A New Start (again)

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By Professor Joanne Murphy, Department of Management, Birmingham Business School 

So, Rishi Sunak and Leo Varadkar met in Belfast this week to herald another new start to the devolved Northern Ireland institutions. Good news, of course. Anything that brings closure to post Brexit volatility must be positive. Both governments, as guarantors of the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement of April 10th, 1998, have a responsibility to act together to protect the hard-won peace. The institutions which were re-established last weekend are an integral part of the outworking of that Agreement, but their trajectory has been rather less applauded. Suspended for almost as much time as they have been in operation, they reflect not the hope of change but the awful prosaic reality of governing in an environment which is not, as many blithely point out, ‘post conflict’. Rather Northern Ireland is largely ‘post violence’ but living in a very real way with the reality of its past conflict experience. It is also, as Brexit illustrated, intensely vulnerable to any shocks to the wider political system. Even in the few days since Stormont was reconvened, we have seen consternation and disagreement over the Sinn Féin Leader Mary Lou McDonald’s comments that a ‘United Ireland is within touching distance’.

The Assembly itself has been fully operational for only 16 out of its 25 years. It has been suspended through arguments over decommissioning of paramilitary weapons (2001), allegations of republican spying operations (2002), concerns over renewed IRA activity (2015), the ‘cash for ash’ scandal (2017), concerns over Irish language legislation (2021) and most recently, over the imposition of what the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) regard as a ‘Border’ in the Irish sea through the Northern Ireland Protocol. In February 2022, the then DUP First Minister Paul Given resigned over his party’s dissatisfaction with the UK government’s handling of the Brexit negotiations, and the effective creation of what unionists saw as an Irish sea border. The Windsor Agreement and recent talks have seen the DUP agree to re-enter government but with a Sinn Fein first Minister – a stinging reality for a Party which sees it abiding objective the continuation of the union with Britain. No doubt a promise of £3 billion in funding sweetened the deal. While this seems like a lot of money for a small place, it may not go as far as you’d think.  

Hospital waiting lists in NI are over twice as long as the Republic of Ireland and England and Wales, with over a quarter of NI’s population on a list. Lough Neagh, NI’s largest source of drinking water is contaminated by poisonous algae, endangering people, pets and wildlife with no political will or impetus to untangle the complex issues of accountability. Policing has been through a wave of controversies resulting in the resignation of the Chief Constable and calls for a review into the operation of both the Policing Board and the Office of the Police Ombudsman. Other roles including that of the acting Deputy Chief Constable and a number of Assistant Chief Constables are currently ‘interim’ and could not be made substantive without a Justice Minister. The PSNI faces a potentially impossible financial situation with a funding gap of £141m and additional legal cases which will widen this further. Education faces a budget cut of £66.4m (2.5%) in the face of an existing deficit of £300m resulting in the likely reduction of benefits such as the school holiday food grant, staff, building repair, the purchase of books and uniform subsidies. 

Outside the funding crisis, violence still lurks. The last Independent Reporting Commission on progress towards ending paramilitary activity published its yearly report in December 2022 and concluded that the year had been ‘mixed’ in respect of efforts to bring paramilitarism to an end. The terrorism threat level in Northern Ireland sits as ‘severe’, meaning the risk of attack or attacks is “highly likely”.

Recent public sector strikes brought into sharp relief the human impact of these past failures of policy, politics and leadership. The DUP have now taken what has clearly been a difficult, painful and risky decision. Sinn Fein, despite McDonald’s initial comments have pointed out their desire to work with all –‘Catholic, Protestant and dissenter’. The task facing them is huge – to look beyond party and community self-interest and to the wider good of making Northern Ireland work within the intricate set of relationships and agreements that connect these islands. To look North South and East West while building for the future. While the past decades illustrate only too well the challenges facing Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement of 25 years ago encourages us to remember the importance of hope. As Senator George Mitchell, the Chairman of those talks reflected ‘‘We had 700 bad days – and then one good day, which changed the course of history.’’ Hopefully, the events of the weekend, will constitute more good days.

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham.

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