‘Cautious optimism’: Northern Ireland’s government restored after 3-year deadlock

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Northern Ireland’s government reopened for the first time in three years on Saturday after rival parties rallied around a new power-sharing deal aimed at helping the province face the challenges of Brexit.

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The new deal, entitled “New Decade New Approach”, was published by the Irish Deputy Prime Minister Simon Coveney and by the Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith on January 9.

On Saturday January 10, politicians gathered in the parliamentary buildings in Stormont, Belfast, to choose a new Executive.

Arlene Foster, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), was appointed as first minister and Republican Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill will serve as her deputy.

“There is a sense of cautious optimism in Northern Ireland today,” says Siobhan Fenton, journalist and author of “The Good Friday Agreement”, speaking with FRANCE 24. “The complex history here means that people are a wee bit wary of any signs of progress, but people are very glad the government is coming back together.”

Sinn Fein leader O’Neill spoke in Stormont on Saturday afternoon as she was appointed deputy. “This is a defining moment for politics in the North. This is our opportunity to advance a new and equal society. It is our opportunity to deliver for health, education and public services.”

On Monday, there will be a formal meeting to present the new Executive to the British Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Republic of Ireland counterpart Leo Varadkar. This is the devolved government of Northern Ireland, an administrative branch of the Northern Ireland Assembly, established after the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

Dissolution of government

Three years ago almost to the day, the Northern Ireland government dissolved following disagreements about divisions of power between the DUP and Sinn Fein. In February 2018, the government came close to reconvening, but it fell apart as the parties were unable to agree on the terms and it included an Irish language concession that enraged grassroot unionists.

Now, following the recent British elections that saw the DUP lose their position of power in Westminster and Sinn Fein’s struggles in the Republic, both parties need to secure a power base and the only real one available to them right now is Northern Ireland.

“The mistake Arlene Foster made last time, when she nearly got a deal across (in 2018), was that she didn’t take possession of it,” says Alex Kane, political commentator and former communications director for the Ulster Unionist party, speaking with FRANCE 24. “She allowed ‘the mice to get at it’, as we say in Northern Ireland.”

“This time, she took control immediately. Within five minutes of Simon Coveney and Julian Smith finishing their press conference on Thursday night, Foster issued a personal statement saying that she thought there was enough in this new deal to get the assembly up and running again. All the people that were rumoured to potentially have difficulty with it — people like Ian Paisley Junior, Sammy Wilson, Gregory Campbell – not one of them even hinted that they had a problem with the deal.”

“Foster faced down the Orange Order, she faced down Loyalists, she faced down internal party critics. She faced them all down and said ‘we are going ahead with this’.”

Orange Order against original deal

In 2018, the conservative loyalist organisation of the Orange Order came out very strongly and very publicly against the deal.

“They wanted the whole deal binned, they weren’t happy with any of it,” says Kane. “But, on this occasion, even though they issued a statement saying they had major difficulties with the Irish language section, they also mentioned that there was good progress on health, education and the economy. Crucially, they stopped short of rejecting the deal.”

“This is not about the constitution, this is about a cancer patient getting the necessary treatment. There is an opportunity now that hasn’t existed for years to do things that will make a difference to the daily lives of just about everyone in Northern Ireland. So many educational and health infrastructures have been stuck in limbo, unable to pull down necessary financings, and now hopefully they will be able to make progress.”

Fenton agrees that the biggest immediate change will be felt in the healthcare system.

“We have much higher rates of both physical and mental problems here than in the rest of the UK, partially because of the legacy of The Troubles,” explains Fenton. “Over the past three years, the waiting lists have spiraled even further out of control. As part of this new deal, the British government has committed to giving a large sum of money to healthcare.”

‘Significant voice at the Brexit table’

Another expected change is in legislation against stalking. Northern Ireland is currently the only UK country where stalking is not deemed a criminal offence. This looks set to change as legislation that was in progress before the government collapsed can now finally be enacted.

Suicide prevention will also receive much necessary attention from the new government. “People here are two times more likely to die from suicide than people living in England,” says Fenton. “This is partially due to high rates of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder connected with the conflict. The last government had, in 2016, decided to put together a key suicide prevention strategy. But this strategy was never implemented because of the government disbanding. It looks like this will happen now, which is a huge change.”

One contentious element of the deal is that there will now be provisions for ex-armed British security forces. This could be considered a significant win for the DUP, but it will be far from straightforward.

“These cases will now have to go through Westminster and will be open to many challenges from legal groups and human rights organisations,” says Kane. “There are even former soldiers and police who are against this idea. They believe that if it is right that the IRA and Loyalist paramilitaries are held to account for their actions equally soldiers should be held accountable.”

This new government will have a pivotal role to play in Brexit negotiations. For all their differences between parties, there is a general consensus that Boris Johnson’s idea of a border on the Irish Sea will not work.

“If they can work out something that protects their collective common interests, then they will be a significant voice at the Brexit negotiating table,” says Kane. “There is a moment of cooperation here now that hasn’t existed for the past three years and that gives cause for some hope in Northern Ireland today. I’m not saying the optimism will last or that the Assembly will even last, but this new confidence is something real that Northern Ireland is waking up with today.”

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