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In Northern Ireland, Parties Must Place Pragmatism Over Dogma

Ireland | Andy Keena

The United States began 2019 in a state of a political turmoil, with thousands temporarily out of work as the executive and congressional branches fought to a stalemate over the proposed federal budget for the 2019 fiscal year. By the time US President Donald Trump ended the deadlock by approving a stopgap measure to allow negotiations on the bill to reopen, 35 days had passed. This was the longest shutdown of government services in the history of the United States and was covered in depth, understandably, by most Irish broadcasters and publications. Yet, much closer to home, comparatively little attention has been afforded to the ongoing absence of a functioning government in Northern Ireland, which has been without an executive since the 9th January 2017. At the time of writing, Northern Ireland has been 790 days without a government, easily holding the world record for the region with the longest of period of time without said.

The executive, which must have ministerial representation from both nationalist and unionist representatives, fell apart after Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin stood down as deputy First Minister after a disagreement with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) over a failed renewable energy scheme which cost the government millions of pounds. Attempts to re-establish this power-sharing executive over the subsequent two years have resulted in failure. Both parties are sticking to points of principle: the DUP are refusing to accede to demands made by Sinn Féin that they provide an alternative to party leader Arlene Foster as First Minister, and Sinn Féin have made the introduction of an Irish Language Act, which would make the Irish language an official language of state, a non-negotiable condition of their return to any executive. The DUP can not run the risk of accepting this condition for fear of alienating their voter base, which is overwhelmingly conservative, Protestant, and Unionist.

Yet, given the broader political climate, it is somewhat surprising that reasons of political pragmatism alone have not encouraged Sinn Féin and the DUP to reform the power-sharing executive. The collapse of the executive, of course, has coincided with negotiations between Theresa May’s Conservative government and European officials regarding the nature of the deal which will see the United Kingdom leave the European Union. Northern Ireland, and specifically its border with the Republic, has been at the centre of this discussion. Nationalists and moderate Unionists alike are critical of a hard border, which will negatively affect border communities and industries, while also a recent car-bombing in Derry has raised concerns that a hard border may lead to the reignition of the violence which plagued the region for decades.

The question of Irish unity, while perhaps not yet on the table as a realistic proposal, is certainly entering into serious public debate. A poll published jointly by RTÉ and the BBC last last year indicated that 65% of people in Northern Ireland believed that Brexit would render the possibility of a united Ireland more likely. A range of further polls indicate that, while there is not yet any significant majority of Northern Irish citizens who would be in favour of a united Ireland, public opinion is shifting toward that direction. Moreover, in the last general election, held shortly after McGuinness left the executive, Sinn Féin cut substantially into the DUP’s lead in parliament, further extending their mandate to pursue their brand of nationalism, of which the ultimate goal is the reunification of Ireland.

Very clearly, Brexit and the resultant chaos should have provided Sinn Féin with an opportunity to further nationalism in the North and potentially overtake the DUP in seats in the Executive Assembly in Stormont. In reality, they have frittered away much of the momentum they had gained with constituents frustrated at their inability to negotiate a resolution to the deadlock. Furthermore, their continued policy of abstentionism, whereby any party members elected to be a member of parliament (MP) in London will refuse to take their seats, has been condemned by many who believe their absence is detrimental to the region they represent. Critics of abstentionism include the Ireland’s Minister for Justice Charlie Flanagan and minority leader Micheál Martin, as well as Colum Eastwood, leader of the North’s secondary nationalist party, SDLP, all of whom have claimed that it has allowed May to force Brexit plans through parliament by tiny majorities.

It seems, therefore, that the DUP has the clearer motive for filibustering the executive and allowing direct rule to be reinstated. Not only does it outnumber the absent Sinn Féin MPs in Westminster, but it has an active role in affairs of state, with the party currently in a supply-and-confidence agreement with May’s minority government. Moreover, the DUP are adamantly pro-Brexit, at odds with the region as a whole, 56% of which voted to remain in the EU, and can help the Conservatives pass any legislation. The DUP are therefore in a position of disproportionate power, one which they can use to their own end in the Brexit deadlock in Parliament. Yet their hard-line policies seem to be driving people more toward the idea of a united Ireland, which would be the antithesis of everything the party stands for. Moreover, a return to Direct Rule would limit the party’s ability to influence events in the North, particularly if Labour replaced the Conservatives as the largest party in the UK. Northern Ireland is the only part of the United Kingdom with no provision for abortion or for same-sex marriage, based on the idea that these are “devolved issues” or issues for the Assembly in Stormont to decide. Until now the DUP have been able to filibuster such bills by abuse of the Petition of Concern, which allows either nationalists or unionists in Stormont prevent the passage of any bill on the basis of discrimination. Direct rule by a Labour government, or even a Conservative one that is not propped up by the DUP, would be to lead to the legalisation of both. That would be a hammer blow to conservative support for the DUP, who could prevent both bills from passing, at least in the short term, under a power-sharing executive.

Polls of younger generations of Northern Irish people indicate that a nuanced Northern Irish identity, as opposed to one that is simply British or simply Irish, is becoming slowly more prevalent. It would be reductive to suggest that the battle of nationalism vs. unionism is dead, or even on its last legs, but it has become clear that voter patience with ideological debate is waning as the region continues to trundle on without any representation on domestic issues.The party which can be seen to eschew some of their principles in the pursuit of a resolution to the deadlock may lose the support of their traditional base, but they are also likely to gain the support of younger voters who feel the welfare of Northern Irish citizens is being ignored in Westminster, largely down to the continued dogmatism of the DUP and the abstentionism of Sinn Féin, which looks increasingly like a vanity project in the face of political reality. Northern Ireland is at a seminal point in its history, and it would be advantageous for either party to take the initiative in resolving the crisis. A strong Sinn Féin could lead to a stronger nationalist sentiment and ultimately reunification with the South, while a strong DUP would represent to voters the benefits of staying within the Union.

The tangible danger of a no-deal Brexit only makes the case stronger that either party should take the steps to move past their current impasse. However the perpetual uncertainty surrounding the future status of Northern Ireland and the terms of Britain’s departure from the European Union, only serves to increase their hesitation and prevarication. A no-deal Brexit, as outlined by Northern Ireland’s chief civil servant David Sterling, could have a “profound and long-lasting impact” on society in the North. With the risk of a hard border as a result, this would profoundly threaten the Peace Process, the increased infrastructure further provoking the lingering threat of a return to extremism. The longer the two parties wait, the more catastrophic this stalemate could be for Northern Ireland.


Originally published 18.04.19 in Vol. 2 No. 2.

Photo Credit: Photo by Dom0803 / CC BY 3.0 (

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