British Politics

Palgrave Foundations Series, second edition

by Robert Leach, Bill Coxall and Lynton Robins

Update 4

The term ‘sensational’ is over-used by journalists and politicians, but for once it is not misplaced. The formation of a new power-sharing executive, headed by Ian Paisley of the DUP and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein on Tuesday May 8 th 2007, and the restoration of the long suspended Northern Ireland assembly, are developments that few would have dared to predict just months ago. It involves a remarkable coalition of former implacable opponents.

Events leading up to the agreement between the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein

Key developments in Northern Ireland following the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 were briefly described in Chapter 16 of British Politics (pp. 297-9). The first power sharing executive was headed by David Trimble of the Ulster Unionist Party and Seamus Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), then the two largest parties in the new devolved assembly, representing moderate unionism and constitutional nationalism respectively. Yet there remained considerable problems to resolve. Paisley’s DUP, already representing a large minority of the unionists, opposed the agreement from the start, and his party refused to participate in the executive, although members were nominated. Both the DUP and many in Trimble’s party doubted that Sinn Fein had renounced violence, although the new Executive included two Sinn Fein ministers, with Martin McGuinness, minister for education. Two key issues were the decommissioning of weapons by paramilitary organisations, particularly the IRA, perceived as the military wing of Sinn Fein and the reluctance of Sinn Fein to support the new Northern Ireland Police Force.

Lack of progress on these issues undermined Trimble’s position and he withdrew his party from the executive in 2002, so that devolved institutions were suspended for the fourth time. Elections in 2003 seemed to make the prospects for any further progress bleak. On the unionist side Paisley’s DUP overtook Trimble’s UUP, while Sinn Fein overtook the constitutional nationalists of the SDLP (see British Politics Table 16.2, p. 298). As so often in the past in Northern Ireland, moderates had been outflanked by extremists. Even so (and as reported in British Politics, page 297), ‘in December 2004 further talks sponsored by the British and Irish governments reportedly came close to a remarkable agreement between the DUP leader Ian Paisley and Sinn Fein’s Gerry Adams.’ It broke down on the issue of arms decommissioning, with Paisley demanding photographic evidence that the IRA had indeed put its weapons beyond use, which to Sinn Fein involved the appearance of surrender. Any further prospects for compromise were then destroyed by the raid on the Northern Bank in which the IRA were said to be implemented, and the murder of the Catholic Robert McCartney, apparently by known IRA members. The IRA’s subsequent formal declaration of an end to the armed campaign (July 28, 2005), hailed as a ‘historic breakthrough’ by the British and Irish governments, and the apparent decommissioning of the IRA’s entire arsenal of weapons, failed to make any immediate difference to the political deadlock.

Yet underneath all this there were developments favouring change. On was the effect of peace and increasing economic prosperity in the north. While there was plenty of political dissatisfaction, very few people wanted a return to violence. Moreover, politicians on both sides wanted a return to devolved power, particularly following some (perhaps deliberately) provocative decisions of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Peter Hain. But perhaps the biggest change was on attitudes to the Irish Republic, whose constitution had been altered to avoid offence to unionists, and where the Catholic Church had lost some of its former dominance. Moreover, its economy was now booming rather than backward, a model to be emulated rather than feared.

Election for the Northern Ireland Assembly, March 2007

This election was conducted like previous elections for the Northern Ireland assembly in 1998 and 2003 under the Single Transferable Vote system used in the province (and also used in the Irish Republic. Eighteen constituencies each elected six members. The results confirmed the trends established in the 2003 Northern Ireland assembly election and the UK General Election of 2005, with the DUP and SF making further gains at the expense of the more moderate Ulster Unionists and SDLP

Table: Results of the March 2007 Northern Ireland Elections (2003 figures in brackets

Party % first preference votes Number of seats

Democratic Unionist Party 30.1 (25.7) 36 (30)
Sinn Fein 26.2 (23.5) 28 (24)
Ulster Unionist Party 14.9 (22.7) 18 (27)
Social Democratic and Labour Party 15.2 (17.0) 16 (18)
Alliance Party of Northern Ireland 5.2 (3.7) 7 (6)
Other parties and candidates 8.4 (19.4) 3 (2)

The STV system led to a spread of party representation in several constituencies. Thus Newry and Amargh saw the election of three Sinn Fein members, and one each for the UUP, DUP and SDLP. North Antrim had three DUP members (including Paisley and his son) and one each for Sinn Fein, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. The four main parties picked up most of the first preference votes and seats, with nearly all smaller parties losing out. However, a conspicuous beneficiary of the STV system was the small non-sectarian Alliance Party that had a small percentage of first preference votes but secured the election of seven members, following the transfer of surplus votes for winning candidates and eliminated candidates. (For an explanation of the STV system see British Politics, page 74).

The emergence of the new power sharing executive

Following the election, the Blair government agreed to extend its own deadline for agreement on a new power-sharing executive once it was clear that a compromise would be reached, following a historic meeting between Paisley and Sin Fein leader Gerry Adams. The sight of them sitting together was first clear indication that a deal was being hammered out. The details took longer, but led eventually to the formation of the new power-sharing executive and the ceremonial opening of the new Northern Ireland Assembly on May 8, 2007. The proceedings were witnessed by Prime Minister, Tony Blair, the Irish taoiseach, Bertie Aherne, and numerous visitors from the United States and around the world.

The new Northern Ireland power-sharing executive

Ian Paisley (DUP) First minister

Martin McGuinness (Sinn Fein) Deputy First Minister

Peter Robinson (DUP) Finance and Personnel

Nigel Dodds (DUP) Enterprise, Trade and Investment

Arlene Foster (DUP) Environment

Edwin Poots (DUP) Culture, Arts and Leisure

Catriona Ruane (Sinn Fein) Education

Conor Murphy (Sinn Fein) Regional Development

Michelle Gildernew (Sinn Fein) Agriculture

Michael McGimpsey (UUP) Health and Social Services

Sir Reg Empey (UUP) Employment and Learning

Margaret Ritchie (SDLP) Social Development

Ian Paisley jr (DUP) and Gerry Kelly (Sinn Fein) are junior ministers in the office of first and deputy first ministers.


Some may conclude that such a coalition of old antagonists with diametrically opposed views on the longer term future of the province cannot possibly work. However, the initial mood on all sides has been very positive. Previous unionist leaders who compromised were outflanked by more extremist unionists, but Paisley, himself for long the epitome of hard line unionism and protestantism, faces no credible opposition within his own party or from other unionists. The Sinn Fein leadership seems fully committed to non-violence, and hope to make further electoral advances in the Irish Republic as well as Northern Ireland. The growth of co-operation between north and south, the increased prosperity of both, and demographic change may eventually assist a peaceful united Ireland, but in the meantime the unionist community is reassured that this will not happen without the consent of the majority. The Ulster Unionists and SDLP who tried to make the Good Friday agreement work earlier are entitled to feel chagrin that those who thwarted their efforts have eventually gained the reward. It is particularly hard for those who have lost relatives and friends in the troubles to see those they blame for the violence in government. Yet it was always the case that a lasting peace had to bring in the vast majority of the unionist and nationalist communities, including both the DUP and Sinn Fein. The leading figures on both sides appear committed to make this new devolved government work. Having agreed to put their sharply opposed ultimate objectives on the back burner, there are plenty of ordinary political issues on which they should be able to compromise. However, the perpetuation of segregated education and largely segregated housing seems unlikely to bring about closer integration of the two communities in Northern Ireland, to parallel and give support to the new co-operation of their leaders. While these two communities continue to live apart the prospects for real peace and reconciliation at grass roots level seem more questionable.