Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Assembly and Executive for nearly a year, and there does not seem to be any immediate prospect of a solution. It is an unfortunate situation, particularly on the twentieth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. A local administration is essential if Northern Ireland is able to confront the challenges posed by Brexit, resolve the crisis in the health service, and attract foreign direct investment through lowering corporation tax. But it appears that the DUP and Sinn Féin have put party politics ahead of the interests of Northern Ireland.
When the Assembly collapsed in January 2017, the main issue was the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) and Arlene Foster’s handling of it. Now RHI is rarely mentioned, and the focus of division between the two main parties has shifted to equality issues, such as an Irish Language Act and marriage equality. Sinn Féin has made it clear that they will not compromise on these issues, and the DUP has made their opposition on both matters equally clear.
The Irish Language Act is seen as the main priority for Sinn Féin, who are determined that an Act must be agreed to before the Assembly can return. This is unusual considering how such an Act did not appear to be a Sinn Féin priority during the ten years that they were in the Executive. I suspect that DUP actions concerning the language, such as the cutting of the Líofa bursary grant or Arlene Foster’s reference to “crocodiles,” played a role in hardening Sinn Féin attitudes, and helped to reverse a declining nationalist vote in both the March and June elections.
I support the principle of an Irish Language Act, because I believe in the protection and promotion of regional languages and culture. But Sinn Féin has failed to articulate exactly what they want in an Act. They are negotiating one behind closed doors instead of publishing their proposals or presenting a Bill to the Assembly. Also, they have proved to be unwilling to compromise, by rejecting any concept of a Languages Act that would encompass Irish, Ulster Scots and other minority languages. They will only accept a standalone Irish Language Act.
Marriage equality is the other major issue in this deadlock. The Assembly has debated equal marriage on five occasions, and in November 2015 a majority of MLAs backed it for the first time, but it was blocked by the DUP through the petition of concern. The DUP are unlikely to compromise on this issue, unlike the Irish Language Act, particularly as some of their MLAs have indicated they would leave the party in the event of any compromise.
It is disheartening that Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK and Ireland without equality for LGBT+ citizens. Sinn Féin are therefore justified in reiterating this fundamental issue, but it highlights their selective definition of ‘rights.’ They haven’t prioritised reforming our appalling abortion law, which carries a life sentence for women in need of medical support, even in cases of fatal foetal abnormalities or sexual crimes. Similarly, Sinn Féin are unwilling to consider our anachronistic education system, were children are segregated at four years old and schools can discriminate on the basis of religious belief when appointing teachers. It appears that their definition of ‘rights’ is politically expedient and avoids any particularly contentious issues.
Sinn Féin’s main argument in prioritising these aforementioned issues is that they are part of previous agreements not yet implemented. They are correct to an extent, an Irish Language Act was promised in the St. Andrew’s Agreement, while legacy inquests are covered in the Stormont House Agreement. Other issues like marriage equality have not been subject to such agreements. It is fair that they should call on the DUP to fulfil these commitments, particularly as the DUP’s arrogance and intransigence on these matters was the catalyst to this crisis. But there is a clear solution for supporters of an Irish Language Act and marriage equality without holding the political institutions hostage.
The solution to this stalemate is to reform the petition of concern, which would allow an Irish Language Act and marriage equality to be sensibly debated in the Assembly before being decided on a simple majority vote. The petition of concern is a particularly controversial aspect of the Northern Irish political settlement, and while it serves a vital purpose, it has been abused by all parties in order to defend MLAs from scrutiny or punishment, or to veto legislation which it was not intended for.
Reform of the petition of concern is a two-step process. Firstly, the limited circumstances where it can be used should be clearly outlined, and an impartial panel of experts should determine its suitability for a vote. This is how it works in Bosnia-Herzegovina, where the Constitutional Court decides if a veto by one community can be used. Secondly, it should trigger a two-thirds majority vote, not a cross-community one, as that only perpetuates sectarian divisions.
If these reforms were implemented, Sinn Féin’s red lines would no longer be necessary, as the majority of MLAs already support them. I suspect that some in the DUP would be pleased to see these issues resolved, despite their own opposition to them, because they would no longer face the same level of criticism for blocking process on those matters. But unfortunately such reform seems unlikely, as although the DUP and Sinn Féin have articulated a desire to reform or replace the petition of concern, their actions say otherwise, as they rejected an Alliance proposal for reform in May 2016.
The issues which are contributing to the current Stormont crisis are important and worth consideration. But they are easily resolvable. The political will to deal with outstanding matters existed in 1998, when our politicians solved more complex issues like sovereignty, civil and cultural rights and the decommissioning of weapons. These negotiations should not be difficult, the solution is already there but the political will is not. The onus should be on the DUP and Sinn Féin to set aside their differences and work for the good of Northern Ireland.
Jack Armstrong is an a 22-year-old Alliance Party activist and a postgraduate law student at Trinity College Dublin. He previously studied at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include NI politics, constitutional law and human rights. He has also written several articles for Progressive Politics NI.