For around 1,100 days, almost exactly three years, Northern Ireland was without functioning devolved government, but that has finally changed. The cobwebs around the halls of Stormont Castle have been blown away by the return of the Executive and Legislative Assembly. But are these winds of change or just a passing breeze?
The ‘cash for ash scandal’ that brought down the Executive in 2017 after almost a decade – its most sustained period of success and stability since the signing of The Good Friday Agreement (GFA) – has been widely reported. There was in fact a significant element of typically Northern Irish gallows humour following the collapse, with some commentators seeing a ‘run of the mill’ financial scandal collapsing the institutions as progress for NI, moving away from the dark days of sectarian division being the sole reason for a failure of Stormont.
Such humour didn’t last long. The traditional dividing lines had never gone away and others were brought into sharp focus. As pubic services creaked, teachers and healthcare workers went on strike and civil servants were unable to make decisions they were simply not mandated to make in the absence of Ministers. Among the general public, there quickly emerged a growing sense of disillusionment and disenchantment with political leaders and politics in general.
The fact that this has finally changed is undoubtedly a victory for Boris Johnson but it is not his alone. The return of the institutions owes more to the electorate and the clear message they sent to the two main parties that the established status quo was no longer an option. The DUP and Sinn Fein were both punished for their intransigence at the polls in the December General Election, a message that it seems was finally received. A word too for Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, who provided the impetus and leadership from the mainland that had been lacking for the previous 3 years. Where previous Secretaries of State had levied malleable deadline after deadline, Mr Smith employed a clear carrot and stick approach. The carrot of yet more funding for NI was matched by the stick of another election that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP wanted. It was a stick that Smith made clear he would use and there would be no more plasticine deadlines as before.
And it has worked, at least initially. But what next for Stormont? The mandate for the current assembly has two years left to run. The Executive includes members of all the main parties, with the UUP and SDLP choosing not to return to opposition. There is optimism that the mandate will be fulfilled and the issues around public services – the health service in particular – can be brought to the forefront of the political agenda. The public and political backlash against those who would bring it down would be severe.
Yet, the ink wasn’t dry on the document before the first seeds of discontent were sewn from within the new Executive and it became clear that old resentments continue to bubble under the surface. Finance Minister Conor Murphy claimed the financial package wasn’t enough and accused the British Government of an act of bad faith. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have already had a disagreement about tuition fees. The SDLP have already accused Sinn Fein of reneging on a deal around the Speaker’s role. So much for a New Approach…
Northern Ireland faces the same significant challenges as the other parts of the UK but with a hefty dose of distinctly Northern Irish ones thrown in for good measure. And we’ve got this far and haven’t even mentioned Brexit, Brussels and borders.
If Northern Ireland, the Executive and the Assembly is to tackle the issues of the past, the present and the future head on, it needs to embrace the title of this latest deal. Without a genuinely new approach from politicians to politics and to each other, when the gloss has worn off this latest deal, this new decade could be just like the end of the last.