New Decade, New Approach. A 62 page deal hammered out by the parties, Julian Smith, Secretary of State, and Simon Coveney, Tánaiste. By Friday night, we knew the deal was done with Sinn Féin signing up to the agreement. But what happened to get to this stage? At the beginning of 2019, a deal seemed extremely far away. What has changed?
First of all, Northern Ireland has changed electorally over the past months. Back in May and June 2019, at the council and European elections, the main headline was the ‘Alliance surge’: 21 extra council seats and Naomi Long as an MEP in Brussels. This trend continued on an even wider scale last month at the snap general election. Looking at vote share, the main two parties lost ground whilst the other gained votes:
Sinn Féin -6.7%
This was a worry for the two main parties. The re-elected Conservatives, during their election campaign, had promised that if a deal was not done by January 13th, Northern Ireland would have to go to the polls yet again in fresh Assembly elections. The two main power-brokers in Stormont, the DUP and Sinn Féin, would most likely not see their current 55 MLAs returned in full at another poll. This made it far more advantageous for a deal to be done under the 2017 electoral map than a 2020 poll which could have been catastrophic for the DUP and Sinn Féin.
This was not the only factor stemming from the election. It also provided the Conservatives with a thumping 80 seat majority. To the DUP’s disappointment, it removed the need for another confidence and supply deal. Many had criticised the progress of the talks process in recent years with justified criticism that Secretary of State, Karen Bradley, was in no way a neutral arbiter to chair the talks. When the Conservatives relied so heavily on the DUP for votes, especially in Brexit legislation, many suspected the DUP were able to unfairly pull the strings.
The election also lessened DUP influence. Since 2017, their 10 MPs were hugely powerful in Westminster. Without them, Theresa May’s Brexit backstop policy would have sailed through the Commons. However, the Christmas election changed all of that. A newly diminished block of 8 DUP MPs are now just like any other backbench group, vying for power when there is little power to gain. Now, more than ever, the DUP are longing for influence. Boris Johnson’s deal was to them the “worst of both worlds”. The election did not provide any route to change this. The DUP still wanted their voice heard and a restored Stormont provided a place for that.
Another factor. Since July, Northern Ireland has had yet another Secretary of State, Julian Smith. As ever, many were initially sceptical. Another Conservative MP drafted into the brief, most likely with little care or knowledge of the complex Northern Irish political situation. Many feared he would simply be another Karen Bradley, the previous Secretary of State, whose numerous blunders made her unpopular and not the most likely broker of a deal. To everyone’s surprise, Julian Smith offered a refreshing change. He seemed far more in touch with the nuances of the local politics, a figure popular with unionism and nationalism. This no doubt helped the talks reach their final stages, with the help of the considered approach of Tánaiste, Simon Coveney.
Policy was also an issue. The biggest of which concerned the health service. Sky-rocketing waiting lists combined with nurses arguing for pay parity. Their strikes in December across Northern Ireland seemed to unite the parties – all of whom said they would give nurses a pay rise. Cleverly, however, Julian Smith, used this as a crucial lever in the talks process saying that health was a devolved issue and that the issue could only be settled by a new Assembly. If a deal was not done by 13th January, the hopes of pay parity would be pushed away for a considerable time – something no party wanted to be seen to do.
The other main issue was that of equal marriage and abortion. A Private Member’s Bill in Westminster allowed for the liberalisation of these social policies. Both of these issues had been huge sticking points in previous Stormont talks. Sinn Féin had a red line of not returning to the Assembly unless the DUP would support equal marriage. The changes to these policies conveniently took the issues out of the hands of the local parties. Without this sticking point, negotiations, whilst still difficult, became that bit easier.
The last issue was the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme – RHI. The issue that landed the fatal blow back in January 2017 when Martin McGuiness resigned as deputy First Minister. Whilst the inquiry chair Sir Patrick Coghlan has yet to report on the scandal, the issue has died down. Long forgotten are the testy exchanges at the inquiry. Also forgotten, the Sinn Féin red line that Arlene Foster is no longer DUP leader. However, it is not just the absence of RHI that has caused this red line to be dropped – there is a suspicion that Foster actually does more favours to nationalism than she does unionism. Whilst she leads the DUP, nationalism can caricature unionism as a body centred around Foster, not exactly a leader with huge popularity.
Away from leadership, electoral politics and policy issues, there is another factor. The fatal shooting of Lyra McKee. The circumstances brought political leaders together from across the spectrum, standing with each other in Creggan on Good Friday. At her funeral, a poignant question from Father Martin Magill seemed to unite everyone:
“Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29 year old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”
As Simon Coveney referenced when announcing the agreement, Lyra’s “awful murder” brought the parties together in May last year. This deal was as a result of discussions ever since.
Whilst it would be impudent to purely attribute the success of the agreement to this one defining moment in 2019, it acted a tragic catalyst. It brought together the politicians from across the spectrum, all decrying the attack and urging that Northern Ireland never returns to a place of violence.
This deal, it is hoped, will achieve this. It may not be perfect. It may end up as a temporary sticking plaster. However, it is significant that there is deal. This alignment of factors have brought the parties together. Only time will tell whether this fragile agreement will keep them together.
Peter Moor is a 22 year-student doing a Masters in Journalism at Ulster University. Hailing from Yorkshire originally, Peter has an interest in both British and Northern Irish politics. Peter graduated from Queen's University in 2019 from his degree in English.