BELFAST — President Joe Biden arrives in Northern Ireland on Tuesday to salute the 25th anniversary of its U.S.-brokered peace accord. But it will be a hollow celebration.
Power-sharing between British unionists and Irish nationalists, the central vision of the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, is failing.
Northern Ireland has for nearly a year had no elected government at Stormont, the grand parliament building overlooking Belfast. It has no annual budget either — only red ink, rising in a sea of dysfunction. And thanks to Brexit, the U.K.’s most socially divided region this month lost tens of millions in annual European Union funds that had sustained the poorest communities.
Northern Ireland’s fiscal council, created two years ago to advise Stormont following a previous government shutdown, estimates an extra £808 million is needed this year just to keep existing services running at a time of rising energy bills and wage demands.
Instead, the British government in London wants immediate spending cuts topping £500 million. Its failure to deliver a 2023 budget in time for the new fiscal year, or to fulfil pledges to match now-departed EU funds, have left local hospitals, schools and community groups scrambling for services to curtail and staff to cut.
Who slashes spending when there’s no bona-fide government? Emergency legislation laid in Westminster places this burden on 10 unelected permanent secretaries — senior civil servants who were employed to advise ministers neutrally, not take direct political decisions.
With finances running low, the education department has already ended holiday meal subsidies for schoolchildren from poor households — nearly a third of all students. Other departments are braced for cuts averaging 6 to 10 percent. Those drawing up the cuts are incensed.
“I shouldn’t be forced to play the role of minister. It’s an affront to democracy and it’s politically indefensible,” one of the permanent secretaries told POLITICO.
“Locally elected ministers must be taking these deeply consequential decisions if the power-sharing element of the Good Friday Agreement is to mean anything any more,” said the civil servant, who spoke on condition they were not identified because they traditionally do not talk on the record to journalists.
“As long as power-sharing is not working, London needs to take its own responsibilities seriously. Its refusal to act in a timely fashion is making matters needlessly worse. We’re doing damage to so many lives. It’s truly shameful.”
The U.K. government insists it’s right to expect sharp cuts now, arguing the financial problems were created by years of divided, indecisive Stormont governments that failed to take other tough financial decisions.
“We’ve inherited an enormous black hole,” said Steve Baker, a minister in the U.K.’s Northern Ireland Office. “It hasn’t arisen overnight. It is the product of many years of financial mismanagement, and often the expectation of bailout.”
Baker places primary blame on the Democratic Unionists, the main pro-British party in Northern Ireland, who refused to form a new unity government with the Irish republicans of Sinn Féin following last year’s Stormont assembly election.
The Democratic Unionists say they will indefinitely obstruct Stormont in protest at the U.K.’s Brexit treaty with the EU. It keeps Northern Ireland, unlike the rest of the U.K., still subject to EU goods rules. Since 2021, that policy has kept cross-border trade with the Republic of Ireland flowing freely — but at the price of complicated new controls on goods arriving from Britain.
Unionists fear, and nationalists hope, that these shifting trade winds will eventually help push Northern Ireland out of the U.K. and into the arms of the republic.
After two years of diplomatic wrangling, the U.K. government and European Commission six weeks ago published a wide-ranging agreement, the Windsor Framework, that vastly reduced EU-required checks on British goods arriving at Northern Irish ports. London and Brussels voiced hopes this would be enough to revive Stormont.
But the famously stubborn DUP — which grew to become the largest unionist party specifically because it rejected the Good Friday deal and opposed compromise with Sinn Féin — is holding out for more, and still won’t re-enter Stormont alongside its adversaries.
Once committed to Northern Ireland’s violent overthrow and abolition, Sinn Féin topped last year’s election ahead of the DUP for the first time, meaning its regional leader — party vice president Michelle O’Neill — should be entitled to the top Stormont post of first minister. The DUP’s loss of top-dog status has increased unionist unease that Northern Ireland’s bonds with Britain could be irreversibly fraying.
The center cannot hold
Moderate politicians blame both extremes for making Northern Ireland ungovernable. They suggest that power-sharing rules drafted a generation ago no longer work in today’s hardened political landscape.
They argue the central requirement for “mandatory coalition” between unionist and nationalist forces should be eased. The policy effectively gives the largest party from each sectarian bloc — for the past two decades the DUP and Sinn Féin — the power to block the formation of any government. As a result, the hard liners have taken turns periodically shutting down Stormont over the past decade.
These rules have a particularly perverse impact on Northern Ireland’s most compromise-minded party, Alliance, which refuses to define itself as either British unionist or Irish nationalist — and is treated as a power-sharing irrelevance as a result.
Alliance was a fringe player back in 1998 but made the biggest gains in last May’s election, finishing third with 17 assembly seats to Sinn Féin’s 27 and the DUP’s 25. Yet instead of Alliance becoming a coalition kingmaker, the current power-sharing rules mean its nonsectarian votes don’t count at all.
Some suggest Alliance leader Naomi Long could sue the British government to force reform.
Alliance Party leader Naomi Long says the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing rules explicitly permit periodic reviews of the system | Paul Faith/AFP via Getty Images
“I don’t believe that our votes counting for less than other people is legal,” Long said, citing legal advice that found the prevailing rules violate European human rights law. “We are willing to challenge what is a fundamental inequality at the heart of our government.”
Long says she hopes such a confrontation won’t be necessary, emphasizing that the Good Friday Agreement’s power-sharing rules explicitly permit periodic reviews of the system.
Time for a new deal?
Bertie Ahern, the former Irish prime minister who worked alongside Britain’s Tony Blair in 1998 to achieve the Good Friday breakthrough, also believes the time for dumping “mandatory coalition” is fast approaching. In its place, as advocated by recent think tank papers exploring ways to save Stormont, would be a voluntary coalition — which Ahern pointedly describes as “what happens in a democracy.”
Such a change would mean Sinn Féin and the DUP retain rights, as the largest parties on either side of the divide, to lead a Stormont coalition together. But should either one balk, they could no longer block the formation of a different government combination. This would open the door for more moderate politicians to represent their communities once again.
But while Sinn Féin has said it would be open to talks on making the rules more flexible, the DUP has been quick to rule out the surrender of its veto.
For the journalist who famously broke the news of the Good Friday Agreement a quarter-century ago, Stormont’s ongoing inability to build a stable culture of partnership has made this week’s anniversary bittersweet.
Stephen Grimason, at that time BBC Northern Ireland’s political editor, became Stormont’s chief spin doctor for 15 years. He worked alongside a string of DUP and Sinn Féin ministers who, in his eyes, too often ducked the difficult decisions that would have delivered strong, reforming government.
“Looking back, I have this emptiness in the pit of my stomach about all the opportunities we had,” he told the Belfast Telegraph last week. “We missed every single one of them.”