should he follow through with this, existing nationalist grievances with the peace process would be exacerbated; should he fail to do so, controversial protests along the lines of those defending ‘Soldier F’ of Bloody Sunday notoriety could be a common feature in Unionist areas for months and years to come.

Another major challenge lies ahead in restoring public confidence in Northern Ireland’s governance arrangements. The new deal includes welcome measures to strengthen transparency and accountability within the political institutions, largely as a result of the RHI scandal. But it leaves the Executive parties – those parties and individuals who were at the helm at the time of the scandal – largely in control of the mechanisms through which the findings of the RHI inquiry will be considered and acted upon. Some are already questioning whether this much-anticipated report has deliberately been delayed to protect the DUP, especially in light of Sam McBride’s damning exposé of the role played by Arlene Foster and her party’s team of special advisers. Although the deal may well guard against future instances of sharp practice, anything that looks like a whitewash of recent wrongdoings is bound to raise hackles among the clattering of opposition MLAs and the public at large. 

From Rhetoric to Reality

In the immediate term, it will fall to the incoming Executive to urgently address crises across the north’s public services. Pay disparity, unsafe staffing levels and spiralling waiting lists forced the region’s nurses to take industrial action for the first time in the Royal College of Nursing’s 103-year history, as part of a wider health strike on those issues. Northern Ireland is in the midst of a mental health and suicide epidemic resulting from deepening poverty, under-resourced mental health services and the lasting impact of conflict-related trauma. Teachers have also been engaged in industrial action over pay, workload and the under-resourcing of schools, where stories abound of parents and teachers paying for books and stationery out of their own pockets. Thousands of struggling families and individuals are meanwhile set to experience a ‘cliff-edge’ fall in income when the north’s limited welfare mitigation package expires in March, leaving many vulnerable to the threat of eviction. 

The north’s five main parties agreed to re-enter the Executive in the expectation that the British government’s financial contribution would be sufficient to meet the cost of addressing these key issues and repairing the region’s crumbling infrastructure, to say nothing of public housing investment or the ongoing strike in the civil service, for instance. But in recent days it has been revealed that Johnson’s government is only prepared to give an extra £1bn to support the Stormont deal, with a further £1bn to be added as a result of spending plans for the UK as a whole. Conor Murphy, the north’s new Finance Minister, has described this move as an ‘act of bad faith’ that will leave public services facing a shortfall of £1bn next year alone. 

None of the parties will have envisaged facing a test of this nature or magnitude so early into the new dispensation. But the fact that it has arisen speaks to a certain naivety and desperation that influenced their dealings with the Johnson-led Tory government. Even the DUP’s Sammy Wilson has conceded as much, noting that “all of the parties drew up this enormous wish-list without securing the money to deliver it.” “The parties don’t have any leverage any more,” he continued. “The Secretary of State knows that they aren’t going to walk out of the Executive.”

Far from undoing the ravages of austerity, then, Northern Ireland’s devolved government is faced with the potential uphill task of managing and mitigating its continued impacts. Some within the northern political class will be happy to ‘get on with’ the job of prioritising issues and exploring ‘revenue raising measures’ such as increased tuition fees or domestic water charges, as Julian Smith has suggested. Others will be determined to ensure that the next ten years are not the same, if not worse, than the previous ten. Herein lies the prospect – and necessity – of conflict both within the devolved institutions and with the Tory administration. 

Economic Unsustainability

These challenges are set to be stacked upon a weak economic base, which has continued to deteriorate due to longstanding structural problems, the impact of neoliberal peacebuilding and chronic underinvestment, and the relative absence of an impetus for radical change. By any number of economic indicators, Northern Ireland remains one of the worst performing regions in the UK. The right-wing economist Esmond Birnie predicts that this situation is set to continue in the twelve months and beyond as GDP-per-head falls behind the likes of Estonia, Hungary and Poland. For those in the trade union movement and on the political left, there are growing concerns that people will continue to pay the price of stagnation and industrial decay in the form of low pay, insecure work and job losses. Just as 2019 closed with a winter of discontent, comprising of strikes and occupations across various industries, most notably in the historic Harland & Wolff shipyard, the next year holds the prospect of even larger numbers of workers engaged in a battle for their livelihoods.

Included in the New Decade, New Approach is a raft of policies to combat social deprivation, from much-need investment for the city of Derry to a progressive childcare strategy and measures to tackle socio-economic inequalities in education. It is largely to Sinn Féin’s credit that document also proposes what could be transformative solutions to the twin threats of economic decline and climate breakdown, based in part on a candid assessment of the failures of the 2007-17 era. More specifically, the agreement pledges the introduction of a Climate Emergency Act, legally-binding targets for reducing emissions in line with the Paris Accord, and ‘ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero carbon society’. This transition is to be supported by a clean and inclusive economic strategy that will create jobs as part of a Green New Deal. In the area of workers’ rights, the document envisages an ‘enhanced focus’ on creating good jobs through the Executive becoming a Living Wage employer, an outright ban on zero hour contracts and the devolution of powers to set the minimum wage. One hopes that the intention here is not to lower the minimum wage as part of a race to the bottom, but rather to increase it with a view to making the real Living Wage the statutory floor. It might also be added that a progressive workers’ rights agenda will necessitate the repeal of Thatcher’s anti-union legislation, using the devolved powers that already exist. 

