Brexit, Political Parties, and Power-Sharing in Northern Ireland

Guest post by Sophie Whiting, University of Bath. This article is part of an ongoing blog series ‘Brexit Countdown’ by the Political Studies Association of Ireland (PSAI) and Political Studies Association (PSA).

If you blinked, you could have quite easily missed two important pieces of Northern Ireland related legislation passing through Westminster last week. In the absence of devolution, the Northern Ireland budget and legislation drastically cutting subsidies to the Renewable Heat Incentive – or, the ‘cash for ash’ scheme – were not passed in Belfast, but 300 miles away in London. The lack of time afforded to these decisions, lead to accusations of legislation being ‘shoved’ and ‘bludgeoned’ through without proper scrutiny.

Since the collapse of the Assembly over two years ago, Northern Ireland has been under direct rule in all but name with civil servants running departments and making key decisions in the absence of ministers. The continuing power vacuum has been described as unsustainable by the Head of Northern Ireland’s Civil Service, who has warned against the slow decay of public services. Yet, in the wake of unsuccessful talks to get Stormont back up and running, it is feared the current set up will become the ‘new normal’.

But what does this have to do with Brexit?

Brexit did not single-handedly cause the collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly, yet has exacerbated political tensions and hardened the positions of the DUP and Sinn Féin. Brexit has also managed to absorb much of the political energy with the UK government accused of being ‘unprepared’ to take the necessary steps to restore devolution.

Within this context Northern Ireland sits with one eye on the future and one on the past. The future holds uncertainties over backstop arrangements and the nature of the Irish/Northern Irish border, whilst the past brings the legacy of the conflict to the fore and continues to infect political debate.

Events in Westminster last week demonstrated the political sensitivities around how to deal with Northern Ireland’s divisive and contested past. Responding to questions in the House of Commons, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, stated that the 10% of killings during the conflict which were inflicted by security services were ‘not crimes’. Bradley went further by stating that ‘police and soldiers were fulfilling their duties in a dignified and appropriate way’. At best these remarks demonstrate a severe lack of sensitivity and understanding from the Northern Ireland Secretary, and at worst, exonerated illegal killings carried out by the security forces in what has been referred to as an act of historical revisionism.

With imminent announcements on whether veterans would be charged over the 1972 Bloody Sunday shootings, the timing of this statement could not have been worse. The comments resulted in furious backlash from victims and families of state violence, forcing the Secretary of State in to a humiliating apology.

Again, what does this have to do with Brexit?

The issue here is not just with the Secretary of State but goes much deeper. Whether a ‘gaffe’ or deliberate, Karen Bradley’s statement is symbolic of the lack of understanding for the politics and history of Northern Ireland from the UK government. This was reflected during the Brexit referendum and has continued throughout negotiations with the EU. Beyond the practicalities of borders and trade, Brexit has been framed around national identity and sovereignty making it difficult to look towards a future where these issue are an irrelevance. With all those factors dominating headlines and Brexit sapping any political energy, no restoration of devolution seems likely in the near future.

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Dr Sophie Whiting is a lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. Sophie’s research interests include UK devolution and political parties – with a particular focus on Northern Ireland – and gender within post-conflict politics. She tweets at @sophieawhiting.

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