Normal politics in the North still a pipe dream

There were problems from the very beginning in the powersharing arrangements

The latest breakdown in the powersharing arrangements in Northern Ireland illustrates that normal politics in the region is still a pipe dream almost 20 years after the signing of the Belfast Agreement.

The response in Dublin is more of a resigned “here we go again” rather than outright despair that sectarian animosities and cynical party positioning have triumphed once again.

Nonetheless, the latest episode does raise questions about whether the complex powersharing arrangements that were agreed after so much time consuming effort by the Irish and British governments, and interminable wrangling by the parties in the North, can ever work.

Amid the general acclamation when the Belfast Agreement was signed in May 1998, the vastly experienced British politician Roy Jenkins entered a caveat in his endorsement of the deal.


He pointed out that the only other place he could think of where a similar agreement in which every significant party in a divided society had been guaranteed a place in government was the Lebanon. The problem there was that when the political strain became too much that country descended into an appalling civil war.

Jenkins accepted that there was no viable alternative to the settlement agreed in Northern Ireland, but he suggested that normal politics would only begin when parties were not forced into an artificial coalition but joined together on the basis of an agreed programme or went into opposition.


There were problems from the very beginning, with the first powersharing executive led by David Trimble of the UUP and Seamus Mallon of the SDLP encountering one snag after another between 1999 and 2002, when a fourth and final suspension of the Executive became necessary.

When it was eventually restored in 2007, the DUP and Sinn Féin had emerged as the biggest parties on each side of the sectarian divide. The prevailing view in political circles in Dublin at the time was that with the two parties representing the extremes now in power, the Executive would begin to bed down as neither would fear being outflanked by their more moderate rivals.

Despite a variety of rows the Executive managed to survive since 2007 without suspension, and there were even some tentative signs over the past year that normal politics might begin to emerge.

In the wake of last May’s Assembly elections the SDLP and Ulster Unionist Party opted out of the powersharing arrangement to be free to criticise the Executive from the outside.

Sectarian flank

However, instead of pushing Sinn Féin and the DUP together to defend a common position, the development served to drive them farther apart as each of them sought to protect their sectarian flank.

While the row that led to the collapse of the Executive had its origins in a “normal” crisis stemming from political incompetence, it was fuelled by the old sectarian bitterness that has never really gone away.

In political circles in Dublin the bulk of the blame for the way things have developed is being laid at the door of the DUP and its leader Arlene Foster rather than Sinn Féin.

“While Sinn Féin is a ruthless political organisation there is no taking away from the fact that Martin McGuinness has really tried to make things work throughout his time as Deputy First Minister,” said one senior Government figure.

He pointed out that McGuinness had confounded everybody by establishing a really good relationship with Ian Paisley, and had even managed to find a way of working with the more prickly Peter Robinson.

“The accession of Arlene Foster has just made things impossible, and there is considerable sympathy here for the position McGuinness found himself in,” said the Government source.

No alternative

There appears to be no alternative now to another Assembly election but at this stage there is little hope in Dublin that the outcome will make it any easier to sort out the mess.

All the signs are that the DUP and Sinn Féin will be back stronger than ever, helped by the fact that the number of seats in the Assembly has been reduced since the last Assembly from 108 to 90, so that candidates will be fighting in five-seat rather than six-seat constituencies.

That will pose a big challenge to the SDLP and the UUP as both parties relied heavily on taking the last seat out of six in last May’s election.

The atmosphere of bitterness in which a new election will take place is likely to benefit the DUP and Sinn Féin rather than their moderate rivals or any of the smaller parties in the running.

How the two governments will manage to put Humpty Dumpty together again when the dust has settled is anybody’s guess.

The fact that all this is happening as the British government heads into the triggering of Brexit will mean that the North is likely to get far less attention in London than on previous occasions when there was political stalemate.

Given that Brexit has really serious implications for the region, the timing could not be worse.

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins

Stephen Collins is a columnist with and former political editor of The Irish Times