Dr Eamonn O’Kane is Reader in Conflict Studies at the University of Wolverhampton.
The old gag about something being ‘déjà vu, all over again’, seems particularly apt in relation to the current problems in Northern Ireland. The devolved power-sharing government teeters on the verge of collapse. The peace process is, of course, no stranger to crises. Although the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was concluded in April 1998, the devolved institutions were not created until December 1999 and were suspended by the British government four times between 1999 and 2002 to avoid their collapse. It would take a further five years to reconstruct the institutions. However, since 2007 Northern Ireland has enjoyed its longest run of unbroken devolved government since 1972; so why the current crisis? The background to the latest hiatus was the claim by the police in Northern Ireland last month that members of the Provisional IRA were believed to be involved in a recent killing of the former IRA man, Kevin McGuigan Snr. As a result, the smaller of the two Unionist parties in Northern Ireland, the UUP, withdrew from the Executive. The subsequent arrest of three senior republicans, including Sinn Féin’s Northern Chairman, Bobby Storey, (all of whom were subsequently released without charge), led the largest Unionist Party the DUP, to withdraw its support from the Executive and the three DUP ministers resigned . However, the First Minister, the DUP’s Peter Robinson did not officially ‘resign’ (which would have meant the collapse of the Executive and fresh elections), but temporarily stepped aside and nominated his colleague, Arlene Foster, as acting First Minister, thus buying the institutions a maximum of six weeks
Although the accusation that the IRA, which had announced the end of its campaign and apparently completed the decommissioning of its weaponry in 2005, might still exist and be involved in violence was the immediate catalyst for the current crisis, this is far from the only problem that Northern Ireland’s political system faces. Trust and rapprochement are in short supply in Northern Ireland. The talks that the British government have just initiated are the third series of ‘crisis talks’ in the past two years and on each occasion the subsequent talks have had to deal with more rather than fewer problems. The 2013 Haass-O’Sullivan talks sought to resolve issues related to how to deal with the past, the displaying of flags and parades, but did not reach agreement. The 2014 Stormont House Agreement (SHA) sought to deal with the issues that the 2013 Haass-O’Sullivan talks could not resolve plus budget considerations and welfare reform. The current talks, according to the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, will consider ‘the continued presence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the pressing need to implement the Stormont House Agreement’ (House of Commons, 15/9/2015). The problems of setting a budget, and particularly welfare reform, were so pronounced that there was widespread speculation of imminent collapse of devolved government, even before the allegations of IRA activity surfaced. The growing calls for the creation of a revamped body to monitor potential paramilitary activity (along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission, which was wound up in 2011) may offer some hope of progress, as might the fact that none of the parties in Northern Ireland want to be the one that gets the blame for destroying the hard-won spoils of the peace process. But given the lack of trust between the parties and the inter, and intra-communal electoral considerations that are in-play, it will be difficult to resolve the current impasse. The British government is currently refusing to suspend the institutions and call fresh elections and will hope that a compromise can be reached, but if the talks fail and the institutions collapse, it is far from clear when and how they will be able to be rebuilt.
Northern Ireland’s troubles? They haven’t gone away you know.