Politics and Governance in the UK

by Michael Moran

Update 61, January 2018 - The Northern Ireland stalemate

Northern Ireland has been without a functioning Executive now for exactly one year. On 10 January 2017 the late Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister. Under the complex constitutional system introduced as part of the 1998 Belfast Agreement this meant that the Executive collapsed: the First Minister, Arlene Foster, was obliged to resign. Since then executive government has been in the hands of civil servants in Belfast, and in the hands of the UK Government’s Northern Ireland Secretary. (The details of the province’s complex constitution are described fully in chapter 8 of Politics and Governance in the UK, 3rd edition).

The occasion for the collapse of the Executive was what is now admitted on all sides to have been a major policy catastrophe: the Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme which was established in 2011. The Scheme was supposed to encourage environmentally friendly energy use. It was so badly designed that it allowed widespread (legal) exploitation at the taxpayers’ expense. The latest estimate is that the ‘cash for ash’ scheme, as it is colloquially known, will cost the taxpayer £490 million[1]. The connection to the collapse of the Executive is that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, was Enterprise Minister when it was introduced in 2011 and therefore, in the view of the Sinn Féin, should have resigned from her Office as the responsible minister.

But the catastrophic scheme was indeed only the occasion of collapse, not the major cause. The Northern Ireland Executive is a chronically dysfunctional body in a chronically dysfunctional political system which the Belfast Agreement, for all its merits, has failed to cure. Suspicion and rivalry between the participating parties in the Executive mean that separate ministries operate as autonomous baronies, without any of the sense of common responsibility which, albeit imperfectly, holds together the other devolved governments in Edinburgh and Cardiff, and the core executive in Westminster. This dysfunctional Executive is itself the product, and at the same time the producer, of a wider dysfunctional system. Almost twenty years after the Belfast Agreement, Northern Irish politics, and Northern Irish social life, are if anything more marked by sectarian division, even though that division does not take the murderous forms that marked the three decades after 1969.

The underlying difficulties in reconstructing the Executive – as I write, informal talks between Sinn Féin and its Democratic Unionist partners are due to start once again – have been further complicated by events since the original collapse in January 2017. The Province is divided about the key issue of Brexit: Sinn Féin and its supporters are opposed, the DUP supports the British Government’s policy of negotiating exit; there remains a numerical majority in the province opposed to Brexit, as it was opposed in the June 2016 referendum; and the result of the General Election of June 2017 has made the Conservatives in Westminster reliant on the support of DUP MPs at Westminster in key votes, especially over Brexit.

The resignation of the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, on health grounds in January 2018 makes the business of reconstructing the Executive marginally more complicated: his successor, Karen Bradley, has no experience of Northern Ireland and will certainly need some weeks to get a grasp of the issues.


  1. "RHI scandal: RHI 'cash for ash' scandal to cost NI taxpayers £490m" - at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-38414486 accessed 26/01/18