18 January 2017
It was with considerable dismay, but with no great surprise, that I and many others heard the news in yesterday’s statement by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, that he is having to dissolve the Northern Ireland Assembly and call elections for the 2nd of March.
Relations were bad between the parties in Northern Ireland back in September 2015, which at the time almost led to the collapse of its institutions. Now, matters have gone one step further and, following the resignation of Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister, have forced the Secretary of State to take the action of calling the elections.
On the face of it, the issue stemmed from the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scheme, but, in reality, the bad relations between the parties, together with the structure of Northern Ireland’s institutions, can be viewed as the main forces behind the collapse of the Assembly. A stronger, more mature institution could of course have survived what were undoubtedly bad and expensive but not terminal mistakes in the RHI scheme.
Essentially, the problems of the scheme have exposed the much deeper issue that the institutions, which were set up in the way that they were for the best of all reasons – to bring about peace – have not led to efficient or even stable government.
The way the power sharing arrangements have been designed means that while it takes multiple parties to agree on making progress or implementing a certain policy, it also takes just one party acting alone to bring those institutions down. In this case it appears that this is what has happened.
The difficulty now is that we go into elections with many people believing that they will send the parties back to Stormont in similar strengths to how they stand now. So what will happen then? If Sinn Fein don’t feel that they can nominate a successor to Mr McGuinness as Deputy First Minister now, why would they feel able to nominate someone on March 3? Technically, if that were to be the case, the Secretary of State would be obliged to call even further elections.
Sadly, while all of this continues, the people of Northern Ireland will have no representation at Stormont.
Having just returned from a visit to Londonderry, I know of the frustration people feel about the fact that disagreements about the political process and constitutional arrangements dominate the news and the thinking in the Assembly. They would prefer to see the Assembly make progress on, for example, the economy, the health service and connectivity. And, above all else at this time, they would prefer to see the politicians in the Assembly have an input on the Brexit negotiations, rather than be focusing on the unsustainability or otherwise of the present arrangements in Stormont.
So we move now towards new elections. But how long should we continue with this charade? Elections are not the issue. People were democratically elected to the Assembly only last May. It seems clear to me that we must therefore address the problem itself, rather than slavishly adhere to what is now perhaps outdated legislation which allows just one party to be in a position to collapse the Assembly, and requires the Secretary of State to call elections which seemingly very few people want.
During the Secretary of State’s recent statements in the House of Commons, I have suggested that consideration be given to finding a better way forward. Power sharing is a principle which, it seems, all the parties subscribe to. But the constitutional arrangements which enshrine this principle must be able to deliver efficient government to the people of Northern Ireland and, in turn, must therefore be capable of commanding the respect of those people. Failure to do this puts those very institutions at risk, and that’s what we are seeing now.
It is not, therefore, to risk undermining the Good Friday Agreement to suggest that the workings and relevance of the legislation which enacted it should be reviewed. Rather, such a review would enhance its importance, and updating and modernising some of the legislation would protect, and therefore project, the spirit of the Agreement into the future.
Burying our heads in the sand is the greater risk. To keep coming up with the same solutions, expecting different results, would be to put the Good Friday Agreement, and much of what it has achieved, at risk. We should not be prepared to take that risk.
Laurence Robertson is Chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee