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9 January 2020updated 10 Jan 2020 9:51am

Why devolution could return to Northern Ireland

After a three-year impasse, the British and Irish governments have agreed a deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont. But will the parties play ball?

By Patrick Maguire

Devolved government in Northern Ireland could return as early as tomorrow after the British and Irish governments agreed a deal to restore power-sharing after a three-year absence.

Speaking on the third anniversary of the resignation of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister – the moment Northern Ireland entered into its present state of legislative limbo – Julian Smith said the Stormont Assembly would be recalled tomorrow. 

The Northern Ireland Secretary and his Irish counterpart, Simon Coveney, urged Stormont’s parties to agree to the deal and restore an executive when the Assembly has its first full meeting since 2017 tomorrow. 

The draft agreement – entitled “New Decade, New Approach” – contains a package of compromise measures designed to resolve the knotty disagreements of the past three years, the most contentious of which have been on legal protection for the Irish language. 

While the DUP once said it would never accede to Sinn Féin’s demands for an Irish Language Act, that is precisely what the deal includes – albeit as part of a package of legislation including a bill to protect and promote Ulster Scots. The compromise allows each party to have it their own way. Sinn Féin can point to a discrete Irish Language Act, while the DUP can reasonably argue that it does not stand alone.

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There is also legislation providing pay parity for nurses – the absence of which saw a series of strikes last month – and reforms of the Stormont institutions themselves. Most notably, changes to the controversial petition of concern – the veto mechanism deployed by the DUP to stymie equal marriage legislation – are promised.

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That Smith is even in a position to publish a deal, let alone recall the Assembly, is testament to just how profound an impact last month’s election result had on the strategic interests of the two parties without whom an executive cannot be formed: Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Both were punished at the ballot box at the expense of smaller parties – in particular the moderate nationalist SDLP and cross-community Alliance, whose vote surged. The result was widely interpreted as a protest against the political impasse, as well as Brexit. 

With the DUP denuded of any meaningful influence at Westminster and Sinn Féin slipping back even among its base, the incentives for both parties to restore an executive at least appear clear. Indeed, Arlene Foster has already endorsed the deal. Yet that isn’t to say they will inevitably do so: a similar deal, tabled in February 2018, collapsed after backlash from the DUP grassroots. No matter what Foster says now, history could yet repeat itself.

The smaller parties – themselves entitled to ministerial posts in any new government – face questions too. Are their interests best served by, to borrow a phrase from SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, going back to work in an executive at least until the next election, due in 2022, or forming an opposition? While the SDLP leans towards the former, the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party is profoundly split. 

Which way they choose to jump will matter: the absence of the smaller parties from any executive could well be a dealbreaker for the big two, for whom cynics say the smaller parties provide political cover when it comes to difficult or unpopular decisions.

The deal also raises big questions for the government, namely on Troubles legacy prosecutions and Brexit. On the former, it has promised to implement proposals for dealing with historical accusations that it claims in public to hate – and that its Minister for Veterans, Johnny Mercer, has set his face like flint against – within 100 days. Does he understand the implications of what the two governments have agreed?

Northern Ireland’s businesses, meanwhile, have been promised legislation that will guarantee them “unfettered access” to the rest of the UK’s internal market. How do ministers intend to achieve that within the confines of a deal that accepts a border down the Irish Sea as the regrettable but necessary price of regulatory divergence for Great Britain?

So, while there are more signs of life than at any point in the past three years, Julian Smith could yet make good on his pledge to call the whole thing off and call a new election. As a source close to the Northern Ireland Secretary says: “He’s done his job. Will they do theirs?”