It is no wonder the prorogation of Parliament in London has little impact in Northern Ireland: the community has been living with a suspended parliament since 2017, John Jennings writes.
First published in September 2019.
Over the last few weeks UK citizens throughout Britain, and even Ireland’s capital Dublin, have marched in protest over the suspension of the UK Parliament decrying the assault by the British Government on democracy, an act which has now been ruled as unlawful in the Scottish High Court, and which will be ruled upon next Tuesday by the UK Supreme Court.
Twelve miles away across the Irish Sea, in Northern Ireland, the community is living with a suspended parliament and the consequences of no representation – not least the strangulation of local services as no-one can effectively decide who gets funding, where and from whom. Where in Britain have those protests been?The place once ludicrously referred to by Margaret Thatcher as being as British as Finchley remains difficult to fathom to anyone from outside, especially when many in Britain do not even give the region a second thought, whether that be over the consequences of Brexit, ongoing paramilitary activity or sectarian tensions across Northern Ireland.
After the Belfast Agreement was signed on Good Friday 1998, a devolved government was established in Northern Ireland. The current incarnation of the Northern Ireland Assembly first saw full powers devolved on 2 December 1999, and eventually, a power-sharing executive was set up in 2007 where both Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to work together. This big generational break-through in trust and co-operation led to mutual power-sharing. First Minister Ian Paisley, locked in a partnership with, and regularly joking alongside, his close colleague and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness was beyond imagination ten years previously. Nobody can overstate the progress which had to have been made for these two formerly bitter enemies, diametrically opposed leaders of two bitterly opposed communities, to become known as the Chuckle Brothers. Since January 2017, this close partnership between DUP and Sinn Fein is no more.
Can Sinn Fein come to reconcile Arlene Foster once again becoming First Minister along with their own Michelle O’Neil as Deputy? Can protestants accept that the Irish language has equal weight to English? Is there any place for gay marriage? Can Northern Ireland allow abortion, as in the Republic and in Britain? How do the parties deal with the legacy of The Troubles – which still deeply scars the region? These are questions which dog leaders from all sides, and which must be surmounted prior to any restoration of the Assembly. In Northern Ireland, suspension of parliament is a matter of fact, not an abstract threat to democracy.
The single-chambered Assembly in Stormont, which is elected by the proportional representation single transferable voting system – so hailed by many in Westminster as one of the best ways to further enhance Westminster's democratic process – has operated only intermittently and been suspended on five occasions. The last two suspensions of Stormont left the running of government to Northern Ireland’s civil service and the British Government for over five years between 2002-2007 and currently coming up to three years since the beginning of 2017. That is, roughly half of the Assembly's sitting time has been lost. No wonder the prorogation of Parliament has little impact here.
Home to both Protestant and Nationalist communities, in signing the Good Friday Agreement, over a million UK and Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, who famously turned away from violence and decided to share power, are currently only being represented through 10 DUP MPs in Westminster or through the EU, where three MEPs currently represent all of Northern Ireland. The Nationalist community, predominantly choosing Sinn Fein and abstention from Westminster as their first choice, have no MPs.
If, as is expected, the UK leaves the EU – unless the Assembly once again convenes – the majority in the region will be left without any government representation. And if, as many fear, Boris Johnson’s right-leaning government takes the UK out of Europe at the end of October, his government may well formally impose direct rule from Westminster on the day after leaving the EU. This will leave the Nationalist community without any democratic representation, and little power for the Protestant community – especially if Johnson wins a majority at the next election and does not need to rely on DUP support as now.
So, the suspended parliament in Stormont since January 2017 has effectively led to direct rule from Westminster under successive Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, although no-one is calling it that. Monies allocated to the region, whether November 2018’s 10.6 billion, the extra billion negotiated under the DUP’s confidence and supplyarrangement, or the extra £140 million announced in February 2019, are being used to prop up public services. Effectively, Westminster and Northern Ireland civil servants decide where the money needs to go. As negotiations stop and start, and with the supposed encouragement of both the governments in Dublin and London supposedly spurring things on, democracy is floundering here.
What do the people of Northern Ireland think of the closure of their elected Assembly? Ask anyone on the street anywhere from any background, and they will generally tell you that it’s a disgrace and that members of the Assembly (MLAs) should have their salaries stopped. Most people have little faith in politicians now. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP, the two largest parties in Northern Ireland, who are generally elected along traditional sectarian lines, can agree on how to proceed in power-sharing.
Against the backdrop of the looming Brexit, which was overwhelmingly rejected here, many tragically fear a gradual return to the violence that most in the region thought was now behind them.🔷
- “Westminster sets £10.6bn budget for Northern Ireland” – Arthur Beesley, Financial Times, 13 November 2017.
- “Martin McGuinness’ contribution to peace will have long legacy” – Daniel McConnell, Irish Examiner, January 20, 2017
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