How Northern Ireland’s government went from mutual suspicion to collapse

No love lost: Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness. Brian Lawless/PA

As doctors say of a wasting disease, to start with it is easy to cure but difficult to diagnose; after a time, unless it has been diagnosed and treated at the outset, it becomes easy to diagnose but difficult to cure. So it is in politics.

This quote in some ways explains the collapse of the Northern Ireland government. But it comes not from the lips of the former deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, whose resignation has effectively forced a forthcoming election in March, but from Niccoló Machiavelli’s advice in The Prince, written in 1513. It gets to the heart of why the Northern Ireland Executive has collapsed barely eight months after the last election, which pitched Sinn Féin and the DUP into a two-party coalition government for the first time ever.

The relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin had been souring for several years before this debacle, but it wasn’t always so. The former DUP leader and first minister, Ian Paisley, formed the unlikeliest of relationships with McGuinness when the two governed together. They got on so well that they were affectionately known as the Chuckle Brothers. While working together, the two agreed to disagree about Northern Ireland’s final destination as part of the UK or a reunited Irish state.

Declining relations

A more humourless dynamic arrived when Peter Robinson succeeded Paisley in 2008. The relationship between the two parties began to unwind. This was partly because the DUP benefited electorally from a frosty public relationship with Sinn Féin. An assertive brand of unionism helped prevent votes from leaking to the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the DUP’s main unionist rival party.

Political space narrowed further when identity politics began to reassert itself over the disputed flags in December 2012. Unionists complained about Belfast City Council’s decision to only fly the Union flag on designated days (in line with the rest of Great Britain) rather than every day, as had been done before.

Agreements between the DUP and Sinn Féin began to disintegrate. The planned regeneration of the former Maze prison was, for example, abandoned: under pressure from unionist hardliners, the DUP decided the project risked turning the site into a “shrine to terrorism”.

From 2007 until the last assembly election in May 2016, the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Féin has been mediated by the fact that they were the two dominant partners in a five-party coalition. Smaller partners the UUP and SDLP declined to take their seats in government and instead went into formal opposition. This left the DUP and Sinn Féin joined cantankerously at the hip in government.

Referendum rancour

Then came Brexit. The result of the June referendum provided a structural basis for the DUP and Sinn Féin to rationalise their adversarial behaviour. A programme for government, hammered out at great pains just a month previously, was significantly derailed by the fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin adopted opposing positions on Brexit.

The subsequent months have calcified their positions – and this looks likely to become more entrenched after Article 50 is triggered in March 2017. Disagreement over leaving the EU, and a post-Brexit deal, have re-energised an aspect of the NI conflict that many had hoped had been anaesthetised by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.

In happier times with UK’s prime minister, Theresa May. EPA/Paul McErlane

Since then, the border between Ireland and Northern Ireland has become more of a porous membrane. Now the land border may need to be more formally demarcated and policed, since one side will remain in the EU and the other will be leaving.

Leaving aside the economic impacts, a hard Brexit threatens to emphasise the Britishness and Irishness of the two jurisdictions, shining a harsh unforgiving light on the “constitutional question”.

A rough campaign

Following the collapse of the government, an election has been scheduled for March 2. And the campaign looks set to be nasty. Rather than defending their records in government, the DUP and Sinn Féin will call each other out.

Sinn Féin will focus on First Minister Arlene Foster’s personal responsibility for the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal that cost taxpayers £490m. The party will also suggest that wider policy decisions, not least the withdrawal of public money for the Irish language classes in the run up to Christmas, demonstrated the anti-nationalist mentality of the DUP. More broadly, the DUP will be accused of arrogance and contempt for the supposed partnership with Sinn Féin.

For its part, the DUP will criticise Sinn Féin for prompting the collapse of the government in the first place by deciding not to replace McGuinness after his resignation. It will say Sinn Féin is putting everyone through a needless election as a result, disguising narrow party interests as political principle.

An election suits Sinn Féin more than the DUP. Foster’s personal credibility has been badly damaged by the funding scandal and the DUP may suffer some electoral losses to the UUP. Sinn Féin also looks set to take votes from the SDLP as a result of changes to the electoral system. In the assembly election on March 2, the number of seats will be reduced from 108 to 90, meaning that smaller parties such as the SDLP are likely to be squeezed further in a system that benefits the larger parties.

But whatever happens in the election, it is almost certain that the DUP and Sinn Féin will remain the two largest parties. After they finish negotiating following the election (which may take weeks, months or years) they will have to face each other once again in government. And all of the issues that have torn them apart will have become more difficult to resolve in the meantime.