Brexit Still Looms Over Northern Ireland’s New Government

Northern Ireland’s leaders have reached a deal to restore power-sharing, but several problems remain unsolved.

Northern Ireland's new deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left) and First Minister Arlene Foster (right) meet with members of the British and Irish governments in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after signing a deal to restore power-sharing.
Northern Ireland's new deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill (left) and First Minister Arlene Foster (right) meet with members of the British and Irish governments in Belfast, Northern Ireland, after signing a deal to restore power-sharing on Jan. 13, 2020. Liam McBurney/POOL/AFP/Getty Images

The new year brought good news to Northern Ireland: the restoration of the devolved power-sharing government (known locally as Stormont), which had not sat since January 2017. Despite a patchy history, Stormont is both a critical governing institution and a potent symbol that Northern Ireland’s bitterly divided communities can work together.

As such, the “New Decade, New Approach” deal to restore power-sharing—agreed last week by Northern Ireland’s five main parties under the leadership of the British and Irish governments—is a significant achievement. Northern Ireland will still face tough day-to-day issues, such as a middling economy and a crisis in the health services, alongside the deeper challenges of ingrained sectarianism, Troubles-era legacy issues, and the fallout from Brexit.

Although one should always be skeptical, a functioning government does offer some chance of progress on each of these issues. Stormont’s devolved institutions were established by the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, the landmark accord that largely brought an end to three decades of conflict in Northern Ireland. With a unicameral assembly and a cabinetlike executive, the institutions have the power to govern most of Northern Ireland’s internal affairs, including health care, education, and policing.

Ministerial portfolios are allocated on the basis of mandatory power-sharing between predominantly Protestant unionists—who along with loyalists want Northern Ireland to remain in the United Kingdom—and predominantly Catholic nationalists and republicans, who seek a united Ireland. This guarantees that neither side can take charge of the region’s governance alone.

Thanks to last week’s agreement, the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein, will again share Northern Ireland’s dual leadership structure. But now, for the first time, both of the two top posts are held by women: DUP leader Arlene Foster will retake the post of first minister, and Sinn Fein northern leader Michelle O’Neill will assume the role of deputy first minister.Although one should always be skeptical, a functioning government does offer some chance of progress.

It was the resignation of O’Neill’s predecessor, Martin McGuinness, that brought down the institutions three years ago. Both communities are required to be represented at leadership level, so when Sinn Fein refused to nominate a replacement for McGuinness, elections were called. McGuinness initially resigned over the mishandling of a renewable heating program for which Foster bore a large share of responsibility, but when the parties came together to negotiate a way to restore power-sharing after the elections in March 2017, it was clear that a longer list of grievances were at play.

Eight other department heads were also appointed to the executive last weekend. Departments are apportioned to parties according to the d’Hondt system, which distributes departmental posts in proportion to each party’s strength in the assembly. Three departments thus went to the DUP, two to Sinn Fein, and one each to the Ulster Unionist Party and the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP).

The one exception is the justice department, which is responsible for an especially sensitive portfolio given Northern Ireland’s violent and divisive past. Rather than being apportioned based on the d’Hondt system, the justice minister is selected through a cross-community vote in the assembly, which requires support from both unionists and nationalists. Naomi Long, the formidable leader of the nonsectarian Alliance Party, will now occupy this role.

After power-sharing broke down in 2017, the parties undertook intensive negotiations to resurrect Stormont. Disagreements between the DUP and Sinn Fein—most notably the latter’s demand for standalone legislation to promote the Irish language—proved too enduring, and after a promising deal in February 2018 was rejected by the DUP at the 11th hour, talks hit a standstill. Pressures and incentives finally aligned in favor of a deal last month.

First, the DUP and Sinn Fein both saw their electoral fortunes take a tumble in the recent U.K. parliamentary elections. The DUP lost more than 5 percent of its votes, which translated to the loss of two parliamentary seats, including that of the high-profile parliamentary leader Nigel Dodds. More importantly, Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party won an overwhelming majority, shutting down the confidence-and-supply agreement that had previously given the DUP outsized prominence in Westminster.

Sinn Fein, for its part, did hold on to seven seats in the House of Commons (which it chooses not to occupy in protest of British sovereignty in Northern Ireland), but it lost nearly 7 percent of its vote share in the process.

Sinn Fein and the DUP also faced the prospect of a new assembly election if they could not restore power-sharing by Jan. 13, which would have risked further losses for the big parties at the hands of both the SDLP and Alliance, whose vote share rose by a combined 11.9 percent between the 2017 and 2019 elections.

From the DUP’s point of view, an election could have conceivably made Sinn Fein the largest party in the assembly, an historically unprecedented event that could have mirrored the Westminster result by possibly giving nationalists a plurality in the devolved legislature, too. Currently the DUP has only one more assembly seat than its rival.From the DUP’s point of view, an election could have conceivably made Sinn Fein the largest party in the assembly.

