Can devolution in Northern Ireland still work?

New election ‘pencilled in’ for December as deadline looms for power-sharing to resume in Stormont

Jeffrey Donaldson and the DUP speak to reporters in Stormont
Jeffrey Donaldson's DUP is blocking the formation of the executive
(Image credit: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images)

After months of political standstill at Stormont, the Northern Ireland Assembly must resume power-sharing before midnight tonight or a second executive election of the year will be called.

The Assembly crumbled in February when the country’s first minister Paul Givan resigned, a “move” delivered as “part of the Democratic Union Party’s protest” against the Northern Ireland Protocol, said the BBC at the time.

In the subsequent election in May, Sinn Féin, which believes the protocol is needed, became the biggest party in Northern Ireland for the first time. The Assembly has met a handful of times in the months since.

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By tomorrow, the parties will have “run out of the official time allowed to reboot the executive and appoint a first and deputy first minister”, said Alex Kane, former director of communications in the Ulster Unionist Party, in The Irish Times. If power-sharing does not resume, Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has “been adamant” that he will call an election, said Belfast Live.

A poll has been “pencilled in” for 15 December, said Kane in The Irish Times, but may change little about the Assembly’s current make-up. The Guardian’s Archie Bland noted that there is now a “question over whether continued paralysis will lead to ‘direct rule’ from Westminster as in the past”.

What did the newspapers say?

“With so much going on at Westminster it tends to be forgotten that the Northern Ireland Assembly hasn’t been functioning for four of the past six years,” said Kane.

Since the Good Friday Agreement was struck in 1998, Northern Ireland “has been marketed around the world as a template for ending seemingly intractable political violence”, said The Economist. “But sectarian divisions remain bitter and the centre piece of the deal, a power-sharing government involving almost every shade of political opinion, has failed.”

The DUP is blocking Stormont “as leverage in its campaign” to make Westminster agree to its demands on the Northern Ireland Protocol, said The Guardian’s Bland, including removing checks on goods travelling between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The protocol bill, which would allow parts of the agreement that was central to Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal, to be overridden, is currently in the House of Lords. Westminster “would like the DUP” to take its progress “as sufficient reason to restart powersharing”, Bland continued. “But the DUP says it has to be in law, and potentially in use, to be worth anything.”

The Lords “will maul” the protocol bill, said Kane, and Rishi Sunak “would have to deploy the rarely used Parliament Act” to get it passed in its original form. “That can’t happen until next June and at this point there is no guarantee the prime minister would be prepared to use the act”.

The Assembly will “attempt to elect a new Speaker” today, said Belfast Live, “the fourth attempt” to do so since May – “but the DUP will block the move”. In an email to party members last weekend, the party’s leader Jeffrey Donaldson said: “You can’t proceed with powersharing if one community is not on board”, The Guardian reported.

“A new election now looks almost inevitable,” Bland continued, and “there is a growing feeling” that the “most likely” outcome of going to the polls would be “a continuation of the status quo and impasse”, said Kane in The Irish Times.

What next?

The DUP “will probably do better in terms of seats and votes” in a December election than it did in May, said Kane. As such, the party would confirm its mandate for its “continuing boycott and keeping its veto” over the formation of an executive.

The Northern Ireland Assembly’s “continued inability” to govern “has raised this big question mark over the availability of the institutions of the Good Friday agreement, and whether they’re fit for purpose”, The Guardian’s Ireland correspondent Rory Carroll told Bland.

Taoiseach Micheál Martin said this week that “there cannot be a return to the direct rule arrangements of the past”, adding that the Dublin government “will fully pursue its consultative role under the Good Friday Agreement”.

Sinn Féin’s president Mary-Lou McDonald also told reporters last week that “the only alternative to the executive in Belfast working and power-sharing working will be a joint arrangement between the Irish and the British state”, rather than a “return to direct rule”. The DUP’s Donaldson said that joint authority between London and Dublin would cause “enormous harm”.

The likelihood of continued political stalemate has raised the “embarrassing” possibility “for the remaining champions of the Good Friday Agreement” of “the 25th anniversary party and conference planned for next April being an enormous damp squib”, said Kane.

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Julia O’Driscoll is the engagement editor. She covers UK and world news, as well as writing lifestyle and travel features. She regularly appears on “The Week Unwrapped” podcast, and hosted The Week's short-form documentary podcast, “The Overview”. Julia was previously the content and social media editor at sustainability consultancy Eco-Age, where she interviewed prominent voices in sustainable fashion and climate movements. She has a master's in liberal arts from Bristol University, and spent a year studying at Charles University in Prague.