The intensification of the Brexit negotiations over the past eight months have relegated disputes over power-sharing in Northern Ireland to the proverbial backburner, but with the United Kingdom’s scheduled departure from the European Union looming, the country’s focus will again return to the slugfest between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and their efforts to restore the dormant local governing institutions.
The Northern Ireland Executive collapsed in January 2017 after Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness resigned in protest after it was revealed that the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI)—a scheme implemented by then-Minister of Enterprise, Trade and Investment Arlene Foster to promote the use of renewable energy—would cost the state an estimated £500 million. After the subsequent Assembly election in March 2017 that saw the public return the first legislature not comprised of a unionist majority, both the DUP and Sinn Fein immediately demonstrated their unwillingness to reach agreement on any of the outstanding issues between them, preventing the restoration of the power-sharing executive.
Although the RHI scandal was the immediate cause of the impasse and the Irish language act emerged as the most contested issue during the negotiation phase, there are much deeper socio-political factors at play. As was made evident by leading academic Paul Nolan’s suggestion in April 2018 that Catholics will likely form a majority in Northern Ireland by 2021, the country is undergoing a remarkable degree of demographic change which disadvantages unionists. While it must be stressed that a Catholic majority does not automatically translate into majority support for a united Ireland, one can still understand the growing level of alarm in Protestant unionist communities. The end of the unionist majority in Stormont was one symptom of these underlying changes, and this broader shift appears to be fuelling the DUP’s unwillingness to return to power-sharing.
Of course, in the zero-sum game that is Northern Irish politics, nationalists naturally gain from demographic and political change that negatively impacts unionists. Further, the circumstances of the Brexit referendum itself fit neatly into the traditional nationalist paradigm, a fact that has not gone unnoticed by Sinn Fein. The Northern Irish population voted by a (slim) majority to Remain in the EU, a fact which immediately caused several nationalist politicians north and south to call for a border poll on the constitutional future of Northern Ireland. Although these calls have been mostly muted since the negotiations have been underway, the economic recession that is expected to follow Brexit will add a considerable degree of weight to the argument for a united Ireland.
For both Sinn Fein and the DUP, then, there is little incentive to restore the power-sharing institutions. Historically, it is worth remembering that during the opening phases of the conflict in the early 1970s, both militant republicans and militant loyalists opposed all moves towards power-sharing, believing it a compromise of core principles. Indeed, it was the loyalist-led Workers’ Council Strike in 1973 reinforced by Sinn Fein’s rejection of the new Stormont power-sharing assembly which rubber stamped the downfall of the Sunningdale Agreement. Later in the 1990s, Sinn Fein reluctantly accepted the Good Friday Agreement version of power-sharing only after it received sufficient assurances regarding all-island institutions, while the DUP was the only major party that still rejected the agreement almost a decade after it was signed. Both parties’ historical opposition to power-sharing is rooted in the notion that it is an obstacle to their ultimate objectives, attitudes that continue to inform their policy positions today.
It is entirely possible that cross-party negotiations could return to the issues previously under discussion, though it is unlikely that either the DUP or Sinn Fein will concede any meaningful ground regarding the Irish language act, same-sex marriage, or the bill of rights. Moreover, Brexit has again made the constitutional question a relevant policy issue, a development which will probably shift the political conversation back to the constitutional status of Northern Ireland.
Considering all of the above, the post-Brexit political climate is likely to intensify the more radical republican and loyalist elements and further entrench both Sinn Fein and the DUP into their respective hard-line positions. The waning influence of unionism in Northern Irish society and the potential of Brexit to deliver constitutional change mean that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP will be especially enthusiastic about restoring power-sharing. Thus, although the official withdrawal of the UK will allow the Northern Irish parties to return to local political affairs, the changed and changing socio-political situation makes a return to power-sharing as unlikely as it has been in two decades.