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.

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Northern Ireland's political crisis ups the stakes for Theresa May

Unionism may be in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.

 Sinn Féin have announced that they will not put forward a candidate for deputy first minister, and barring a miracle, that means today's 4pm deadline for a new power-sharing executive will come and go. What next for Northern Ireland?

While another election is possible, it's not particularly likely. Although another contest might change the political composition at Stormont a little, when the dust settles, once again, the problem will be that the DUP and Sinn Féin are unable to agree terms to resume power-sharing.

That means a decade of devolved rule is ending and direct rule from Westminster is once again upon us. Who benefits? As Patrick explains in greater detail, a period of direct rule might be good news for Sinn Féin, who can go into the next set of elections in  the Republic of Ireland on an anti-austerity platform without the distracting matter of the austerity they are signing off in the North. The change at the top also allows that party to accelerate its move away from the hard men of the north and towards a leadership that is more palatable in the south..

Despite that, the DUP aren't as worried as you might expect. For one thing, a period of devolved rule, when the government at Westminster has a small majority isn't without upside for the DUP, who will continue to exert considerable leverage over May.

But the second factor is a belief that in the last election, Arlene Foster, their leader, flopped on the campaign trail with what was widely derided as a "fear" message about the consequences of the snap election instead of taking responsibility for involvement in the "cash for ash" scandal. That when the votes were cast, the Unionist majority at Stormont was wiped out means that message will have greater resonance next time than it did last time, or at least, that's how the theory runs.

Who's right? Who knows. But for Theresa May, it further ups the stakes for a good Brexit deal, particularly as far as the Irish border is concerned. A lot of the focus - including the PM's - is on her trip to Scotland and the stresses on that part of the Union. It may be that Unionism is in greater immediate danger in Belfast than Edinburgh.

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