Home: Analysis

A new election won’t solve Northern Ireland’s power-sharing crisis

The DUP’s boycott of Stormont has caused political paralysis. Is it time to change how Northern Ireland operates?

Emma DeSouza
Emma DeSouza
27 October 2022, 4.21pm

Sinn Fein's Michelle O'Neill could not become first minister after May’s election because of the DUP's executive boycott


PA Images / Alamy Stock Photo

Having been without a functioning government since February, Northern Ireland is set to return to the polls in December, after last-ditch efforts to form an administration failed.

Many voters have been left frustrated by the political impasse, which comes amid a cost of living crisis that continues to push more and more people below the poverty line. Their anger is heightened by the thought of another election – the second this year – which will cost the taxpayer £6.5m, and the fact that members of the legislative assembly (MLAs) have received their full salary despite not sitting.

Web developer Catháir Mac Gothraidh, 26, from Tyrone said: “I’ll go out to vote, absolutely, but I think it is a waste of our time, efforts and money. I’ve a young niece under one year old and I’d prefer that money go towards ensuring she’s kept warm at night through the winter.”

The deadlock follows a landmark election in May, in which the Democratic Unionist party (DUP) slumped to second place behind the nationalist Sinn Fein party for the first time.

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The DUP responded to the result by boycotting the power-sharing executive and blocking the formation of the Stormont Assembly. This was the second time the DUP had collapsed the executive in three months, doing so in February in what party representatives claimed to be an act of protest against the Northern Ireland protocol.

The six-month legislative deadline to form an administration will expire at one minute past midnight tonight. Today, MLAs were recalled for an emergency sitting in a final attempt to form the institutions, but the talks failed. The UK government will now assume a legal responsibility to call a fresh election under legislation brought in to avoid a repeat of the 2017 collapse, which left Northern Ireland without a functioning assembly for three years.

The DUP is about to run out of road. But what will a new election achieve? The party has made clear it will not enter into an administration until its demands regarding the Northern Ireland protocol are met. This is despite most people and businesses in Northern Ireland increasingly supporting the protocol as the best means of squaring the Brexit circle.

Bank manager Nicola Smyth, 43, from Belfast said: “Another election is denying democracy. We now have three denominations [unionist, nationalist, other] as opposed to two [unionist, nationalist] when the Good Friday Agreement was signed. Two of the three should be able to form a government.”

Smyth added: “Paying salaries while refusing to sit in government should never happen again.”

Time to change the mandatory coalition?

The continued political stalemate raises serious questions over the sustainability of Stormont’s power-sharing institutions. Under the 1998 Good Friday peace agreement, Northern Ireland has a form of mandatory coalition whereby the largest unionist and nationalist parties each elect a first minister from among their ranks – one cannot govern without the other.

Post-grad student and researcher Dylan McDermott, 26, from Derry, said: “Consociational democracy does help to a certain extent, and it did bring stability to Northern Ireland […] but it is still quite one-sided where one partner can hold the other to ransom.”

He added: “The veto needs to change, and mandatory coalition needs to change, so those who want to govern can, and those who don’t can’t weaponise democracy.”

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Northern Ireland’s cross-community Alliance party, which made significant gains in May’s assembly election, is calling on the British government to urgently reform the institutions, arguing that those who want to govern should be able to do so. The party has suggested that when one party refuses to enter Stormont, the right to elect a first or deputy first minister should fall to the next largest party – in the case of the May election, this would be the Alliance party.

McDermott argues that “change is needed because change is happening, demographics and voting patterns have changed, so our institutions need to adapt too”. The 2022 census results revealed that Catholics outnumber Protestants for the first time in Northern Ireland, in tandem with a significant drop in the number of people holding British passports or describing themselves as British.

Tara McGuigan, a full-time parent and carer in County Fermanagh, contends that it is not so much about change, but evolution: “The use of the word ‘change’ in this context against the backdrop of Northern Ireland is a loaded term. I’d argue the institutions need to evolve. This is required if Stormont is to remain and to represent the emerging, diverse population.

“Evolving how the assembly is made up and sits would require some sort of public approval.”

An entire generation has grown up under the Good Friday Agreement, and the political context has drastically transformed in that time. In 1998, when the concepts of power-sharing and mandatory coalition were developed, Northern Ireland had two dominant political parties who were willing to set aside party politicking for the betterment of society at large.

Unionism at the time was represented by a pragmatic Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), led by the late David Trimble, who placed not only his political career but his life on the line to help deliver the Good Friday Agreement. By contrast, the hardline DUP actively campaigned against the agreement.

The DUP overtaking the UUP to become the largest unionist party since 2003 has correlated with a deterioration and decline of power-sharing. The 1998 arrangements were based on an assumption of a willingness to work together; that they have been commandeered and manipulated by a party that did not even want to be in the room when they were negotiated should give us pause. Are the current arrangements increasing cooperation and political stability, or are they perpetuating the normalisation of segregation and division?

Voters teetering on the edge of political apathy will be even less incentivised to recast their ballots

A re-run of May’s election will do little more than reset the clock on the six-month deadline for forming a new Stormont Assembly. This runs the risk of leaving Northern Ireland without a functioning devolved government for the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement – 10 April next year – which would be a damningly apt illustration of the state of Northern politics. 

Another election also has wider implications for democracy. A total of 239 candidates ran in May, but this number is likely to drop significantly as smaller parties and independent candidates struggle to find the resources to run another costly campaign. The electorate will have fewer choices and, as is so often the case in the North, those already teetering on the edge of political apathy will be even less incentivised to recast their ballots. 

If the deadlock continues after another election, Westminster will be left with little choice but to act – either with direct rule from Westminster, or a form of joint rule between London and Dublin.

Pause the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill

The DUP wants the controversial Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, drawn up by the UK government to override large parts of the post-Brexit agreement with the EU, to be ratified. The government’s unilateral action has been broadly condemned by the majority of Northern Ireland’s political parties, and polling this month by Queen’s University Belfast shows that almost three-quarters of the public want a negotiated outcome.

Northern Ireland is a post-conflict society; unilateral action and absolutist approaches don’t nurture harmony. The only way out is through negotiation. As the mood music between Brussels and London continues to improve, the British government – in an act of good faith – should pause the progression of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Doing so would also make clear to the DUP that their demands will not be met.

How the electorate will respond to being forced to the polls in the dark of winter remains to be seen, but the DUP’s refusal to make Northern Ireland work will almost invariably lead more people to consider a different kind of constitutional future. Following a large-scale conference on Irish Unity in Dublin this month, unionist representatives should be cognisant of the potential long-term ramifications of making Northern Ireland ungovernable.

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