With the central question of Brexit finally settled by last month’s election, many of us have been taking a welcome break from monitoring British politics. So you might easily have missed the news last week that Northern Ireland has a government again, after a three-year hiatus.
Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive, formed as a result of the Good Friday agreement, requires the co-operation of the two largest parties in order to function. So when Sinn Féin walked out in January 2017 due to a scandal over a renewable energy scheme, that led to first an early election, and then to unsuccessful negotiations to reassemble the governing coalition.
Absent a government, the province reverted to direct rule from London until the parties could get their act together. But that was difficult, because one of those parties – Sinn Féin’s arch-rival, the Democratic Unionist Party – held the balance of power in the British parliament, giving it a prominent role in the Brexit drama.
Sinn Féin, understandably enough, distrusted the impartiality of the British government while it depended on the DUP for its survival. And Brexit itself threatened to upend the politics of Northern Ireland, where a majority (55.8%) had voted to stay in the European Union, even though most of the majority community, the Unionists, voted to leave.
So direct rule dragged on much longer than anyone had expected. The parties only went back to serious talks in the last few weeks after the British election had changed the landscape.
It did so in three ways. First, Brexit was now decided: Britain would be leaving the EU, and doing so on the basis of Boris Johnson’s deal, which provides that if no other settlement can be reached this year, then Northern Ireland will end up on a different trade and customs regime from the rest of the country.
Second, with the Conservatives holding an absolute majority, the DUP’s unusually powerful position was at an end. And since Johnson had (by its lights) double-crossed it over the Brexit deal, its special relationship with the Conservatives had broken down in any case.
Third, the DUP and Sinn Féin both lost ground in the election, down 5.4% and 6.7% respectively. Moderate unionists and nationalists both gained, as did – even more so – the non-sectarian Alliance. That gave the two major parties the maximum incentive to avoid a new Northern Ireland election, and that meant reaching a deal.
So, as could have been predicted at pretty much any time in the last three years, the new government looks a lot like the previous one. DUP leader Arlene Foster is first minister, with Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister (the two positions have essentially equal status). Including them, the ten-member executive contains five unionists, four nationalists and one from the Alliance.
Last time around, the three minor parties stayed out of the executive and constituted a parliamentary opposition. This time they have agreed to participate, perhaps reflecting a sense that there are momentous times ahead for Northern Ireland and it needs as much consensus as it can get.
For the best part of a century, Sinn Féin’s dream of a united Ireland has seemed no more than a dream. Now, with both the immediate shock of Brexit and the long-term demographic trend in the nationalists’ favor, it’s thrust itself onto the agenda.
That doesn’t please everyone, including some who might be supposed to be sympathetic. Irish prime minister Leo Varadkar (now facing his own election next month) said last year that a referendum for Northern Ireland to join the republic would be “not the right way forward.”
Mary Lou McDonald from Sinn Féin responded that “if the Irish government isn’t prepared for the prospect of a United Ireland, then it needs to get prepared.” O’Neill echoed that last week, calling for “a mature and inclusive debate about new political arrangements which examine Ireland’s future beyond Brexit.”
Scotland gets more of the media coverage, but Northern Ireland’s position in relation to Brexit is more interesting. The problem the Scots have is that if they leave the United Kingdom they will still have to apply to get back into the EU, and a number of EU members (particularly Spain, with its concerns about separatism) are determined to make that difficult for them.
But if Northern Ireland leaves the UK and becomes part of a united Ireland, it automatically rejoins the EU, just as the former East Germany joined in 1990 when it acceded to a united Germany. And whatever Varadkar might say now, and whatever his constituents might privately think about their northern cousins, no Irish government would dare outrage nationalist sentiment by turning them down.
None of that will make co-operation in government between the DUP and Sinn Féin any easier. But at least they’re giving it a try.