There is of course a case for arguing that this agenda is not radical enough, but the more pressing question at the moment is whether it will be realisable in the face of strong countervailing tendencies and the limitations of devolved government. Domestically, the chances of a new economic departure and effective climate action have been diminished by the appointment of right-wing DUP ministers, Diane Dodds and Edwin Poots, to the departments responsible. It seems unrealistic, moreover, to that imagine that a far-reaching plan like a Green New Deal can be advanced in the absence of enhanced fiscal and borrowing powers or the unlikely injection of significant funding from this current crop of Tories. The extent to which these ambitious proposals turn out to be mere aspirations will therefore stand as another indication of Northern Ireland’s economic sustainability within existing constitutional and political arrangements. 

Brexit and the Border

While the future of Northern Ireland has always been in question, predictions of its near-term demise have been widespread since the Brexit referendum of 2016. Although Irish nationalists and republicans will have outstanding concerns regarding trade agreements, rights and labour mobility, they will be quietly happy with the content of Johnson’s deal since it removes the threat of a hard border and hands power to the northern Assembly to decide on continued alignment with EU customs rules. Consequently, the pressure for an immediate border poll has eased, with Sinn Féin President Mary Lou McDonald now looking forward to the “decade in which the people of Ireland are afforded a vote on the reunification of our country.”

At a basic level, this reflects the fact that although there has been a significant, irreversible shift in political thinking over past few years, only 40 percent of people voted for pro-unity candidates in the recent Westminster election. Reverting to a longer-term gradualist strategy also affords Sinn Féin the necessary time and space to rebuild the party, north and south, with a view to regaining some control of the united Ireland agenda from a resurgent civic and bourgeois nationalism. A strong showing in the upcoming election in the south may even tempt the party to pursue a coalition arrangement with Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, in line with the pre-Brexit strategy of establishing a de facto all-island government. 

As Katy Hayward of Queen’s University Belfast has argued, the New Decade, New Approach agreement “goes some way towards” assuaging Unionists’ main concerns regarding the movement of goods from Northern Ireland to Britain. However, there remains significant unease among sections of loyalism at what has been dubbed Johnson’s ‘betrayal act’, which still contains the possibility of some friction within the UK internal market. Already, there has been a meeting of various loyalist paramilitary factions to discuss any potential response to the prospect of ‘an economic united Ireland’, while 1,000 people are said to have attended a rally at the Ulster Hall in December.

Unionist leaders such as the PUP’s John Kyle have been critical of what he described as ‘irresponsible rabble rousing’ by sinister forces preying on the community’s fears. More significantly, however, the DUP had placed itself at the centre of this flag-waving in a bid to disguise its role in the Brexit debacle, providing another illustration of the party’s historic failure to demonstrate positive leadership. To be sure, there was an air of humility and contrition surrounding the DUP’s return to Stormont. But this must be accompanied by the realisation that any continued pursuit of the Grand Old Duke of York strategy is bound to prove incompatible with sustainable power-sharing, and ensure that working-class Unionist communities are left behind by wider processes of social, economic and political change.

The pace of this change will be heavily influenced by what happens in Scotland, where the independence debate has been reignited by Brexit and the SNP’s election triumph. Senior SNP figures have suggested that the chance of a independence referendum in 2020 is ‘likely nil’. However, extra-parliamentary pressure on Nicola Sturgeon’s government is set to build in the coming months. The broader independence movement will be seeking to ensure that Sturgeon fights the Tories all the way for control over Scotland’s economic and political destiny, to the point of a rupture if necessary. If Scotland were to leave Union anytime soon, the north of Ireland would be sure to follow. Realistically, this is where the immediate hopes of constitutional change lie for Irish republicans of varying shades. 

The state of Northern Ireland will live to see the centenary of its creation next year, but doubts over its viability as a distinct economic and political entity have never been greater. We have witnessed too many false dawns over the past twenty years to expect this agreement to resolve the fundamental contradictions at the heart of the peace process. How long the state continues to exist, and in what form, depends on the various factors outlined above, not to mention political Unionism’s capacity and willingness to adapt to new realities. There is much to fight for within the current dispensation. Indeed, the paradox is that devolution in Northern Ireland, as with Scotland and to a lesser extent Wales, can only sustain itself in the short term if it becomes a node of resistance against the imposition of an English Tory agenda. Sooner or later, however, the in-built limits and contradictions of the existing constitutional settlement will need to be transcended. In this respect, the debate around how to ensure that the next decade is one of transformative change across the island will continue.