Talks are underway to reinstate power sharing in Northern Ireland after last week’s election, which followed the collapse of the previous power-sharing executive in January. The standoff that has brought to an end a decade of joint rule between Unionist and nationalist parties bears all the hallmarks of brinkmanship and choreographed crisis that has dogged politics in Northern Ireland since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.
Where once British and Irish prime ministers and even US presidents would have rolled up their sleeves to broker deals around weapons decommissioning, the release of paramilitary prisoners or recognition of the police service and the rule of law, today’s ‘crisis summits’ tend to be much more localised and arcane affairs. The present crisis arose from a botched ‘green energy’ scheme and a controversy around the legal recognition of the Irish language. This is small beer compared with previous crises, yet the underlying instabilities that cause each crisis are the same. In replacing majority rule with community consent and coercive participation in power-sharing institutions, the Good Friday Agreement placed the management of inter- and intra-communal conflict centre stage. The permanent state of crisis that continues to dog power-sharing attests to the impossibility of two mutually antagonistic peoples – Unionists and nationalists – jointly pursuing ‘the goal of a Northern Ireland where politics works’.
Although the circumstances that gave rise to last week’s elections seem familiar, the dramatic results of the election appear to have taken all parties by surprise. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) remains the largest party in the Assembly, yet an unexpected surge in support for Sinn Féin has cut the DUP’s majority from 10 seats to one. This challenges long-held assumptions of a permanent Unionist ascendancy in Stormont.
The Partition of Ireland and subsequent gerrymandering of the Six Counties had been precisely designed to maintain Unionist supremacy. The guarantee of equal recognition for the political aspirations of both communities enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement – the principle of ‘parity of esteem’ – was designed to bring nationalists into the political process while upholding the Partitionist settlement. From a nationalist perspective, the agreement legitimated their political identification as Irish alongside their aspiration for the goal of Irish unity. Among Unionists, however, the agreement was seen as a necessary concession for maintaining the status quo. From a Unionist perspective, the Union was guaranteed through the principle of consent, which makes the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland contingent on the agreement and consent of the majority of its people. In calling its majority status into question, the election results have punctured Unionist confidence while potentially reawakening nationalist aspirations.
With electoral turnout up by 10 per cent on last May, the result is also significant as an apparent reversal of the decade-long decline in political engagement, which had become a problem among the nationalist electorate in particular. Many have laid the blame for Sinn Féin’s revived electoral fortunes at the door of DUP leader Arlene Foster, whose open hostility towards the Irish Language Act earned her the honorary title of ‘recruiting agent for Sinn Féin’.