Stormont could be the next territory for British politics' Ukip crisis. Photo: Flickr/Maryade
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Ukip fills a vacuum left by Westminster parties in Northern Ireland

Absent-minded protagonists? The UK parties are contributing to a political crisis in Northern Ireland.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly tinkers on the brink of disintegration this week, only one member of the UK government is at talks, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers. Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a key player in the Peace Process, voiced concern that Northern Ireland’s political crisis is being ignored by Westminster, saying “I do understand political considerations are elsewhere,” referring to the threat of Ukip and the general election. He further used his political weight by writing to John Bercow, the speaker of the House.

This immediate disinterest is compounded by long-term political marginalisation of the Northern Irish electorate. The Labour Party refuse to allow candidates to run in Northern Ireland, despite support there, the Liberal Democrats don’t run and the Conservatives have allied with the Ulster Unionists, ruling out cross-community support. The only parties that organise across the whole of the UK are Ukip and the Green party. 

The growing Ukip support in Northern Ireland, demonstrated by the defection to Ukip of Bob Stoker, former Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, last week, puts into sharp relief the fact that this is a deliberate policy by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to avoid elections in Northern Ireland.

"Ukip’s door is open – so people should come and join Bob in creating a people’s revolution in politics," deputy leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttal said, "Your old parties locally are as stale and self-interested as the old parties are across the water." He added that Ukip would contest in all 18 Northern Irish constituencies in May.

On a local level the Northern Ireland Assembly is evidently in need of change anyway. That Stormont is "not fit for purpose", in the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, is demonstrated by the frustrated talks taking place this week. The majority party, the DUP, boycotted the first day in protest over the attendance of Irish Government Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan. 

"No self-respecting unionist will be present in any meeting to discuss internal Northern Ireland business where a seat at the table is given to the Irish representatives," the party quipped the evening before the talks were due to start. "The refusal of the DUP to attend here this morning shows their utter contempt for this process, their contempt for the two governments and their contempt and lack of respect for all of the other parties in this process," retorted the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The fragile political system set up on Good Friday 1998, and consolidated in two subsequent agreements, was probably not meant to be permanent. Sectarianism was necessarily institutionalised by ensuring that both ‘sides of the community’ had, in theory, equal power. This has meant that the Sinn Fein and DUP are perpetually in a coalition government together, which puts into question democracy at a local level, but also cripples efficient decision-making.

As the First Minister Peter Robinson wrote in September, these "exceptional operational elements" make any decisions "time-consuming and sluggish". "The structures required cross-community agreement for every significant issue," he added, "a process that would have tested and defeated less divergent coalitions".

It still might defeat this coalition. In 2013 talks on Flags and Parades, two divisive issues, came to nothing. This week talks have dealt with the issues of flags, parades, handling of the historical trials extant from the Troubles, and, crucially, the looming welfare cuts. In what has rightly been called a budgetary crisis, Stormont’s budget for April next year is still £200m over what the Con-Lib coalition prescribed. Nick Clegg has warned that if an agreement cannot be reached, the government may have to go into "emergency mode".

As one commentator has noted, Stormont is outsourcing its functions to a panel comprising most of the Stormont representatives, and thus reducing its credibility. The private sector in Northern Ireland is also in despair at the situation. A "Make it work" plea, signed by prominent Northern Irish business and voluntary sector representatives, was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. "Time is running out for us to make this place work, before our confidence, investment and tourism dries up again. Our people deserve forward-looking, efficient government," spokesman Peter McBride said.

"The most important thing a British government can be is an honest broker," Ed Miliband commented in 2012. "It is very hard to be an honest broker if you are also an electoral participant." Theresa Villiers shared a similar sentiment in her conference speech in September when she said that is right that Northern Ireland politicians "take ownership" of Northern Irish problems "if we are to have lasting solutions".

While Westminster parties feign an interest in allowing Northern Irish people to self-help, in practice they are denying them the right to organise political alternatives to the unworkable Northern Irish parties, and denying them the ability to integrate into the Westminster party system. This is seen most keenly with regard to the Labour Party. In 2003 the party conceded that they were discriminating against Northern Irish people by not allowing them to become members. In 2007, after legal pressure, the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party was set up. It is the only CLP that is not allowed to run candidates.

However, there is a history of appetite for cross-community left-wing political representatives. The Northern Ireland Labour Party contested elections from 1924 to 1987, with a high-point in 1958 when it returned four MPs to Stormont, leading the Northern Ireland Prime Minster Basil Brooke to declare in 1962 that the enemy (socialism) was "at the gate". However, the party was crippled by its stance on divisive religious issues, such as Sunday Observance, where hard-line Calvinists wanted to close playgrounds on Sundays, but Catholics opposed it. Finally, support for the moderate NILP dwindled fatally during the Troubles as politics became polarised.

Northern Ireland’s 57.6 per cent voter turnout at the 2010 general election (compared to a UK average of 65.1 per cent) was the lowest of any region of the UK in a General Election since 1945. This disengagement may reflect an important truth: there is no political option that can deliver real change and that is not defined by the old political grooves created during the Troubles. 

"It is not a sticking plaster approach which Stormont needs, but root-and-branch change, whereby mandatory coalition and its crippling mutual vetoes are ditched" the Tradition Unionist Voice party leader has said. And his warning should be taken seriously: "It is inevitable that one day the present unworkable Stormont will implode."

UK parties can no longer see themselves as impartial "brokers" in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the current political crisis has been facilitated partly by this disengagement.

Photo: Getty
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Can Philip Hammond save the Conservatives from public anger at their DUP deal?

The Chancellor has the wriggle room to get close to the DUP's spending increase – but emotion matters more than facts in politics.

The magic money tree exists, and it is growing in Northern Ireland. That’s the attack line that Labour will throw at Theresa May in the wake of her £1bn deal with the DUP to keep her party in office.

It’s worth noting that while £1bn is a big deal in terms of Northern Ireland’s budget – just a touch under £10bn in 2016/17 – as far as the total expenditure of the British government goes, it’s peanuts.

The British government spent £778bn last year – we’re talking about spending an amount of money in Northern Ireland over the course of two years that the NHS loses in pen theft over the course of one in England. To match the increase in relative terms, you’d be looking at a £35bn increase in spending.

But, of course, political arguments are about gut instinct rather than actual numbers. The perception that the streets of Antrim are being paved by gold while the public realm in England, Scotland and Wales falls into disrepair is a real danger to the Conservatives.

But the good news for them is that last year Philip Hammond tweaked his targets to give himself greater headroom in case of a Brexit shock. Now the Tories have experienced a shock of a different kind – a Corbyn shock. That shock was partly due to the Labour leader’s good campaign and May’s bad campaign, but it was also powered by anger at cuts to schools and anger among NHS workers at Jeremy Hunt’s stewardship of the NHS. Conservative MPs have already made it clear to May that the party must not go to the country again while defending cuts to school spending.

Hammond can get to slightly under that £35bn and still stick to his targets. That will mean that the DUP still get to rave about their higher-than-average increase, while avoiding another election in which cuts to schools are front-and-centre. But whether that deprives Labour of their “cuts for you, but not for them” attack line is another question entirely. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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