Will Northern Ireland's new power-sharing assembly survive?

By Henry McDonald

The agreement hinged on the issues of language and culture. Sinn Féin insists on an Irish language act that would put Irish on an equal par with English in Northern Ireland, not unlike the situation with Welsh in Wales. Unionists oppose this but the two governments appear to have hit upon a compromise whereby the rights of Irish speakers are balanced with rights for the Ulster Scots/loyalist tradition.

Language/cultural “"commissioners” have been proposed to oversee policies such as dual street signs and the right to speak and use Irish in public arenas such as the courts.

Can the power-sharing executive survive?

One potential bump in the road is what powers any new first and deputy first minister will have over the remit of the language/cultural commissioners. The Democratic Unionist party leader, Arlene Foster, might be able to limit their powers to implement certain policies. This could pose potential problems for Sinn Féin’s leadership, which until now has demanded a standalone Irish language act. Some Irish rights campaigners have pointed out the deal will not result in this happening. Moreover, any veto of the powers of language commissioners by a unionist first minister might end up in the courts.

For the DUP, the spectre of renewable heat incentive (RHI) looms. This is the green heating scheme scandal which the party and Foster championed and which wasted tens of millions of public cash. A highly critical report is expected soon and could be immensely damaging for Foster, who she may face fresh calls to resign. Sinn Féin has the power at any stage to pull out of the executive, as it did before in 2017.

Will the smaller parties join in any new ‘grand coalition’?

The cross-community Alliance party and the nationalist SDLP are likely to take up ministerial portfolios in any new power-sharing coalition in Belfast. The Ulster Unionist party has announced it will take up a ministry in the
reconvened Northern Ireland executive.

Is there likely to be a referendum or border poll on Irish unity in its lifetime?

This is unlikely as both London and Dublin have made it clear they believe a border poll would only destabilise Northern Ireland and further exacerbate sectarian division. Although Sinn Féin will push for a referendum, they may need to be careful what they wish for. The combined nationalist vote (Sinn Féin and the SDLP) was just under 40% in the most recent general election. The Alliance party, one of the big winners in the election, gathered up a lot of liberal unionist votes. These are unionists who do not like the DUP’s brand of old-time religious politics but who are still more likely to vote to remain within the UK. The two governments and all of the main parties, barring Sinn Féin, will remain focused on making Northern Ireland work.

What are the main practical challenges ahead for the power-sharing executive?

Health is the core problem that a new devolved minister will have to tackle. Northern Ireland has the worst NHS waiting lists in the UK and it is estimated the local service could need up to a £1bn to address the crisis. Mental health is also a major issue, with more people taking their own lives in just over 20 years since the 1998 Good Friday Agreement than were killed in the Troubles. Expect also major spending on the region’s disjointed and often outmoded infrastructure with a new road linking Dublin to Derry being built over the next few years. A medical school for Derry is also being proposed.

Why has there been fresh pressure on the parties to return to devolution?

People and power! First, power … or rather the lack of power, at Westminster. Given the Tories’ majority in the Commons, the DUP is no longer kingmaker and doesn’t have the same influence over Boris Johnson as it did over Theresa May, whose government they propped up. The only way to exercise any real political influence is to run devolved ministries in Northern Ireland.

As for the people, in the general election last month both the DUP and Sinn Féin lost thousands of votes. If one thing unites the electorate, regardless of it being unionist, nationalist or neither, it is universal disgust that during the three years without government, politicians elected to Stormont were still being paid a salary. There has been genuine grassroots anger over this and local politicians, green, orange or neither, knew it. Arlene Foster, Michelle O’Neill, of Sinn Féin, and the rest of them realised they had nowhere else to go.