It was a much longer trip to Northern Ireland than Brandon Lewis was expecting. But in the early hours of this morning, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland brokered the deal he was hoping for: the DUP and Sinn Fein have stepped back from the brink of collapsing the Stormont executive, and will nominate a new first minister and deputy first minister today.
These moments of transition are always tricky in Northern Irish politics, prompted, this time, by the ousting of Arlene Foster as DUP leader and first minister. The roles of first and deputy first minister are a joint office, meaning that both roles need to be re-nominated, which triggers negotiations between the two parties with the right to nominate before they settle.
In this case, the stand-off was over Irish language provisions, with Sinn Fein declaring it would not support a DUP first minister without a commitment to passing Acht na Gaeilge (the Irish Language Act), legislation that would introduce an Irish language commissioner and a commissioner for Ulster-Scots, among other provisions. It was agreed in the New Decade, New Approach deal that restored power-sharing to the province in January 2020, but hasn’t yet been brought through Stormont. Last night, Brandon Lewis committed to bringing the legislation through parliament in Westminster in October 2021 if Stormont has not done so, breaking the stalemate between the two main parties.
The DUP will nominate Paul Givan as first minister (with Edwin Poots as DUP leader and agriculture minister) and Sinn Fein will re-nominate Michelle O’Neill as deputy first minister. But there are numerous tensions still unresolved, and cracks that have simply been papered over. The new DUP leader will face questions over whether he has capitulated to Sinn Fein already, only a few weeks into the job, and he will face criticisms from his own side for allowing a British government to undermine a sitting Stormont executive in what will be perceived as a blow to devolution. It speaks volumes that Poots left the negotiations last night with no statement to the waiting media, only releasing a statement to confirm the DUP’s first minister nomination this morning. There could also be tensions in October when the requirement to nominate these language commissioners falls to Stormont, with the DUP potentially refusing to play ball.
Sinn Fein, meanwhile, also has tricky ideological questions to answer over its demand for legislation to be imposed directly by the British government on Northern Ireland for Irish language rights, as well as some more practical questions about whether it seriously believes the UK government will follow through on its commitment to Irish language legislation, given that it has so far failed to uphold its other commitments (such as on legacy issues) in the January 2020 agreement.
It all comes against a tense backdrop in Northern Ireland of ongoing disputes and anxieties about the Northern Ireland protocol. This deal achieves stability for the moment, with everyone hoping for a calm summer as we head into marching season. That is one reason for this breakthrough, with an understanding on all sides from politicians that the public wants to see Stormont politicians working together to manage Brexit arrangements and the ongoing pandemic situation.
But there is another simple reason for this breakthrough, which is that the two main parties need each other far more than they would ever admit. Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP want to hold elections right now, which would have been triggered if a new first minister and deputy had not been nominated within seven days. They are keeping the Stormont show on the road for now, but there’s no guarantee it will last.