Northern Ireland devolved government set for revival

15 Mar 07
It no longer seems so much 'if' as 'when'. Bizarre, amazing, doomed call it what you will, but the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness look set to become first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland.

16 March 2007

It no longer seems so much 'if' as 'when'. Bizarre, amazing, doomed – call it what you will, but the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness look set to become first and deputy first ministers of Northern Ireland.

Subtly and rather cleverly, the Democratic Unionist Party has shifted the 'it all depends upon' qualification from the behaviour of Sinn Fein to the response of the UK Government and, most particularly, Chancellor Gordon Brown. Yes, says the DUP, we will take on power-sharing, provided Northern Ireland is given enough money to sort out its problems.

In words that would have been unthinkable even a few weeks ago, leading DUP politician Gregory Campbell, MP and MLA (Member of the Legislative Assembly), tells Public Finance that entering the Northern Ireland Executive is achievable, if not by the March 26 deadline set by secretary of state Peter Hain. There were too many things to be sorted out by then, he says, 'including a finance package'.

With 36 of the 108 Assembly seats, and 30% of the vote, the DUP has cemented its position as Northern Ireland's leading party. The Ulster Unionist Party, which has dominated politics in the province since partition in 1921, is now on the verge of a political wipe-out, with a vote of just 15% and 18 seats. Sinn Fein has obtained 26% of the vote (28 seats), with the Social Democratic and Labour Party sidelined on 15% (16 seats).

Northern Ireland now has its 'big two' parties, with 'three others' – the cross-community Alliance Party raised its vote to 5% and is gaining on the UUP and SDLP.

It is not yet plain sailing for the re-establishment of devolved government. The DUP also requires a mechanism through which Sinn Fein can be evicted from the Executive if it reneges on its support for policing. Culture is another stumbling block for the DUP. It wants assurances that Orange Order parades will, mostly, be allowed and that Ulster-Scots language and heritage will be treated equally with Irish language and culture.

But the DUP's main demand is a financial settlement from the UK government. This is led, says Campbell, by a call for corporation tax in Northern Ireland to be cut to 10% – giving the North a competitive advantage over the Irish Republic, whose corporation tax rate is 12.5%.

A second major demand is a sufficiently large cash injection to enable water rates to be effectively removed. This was a controversial issue in the elections – to such an extent that many voters regarded it as more significant than the recall of the Stormont Assembly or the creation of cross-community government. Householders are due from this April to pay water rates – ranging from £150 to £770 – for the first time. Previously these were included in rates bills, which themselves have risen by as much as 20% this year.

'We want to take on the finance ministry to sort out the water rates,' explains Campbell. But he avoids clarifying whether this means abolition. 'We want to ensure that people don't pay twice for water,' he says.

Mitchel McLaughlin, Sinn Fein general secretary, tells Public Finance that he expects the Executive to be formed, but 'there might be some fudge around the deadline'. There is, he says, cross-party agreement over the need for extra finance from the UK government. But he predicts some dissonant noises within the DUP about power-sharing. 'There are people in the DUP who would prefer to eat grass than share power,' he says.

Northern Ireland operates a byzantine political system, designed to ensure cross-community representation. Assembly elections use a single transferable vote, taking two full days to count. The Executive is then formulated according to the d'Hondt system – invented by a Belgian lawyer of that name in the nineteenth century – with ministers selected in proportion to the number of Assembly members elected for each party.

As the largest party, the DUP gets first option and will go for finance minister. Sinn Fein gets second choice and will opt for justice and policing, scheduled for devolution in May 2008.

But the signs are, as Campbell confirms, that the DUP will seek to delay this. If this is not on the table, Sinn Fein is likely to choose education. After this, it becomes unpredictable. The DUP gets third choice – perhaps agriculture if Sinn Fein takes education – the UUP goes fourth (and might opt for health), the SDLP the fifth (and its only) choice, then it continues Sinn Fein, DUP, Sinn Fein, DUP, UUP. This assumes the Executive has, as before, ten ministers.

But the formation of an Executive is not the end of the problems. Education is a crisis waiting to happen. It was Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness who abolished the 11-plus selection for secondary schooling. Retaining selection remains a totem for both unionist parties. Just how would the parties cope with a Sinn Fein minister proposing no academic selection, but the first minister and Assembly opposing it?

Under the St Andrews agreement it seems that schools might be permitted to institute their own selection policies. Thus grammar schools could be retained and academic streaming achieved through primary schools' pupil profiles, provided the teaching unions do not refuse to co-operate, as threatened. But this might lead to the education department and some schools adopting one policy and the Assembly and other schools backing a conflicting practice.

Finally, there is public administration. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein believe there are too many government departments, so could back mergers of education with employment & learning, and the incorporation of environment and culture into others.

Local government reorganisation is also a vexed question. Sinn Fein is strongly committed to the seven 'super-councils' option, carving up the existing 26 district councils. This would effectively give the party control of three councils, with a half share in a fourth – Belfast. The DUP is equally set against this and argues for at least 11 councils. Both the SDLP and Ulster Unionists are sceptical about any moves towards council amalgamations.

Northern Ireland is not entering a period of harmony. The Executive is being characterised as a recipe for 'an argument a day'. But peace is, initially at least, the absence of war. And the conflicts now are just over ordinary politics.

Results of Northern Ireland Assembly elections, March 8 2007

Democratic Unionist Party 36 (+6)
Sinn Fein 28(+4)
Ulster Unionist Party 18 (–9)
Social Democratic and Labour Party 16 (–2)
Alliance Party 7 (+1)
Green Party 1 (+1)
Progressive Unionist Party 1 (no change)
UK Unionist Party0(–1)
Independent 1

The Northern Ireland Assembly has been suspended since October 2002 and direct rule from London continues


Did you enjoy this article?