With the DUP’s days in the Westminster sun over and Sinn Fein’s absence from Stormont increasingly questioned, the revival of the Northern Ireland Assembly seems one of the better political bets for 2020.
A draft plan to return, teed up behind the scenes in recent months, will form the basis of this week’s talks.
There is considerable consensus across the parties – as indicated in their recent general election manifestos – over how to reform Stormont procedures, downgrade veto rights in favour of decision-making and form a common programme.
Almost 22 years after devolved power-sharing, there is finally the prospect of joined-up government.
But it is not a done deal.
Movement from mandatory to voluntary coalition is still problematic. What happens if the largest unionist or nationalist party pulls out? Is it realistic to try and carry on? An Irish Language Act remains a significant stumbling block. A three-in-one framework covering Irish, Ulster-Scots and vaguer cultural protections will – as last year – be a difficult internal sell for the DUP (and UUP). The unionist electorate is far from enamoured by the idea.
Yet veto days are numbered. Bolstered by his government’s huge mandate, the Secretary of State, Julian Smith, is unlikely to indulge in the drag-and-delay tactics of his immediate predecessors.
Smith remains keen to avoid direct rule and no party truly wants that grim vista. Powerlessness for a generation is a dreadful spectre for Northern Ireland’s politicians. And Stormont is the only possible repository of significant power for the next few years.
The chaotic stop-start nature of the Northern Ireland Assembly has meant that – with the one admittedly important exception of policing and justice powers – it is at a 1998 standstill, left behind by the other devolved nations.
An Assembly revival is important because you can forget Westminster as a source of Northern Irish influence.
Several talented people were newly elected as MPs last Thursday. But without wishing to rain on 18 parades, their influence upon Brexit – as participatory or abstentionist MPs – will be on a par with the canteen staff at the Commons. In the context of Boris Johnson’s 80-seat majority, there is more chance of John Finucane doing a turn at the DUP Christmas party than Northern Ireland’s MPs making significant amendments to the EU Withdrawal Bill in parliament.
It is the EU which makes the rules for products travelling to and from its Single Market – not the departing UK.
The Prime Minister’s “no checks on GB-NI goods” carries about as much worth as his infamous 2018 DUP conference speech.
The best that can be hoped for in terms of frictionless East-West trade is tariff alignment between the UK and EU. That would still leave regulatory all-island alignment but alleviates customs divergence.
Influence with the Dublin government is perhaps more useful than a Westminster presence.
If the parties cannot agree an Assembly deal within the framework laid out, the Secretary of State has indicated he will try and break the logjam with elections.
Given their falls in vote share last week, the orthodoxy appears to be that the DUP and Sinn Fein would not fancy another contest.
I’m not so sure. Whilst Alliance would continue its surge among non-aligned and ex-UUP voters, the ‘Stop a DUP/Sinn Fein First Minister’ arguments on the nationalist and unionist sides could immediately sectarianise the election and rally support behind the big two.
An election could be a forum for rivalry, not a prelude to joined-up government – a recipe for the instability of the previous Stormont eras. And who really wants a Christmas present that just keeps on breaking down?
With many thanks to the: Belfast Telegraph and Jon Tonge for the original story
Jon Tonge is Professor of Politics at the University of Liverpool and director of the ESRC’s 2019 North of Ireland Westminster election study