Newton Emerson: DUP huff highlights problem of the ‘empty chair’
Boycott of the North South Ministerial Council has potential to do real harm
Meeting of North-South Ministerial Council had to be cancelled at the last minute because DUP First Minister Arlene Foster had not nominated a unionist minister to attend, as power-sharing requires. Photograph: Ronan McGrade/Pacemaker Press
Eamon Ryan experienced Northern Ireland’s politics of the empty chair last Friday at the North-South Ministerial Council, the sole cross-Border institution of the Belfast Agreement.
The Minister for Transport was due to meet his Stormont counterpart, Nichola Mallon of the SDLP, to discuss road and rail projects. But the meeting had to be cancelled at the last minute because DUP First Minister Arlene Foster had not nominated a unionist minister to attend, as power-sharing requires.
It was the second NSMC meeting called off in recent weeks for this reason. Mallon alleged “disgraceful” obstruction and other parties concurred.
In February, panicked by a terrible opinion poll, the DUP abandoned attempts to promote the Northern Ireland protocol and published a five-point plan to “free us” from it.
The fifth point was: “Send a strong signal to the Government of the Republic of Ireland that North-South relationships are impacted”.
A pragmatist might suggest Ryan and Mallon should have gone ahead last Friday and dared Foster to call her solicitor
Pressed on what this meant, DUP Westminster leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson said it would involve boycotting NSMC meetings on implementing the protocol.
This apparently rendered the threat meaningless, as implementation is a matter for the UK and the EU. Any boycott would be transparently self-defeating, as the only way the protocol would come up between Dublin and Stormont ministers is if the former were offering to help the latter lobby Brussels for mitigation.
The DUP denies a boycott and one of its ministers attended an NSMC meeting on Wednesday, but its story does not add up.
It claimed last week’s meeting could not go ahead because an agenda had not been agreed, yet it was the DUP that had not agreed the agenda.
Then it claimed no unionist minister was available, although there are five such ministers from two parties.
Asked if any of this related to the five-point plan, senior DUP figures were carefully ambiguous.
Foster is legally required to nominate ministers to the NSMC – her predecessor, David Trimble, lost a court case on this 20 years ago.
A cynic might say the DUP is keeping itself right until someone calls their solicitor.
A pragmatist might suggest Ryan and Mallon should have gone ahead last Friday and dared Foster to call her solicitor. However, that would have left any meeting invalid. The flip-side of the Belfast Agreement’s need for inclusion is that the empty chair trumps all.
Although the DUP’s behaviour is desperate and farcical, it has the potential to do real harm. The NSMC is one of the Agreement’s three interlocking strands, alongside Stormont and the British-Irish institutions. Nationalists value it and the Irish government has placed it at the heart of its shared island policy.
Sinn Féin took several days to roundly condemn the DUP’s absence, perhaps partly due to uncharacteristic sheepishness
Most unionists have overcome long-standing hostility to the NSMC and consider it a harmless talking shop, which is why the DUP might see it as a safe target for some passive-aggressive posturing.
But at a time of fragility across all relationships, picking away at one strand could easily fray the others, at Stormont in particular. Unionist indifference to the NSMC might cause the DUP to misjudge how much damage it is doing – and to do far more than it intends.
Sinn Féin took several days to roundly condemn the DUP’s absence, perhaps partly due to uncharacteristic sheepishness. It boycotted Stormont for three years.
The New Decade, New Approach deal that restored devolution in 2020 addressed this empty chair problem with a major proposed change to Stormont’s rules.
Instead of collapsing one week after one of the two main parties walks out, the executive would continue operating without that party for six months. This would apply both during an Assembly term and after an Assembly election. It preserves mandatory coalition in theory while introducing a significant degree of optional coalition in practice.
Last month, the UK government said it was still working on the necessary legislation, which involves changing the law enacting the Belfast Agreement.
No comparable change is proposed for the NSMC, despite the Irish government being a co-signatory to New Decade, New Approach. If one strand is getting an important rewrite, it could be argued the others need a balancing adjustment. There may even be time left to make this case for legislation still in the works.
The DUP sought the six-month rule change – a demand it called “sustainability of the institutions” – to stop Sinn Féin bringing down Stormont again. Now it is the DUP’s attendance that is in doubt: will it walk out over the protocol, or serve under a republican first minister if the DUP is second-placed after next year’s Assembly election?
The surge in Alliance support during Stormont’s collapse showed the priority for Northern Ireland’s electorate is not Brexit or a Border poll but functioning devolved institutions, robust enough to survive empty chairs or a change of parties at the top.
Boycotting the NSMC only brings that issue forward. The DUP has invited the consequences, whether they arrive first through the statute book or the ballot box.