Northern Ireland politics has been stuck in statis since last May’s Assembly elections, due to opposition from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to either electing an Assembly Speaker or returning to power-sharing in the Northern Ireland Executive, posing a major challenge for those seeking to bring about social and political change in the country. As it stands, it remains unclear whether Prime Minister Rishi Sunak’s new deal with Brussels on the Protocol – the ‘Windsor Framework’ – will pass strict tests set by the DUP in order for party to return to power and support a resumption of the Assembly.
What’s going on?
In the last elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly in May 2022, Sinn Féin overtook the DUP as the largest party in the Assembly for the first time in history, meaning Sinn Féin had the right to nominate the First Minister. As the largest unionist party, the DUP was required to provide the Deputy First Minister in order for power-sharing to continue, but has refused to do so in protest over the terms of the Northern Ireland Protocol, the deal Boris Johnson struck with the EU at the end of 2019 setting out Northern Ireland’s post-Brexit trade arrangements. The UK Northern Ireland Act 2022 had allowed the ministers of the previous Executive to keep governing in ‘caretaker roles’ up to October 28th 2022 while the parties negotiated a new Executive, but when this period ran out without any agreement, Northern Ireland simply ceased to have any ministers running its government departments.
The Northern Ireland Act would have then required the Northern Ireland Secretary in Westminster, Chris Heaton-Harris, to call snap Assembly elections. However, as the UK Government was still attempting to secure a compromise with the EU and DUP on the Protocol and the DUP suggested that no new election outcome would change its position, the Government instead amended the law to delay the need for elections and buy more time. When a further deadline passed in January, Heaton-Harris introduced another amendment kicking an election all the way into 2024.
Meanwhile, on February 14th the DUP blocked a sixth attempt by other parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to elect a Speaker. While the country has gone without a functioning Executive for long periods before (most recently from 2017 to 2020), the Assembly not even being able to sit or set up committees due to the lack of a Speaker represents an additional problem. Though there are 90 duly-elected MLAs, the Assembly has been in a forced recess for nearly nine months, posing a challenge for organisations wishing to influence policymaking.
Without ministers, who has been taking decisions in Northern Ireland?
In some cases, the UK has taken decisions where Stormont has been unable to. In January the Government announced Northern Ireland households would receive £600 of support with energy bills, for example. MPs also just agreed to tack a popular ‘Dáithí’s Law’ amendment to the Bill they needed to pass to delay the Northern Ireland elections. Backed by the British Heart Foundation NI and a variety of political parties, the ‘Dáithí’s Law’ campaign was named for a six-year old Belfast boy awaiting a heart transplant, Dáithí Mac Gabhann, and will now enable Northern Ireland to follow the other nations of the UK in implementing opt-out organ donation.
Further, some communications and even policy choices have been made by departmental civil servants in Northern Ireland, who were given slightly increased powers by the emergency law Westminster passed in late 2022. In a report on the current powers of civil servants, NI-based think-tank Pivotal PPF noted the NI Department of Education has moved forward with proposals for expansion and closure of particular schools, for example, while senior civil servants from the Department of Health have authorised campaigns and even given interviews about pressures on Emergency Departments, GPs and social care. Pivotal PPF’s researchers concluded “at least some of [these decisions] would have been taken by ministers had they been in post”. However, it also seems that many decisions are not being taken at all. The Belfast Telegraph recently published a list of 39 key matters requiring political direction that are being put off, such as the stabilisation of cancer services and agreement on a refugee integration strategy.
If nothing changes, what can charities do to influence policy in Northern Ireland?
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