This prospect, along with demographic trends that are erasing Protestants’ long-standing numerical advantage over Catholics, no doubt pushed the conservative DUP to restore the assembly with the current numbers intact. More than that, the party needed a new power base after losing its kingmaker status in the House of Commons.

Sinn Fein, too, likely seeks to bolster its reputation as a responsible governing party. This could improve its fortunes in the Irish Republic, where a general election is scheduled in three weeks on Feb. 8—and the party nurtures hopes of forming part of the next government.

Adding to the pressure on all parties was a crisis in Northern Ireland’s health service. Some 15,000 nurses, along with paramedics and other personnel, went on strike beginning in December as part of a long-standing dispute over pay.

The strikes, which shut down many medical offices and forced appointments to be postponed, spotlighted dire health care shortages in Northern Ireland. Around 300,000 people—nearly one-sixth of the population—are waiting to see a specialist. The deteriorating state of the health services was linked to the suspension of Stormont.

Given that context, it is little surprise that the new executive swiftly sought to tackle these health care funding issues. Ministers endorsed the idea of “pay parity”—paying Northern Irish health care workers the same as their counterparts in England—and assembled roughly 110 million pounds ($143 million) for this purpose.

The power-sharing agreement also includes financial assistance from London to address various priorities. A BBC analysis suggests the government’s overall financial package could exceed 1 billion pounds ($1.3 billion) and possibly much more. But the exact total remains uncertain and quickly became the subject of partisan wrangling. The Irish government will also contribute a smaller amount.

In a potentially significant development for victims and survivors of the Troubles—and for broader communal reconciliation—the British government will advance legislation to establish various bodies to address the legacy of the conflict. These arrangements were laid out in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement and developed in negotiations led by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan, in which I participated, the previous year.

The agreement also addresses Brexit. Northern Ireland’s government will create a subcommittee of the executive to oversee Brexit issues, and the British government will involve the executive in relevant proceedings. Although Northern Irish leaders no longer have direct influence in the British government, a functioning local government does provide at least some opportunity for them to shape a process that will have profound implications for the area’s economy and society.

Perhaps most important for the future of Northern Ireland’s economy, the British government has agreed to legislate, by the end of this year, “to guarantee unfettered access for Northern Ireland’s businesses to the whole of the UK internal market.” The purpose is to address concerns among both unionists and the business community that Johnson’s Brexit deal will lead to trade barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom. Whether the government’s commitment will assuage those commercial concerns—as well as unionists and loyalists outraged by what some call Johnson’s “betrayal”—will depend on the implementation.

Beyond all of this, the agreement includes a compromise on what had been the chief sticking point between the DUP and Sinn Fein: language. A new commissioner will “recognise, support, protect and enhance the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.” Another such commissioner will exist for Ulster-Scots, a regional language similar to English that many Protestants consider a vital part of their heritage. Both Irish and Ulster-Scots will receive official recognition and be allowed wider use in government settings.The agreement includes a compromise on what had been the chief sticking point between the DUP and Sinn Fein: language.

Irish language campaigners are disappointed by the limits of these provisions, while their mere existence is difficult for many unionists and loyalists to swallow. In this sense, the agreement threads the needle between the core constituencies of Sinn Fein and the DUP.

Yet that fact also underscores one of the biggest challenges the restored institutions face. In a visit to Belfast in the days surrounding the election in December, I heard widespread sentiment that the DUP and Sinn Fein had run the executive as an exclusive fiefdom, parceling out resources to their communities while marginalizing other parties. This sense of public dissatisfaction with the entire power-sharing operation means the DUP and Sinn Fein will now face pressure to operate more inclusively.

At the same time, the parties have their own political imperatives. Sinn Fein will seek to advance progress toward a united Ireland, a once distant prospect that Brexit has brought to the fore. The DUP will seek to ensure Northern Ireland remains an indistinguishable part of the United Kingdom, which requires managing loyalist agitation while keeping more moderate voters on side.

How disruptive Brexit proves to be for Northern Ireland’s farmers, business owners, and collective psyche will shape the terrain. Other problems could easily arise in a charged sectarian environment, just as the renewable heat scandal did in 2017. Indeed, a report about the renewable heating program, which could emerge at any time, is expected to criticize Foster and other DUP figures. This could threaten Foster’s position and, possibly, the executive’s existence once again.

Northern Ireland’s leaders and citizens should be happy to see Stormont back in operation. But there is a danger in expecting too much from these very fragile and divided institutions. Sustaining decent governance—much less cementing peace and easing animosities hardened over centuries—is an enormous challenge at the best of times. It will be all the harder as Northern Ireland navigates its most uncertain period since Good Friday almost 22 years ago.

Charles Landow is the research director for former U.S. Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin and an adjunct instructor of political science at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. In 2013, he served as the research director for the chair and vice chair of multiparty political negotiations in Northern Ireland. Twitter: @CLandow1