New Decade, New Approach: New DNA?

Are there hopeful signs of change in the agreement that got Stormont up and running again? Maurice combs over some of the highlights.

New life up on the Hill?

The new decade has got underway with some huge international developments – the impeachment of President Trump, a dangerous collision between the US and Iran, and, at the end of this week, the UK’s withdrawal from the EU. Here in Northern Ireland, though, we too have our own developments to boast: our political institutions are at last up and running again at Stormont. But has the ‘New Decade, New Approach’, the document that sealed the deal, really injected New DNA into our body politic?

At first glance, not particularly, since it restores the institutions, and indeed largely the same MLAs, we had three years ago when it all came tumbling down. And as the document explicitly commits participants to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement (GFA) that created the institutions in the first place, arguably we are going back even further.

But look a little closer and it becomes clear we are not merely returning to the status quo ante. Firstly, the context has changed. When the GFA was formulated, and right through until the elections of 2017, unionists of various stripes collectively took more than half the votes and seats. They could plausibly claim to represent ‘the majority community’ (though had I time and space I would critique that kind of use of the term community). Since 2017, that is no longer the case. Unionist parties command less than half the vote; so in effect we now have three minorities in terms of the designation in Stormont – unionist, nationalist, and other.

This is significant because the GFA was set up to share power out between the majority, unionists, and the minority, nationalists – ‘others’, significantly, literally did not count, when it came to votes requiring so-called ‘cross-community support’.  

But the GFA also ensured there would be no constitutional change unless a majority supported it. So, if nationalists, as before, are a minority, and now unionists are also a minority, then both groupings are going to need the ‘others’ to side with them if they are to get their way on the constitutional question. And you don’t do that by hectoring and bullying – heaven knows, both main traditional sides have tried.

The strength of the hand of the others may even be all the greater because of revisions in the Petition of Concern mechanism, recently used by the DUP, for instance, to block equal marriage even after a (narrow) majority had voted for it.

It should be harder (though not impossible) for parties to use this mechanism, originally intended to protect minorities not deny them equality, for such purposes. But of course, we didn’t need to await the reform of the POC mechanism to get equal marriage – that ship, happily, has now sailed, presumably off on a long-delayed and well deserved honeymoon.

Which brings us back to changing contexts. Three years have passed since the Executive and Assembly collapsed on the back of the just-emerging RHI scandal.

Since then, we have had the enquiry, innumerable news reports, and the publication of a best-seller exposing the failings and corruption that led to it. The DUP have returned to power, and are still the biggest party in the unionist camp, but it is clear they have been badly damaged by that scandal.

If RHI brought the institutions down, though, it was another issue – the Irish language – that kept them from resurfacing. Sinn Féin said they would return to power sharing if the language were protected in legislation; the DUP said they would not return if such an act were to be the price.

To circumvent the impasse, the New DNA agreement came up with a compromise of sorts: rather than full blown legislation, there would be one Commissioner for the Irish language, and one for Ulster Scots. Some voices, not unexpectedly, have been raised in complaint about this, but it seems to have proved sufficient to get both sides across the line.

Thus, we find ourselves with a devolved regional government again. There are at least two more pieces of context that have dramatically changed since the previous instalment, though, which may prove decisive in terms of the direction of politics in Northern Ireland.

The first can be summed up in one wearily over-familiar word: Brexit. How will power sharing work when such unwilling collaborators suddenly have to contend not only with a renewed focus on the border on the island, but also, apparently, some sort of border down the Irish Sea?  The details are anybody’s guess, but it would not take a particularly gifted soothsayer to predict turbulence ahead – especially if, as expected, increasing numbers of Scots begin agitating for an independence referendum in the near future.

Secondly, less obviously, but ultimately of profound significance, there is an inescapable broader context: we are all, of whatever political stripe, faced with the unfolding, intertwined crises of deepening inequality and unsustainability.

Here the New DNA document may in fact have brought something really new to the table, at least for Northern Irish politics. For example, from the start and throughout the document, there is some remarkably progressive language on social and fiscal issues – a shared commitment to “improving lives across Northern Ireland” involving extra funding for public services and infrastructure; a commitment to removing the historical debt of the Housing Executive and building social housing; extending welfare mitigations; a commitment to developing and implementing an Anti-poverty strategy. There is a section, would you believe, on Workers’ Rights.

It is almost as though reanimating the NI institutions has become possible only on the basis of an outright rejection of the politics of austerity – perhaps even on the basis of the adoption of a left-of-centre policies.

One welcome development is that a commitment to environmental measures is built into the agreement. One of the ‘priorities of the restored executive’ is to “tackle climate change head on with a strategy to address the immediate and longer term impacts of climate change. The Executive will introduce legislation and targets for reducing carbon emissions in line with the Paris Climate Change Accord”.

Indeed, the New DNA includes a proposal for a “new Energy Strategy [that] will set ambitious targets and actions for a fair and just transition to a zero carbon society”, as well as mentioning a Climate Act and a Green New Deal. The ‘just transition’, along with the Climate Act and the Green New Deal, are goals that activists and campaigners have long been calling for here; so to see them built into the New DNA as an aim of the NI Executive, even as aspirations, is quite something. It’s not that long, after all, since we had an Environment Minister who thought climate change was “not the disaster which the green lefties are getting hysterical about.”

Of course, politicians are not known for the frequency with which their deeds are found to match their words. So there remains much to be done. Nevertheless, the New DNA injected into our regional politics gives us a standard to which we can hold our elected representatives.

From now and for the remainder of this electoral cycle, we as an electorate must remind them that they have made a commitment to tackling poverty, inequality and the climate crisis – and we expect them to act on it.

Maurice Macartney

28 January 2019