Why was Devolution in Northern Ireland so hard to achieve and is it in crisis?


With a parliamentary majority of 1979, Tony Blair was able to push through a radical constitutional reform agenda – which included devolution

Within two years of become Prime Minister in May 1997, Tony Blair had achieved his aims of devolving power across the United Kingdom:

The Scotland Act, 1998 – This created a Scottish Government and Scottish Parliament. The Scottish Parliament (often referred to as Holyrood) is elected using the Additional Member System. The Government is led by the First Minister.

The Government of Wales Act, 1998 – This created a Welsh Assembly and Welsh Executive (it is now called the Welsh Government). The Welsh Assembly is elected using the Additional Member System. The Government is led by the First Minister.

The Northern Ireland Act, 1998 – This created a Northern Irish Assembly and Northern Irish Executive. The Northern Irish Assembly (often referred to as Stormont) is elected using the Single Transferable Vote system. The Northern Irish Executive is co-led by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in a unique ‘power-sharing’ arrangement.

Greater London Authority Act, 1999 – This created a Greater London Assembly and a directly elected London Mayor for Greater London. The Assembly is elected using the Additional Member System.

Of these Devolution Settlements, the greatest success for Blair was undoubtedly the achievement of the Northern Ireland Act. To understand why, it is important to consider some of the history of Northern Ireland and the unique mechanisms that were put in place to make the settlement workable.

Northern Ireland’s political landscape has been deeply divided by sectarianism for well over a century. In 1921, the Republic of Ireland became and independent nation. Ulster, the most northerly province, remained part of the United Kingdom, whilst retaining its own political identity through the granting of Home Rule.

However, nationalist communities in Northern Ireland opposed partition, believing that Northern Ireland should be part of the Republic of Ireland. The divide was worsened by the clear religious divide. Catholic Communities in Northern Ireland overwhelmingly wished to see s United Ireland, while Protestant communities wanted to see Northern Ireland retain its constitutional status within the United Kingdom.

Paramilitary groups emerged on both sides and used armed force to attempt to further their political aims. Although such groups were manifold, the two leading groups were the IRA (Irish Republican Army), who supported a nationalist cause and the UVF (Ulster Volunteer Force) who supported unionism.


Paramilitary groups emerged on both sides of the sectarian divide

During the late 1960s a period known as The Troubles began. Violence on both sides intensified and the British Army were deployed to Northern Ireland to try to keep the peace. However, arguably the presence of the army exacerbated the tensions. In January 1972 14 unarmed civilians were killed in the city of Derry in an event dubbed ‘Bloody Sunday’. By 1973 the situation has become so dire that the British Government suspended Home Rule and implemented Direct Rule. Throughout the period known as the Troubles it is estimated that around 3,500 people died, many of them being civilians killed whilst caught in crossfire or in planned bombings. It was not clear that there was any political solution that would solve the situation in Northern Ireland.

Despite this, both the British Government and the Government of Ireland sought a peaceful resolution to the crisis.

In 1985 the British and Irish Governments signed the Anglo-Irish Agreement. This agreement accepted that both Britain and Ireland had a vestige interest in the affairs of Northern Ireland and that they would work together to find a solution. However, the agreement resulted in a upsurge of violence and it did not look like a long-term solution was on the horizon.


The Government of Margaret Thatcher made the Anglo-Irish Agreement with the Irish Government

However, in 1994, British Prime Minister John Major and the Irish President signed the Downing Street Agreement. This declaration stated that both states were in an agreement that the people of Ireland were entitled to their own self-determination, and if the people of Northern Ireland wished it so, then Ireland would become a united nation. This was followed in August 1994 by the announcement of a ceasefire by the Provisional IRA and was followed by a similar announcements by unionist paramilitary groups.

When Tony Blair became Prime Minister he was keen to further this progress by reaching a long-lasting settlement of the Northern Irish issue. To do this, he brokered talks between Republican and Unionist leaders that resulted in the Good Friday Agreement in April 1998. The agreement stated, among many other things, that:

  • Paramilitary Units would remain disarmed
  • The Irish Republic would give up any claim to Northern Ireland
  • Northern Ireland’s future would always be decided by the people of Northern Ireland
  • New political institutions would be set up in Northern Ireland
Ulster PM Blair/Ahern sign

Tony Blair and Irish President, Bertie Ahern, signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998

It was finally put into place after referendums in Ireland and Northern Ireland which ratified its terms.

As part of the agreement the Northern Irish Assembly and Northern Irish Executive were established. The Executive is composed by a unique power-sharing method. The party strength within the Executive is based on the votes they receive in the elections and is allocated by the d’Hondt method, the same method that is used in the European Elections.

This system guarantees that both the Unionist and Republican communities are represented in Northern Ireland. It is what is known as consociationalist Government and guarantees perpetual coalition. At the top of the executive, power is jointly held by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, who are chosen each side of the unionist-republican divide. The strength of this system is that it cannot function unless the two largest parties agree to the terms of its government. However, this is also a major potential weakness, as recent events have shown.

In January 2017 the devolved system in Northern Ireland was thrown into chaos. The First Minister and leader of the DUP, Arlene Forster, faced criticism over a Renewable Heat Incentive Scheme which actually inadvertantly paid volounteers to use more energy. It has emerged that Civil Servants urged the scheme to be abandonded, but it was kept open. On the 9th January the Deputy First Minister from Sinn Fein, Martin McGuinness, resigned. As no nomination for a replacement was made within 7 days an automatic election was called.


The DUP’s Arlene Foster and Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinnsess were the last First Minister and Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland

The election was held on the 2nd March 2017 and resulted in the DUP’s seat share falling, with Sinn Fein moving to within one seat of the DUP. Despite negotiations, an agreement to return to a power-sharing arrangement has not emerged. The situation is further complicated by the fact that the DUP are propping up the Conservative Government in Westminster through a ‘confidence and supply motion’, perhaps allowing the appearance that the Westminster Government is not an impartial facilitator.

Ultimately, Northern Ireland has been without a devolved government for over a year. This has meant that Westminster has had to take control. For example, Northern Ireland’s latest Budget was agreed in Westminster, not Stormont. As part of an agreement in 2006 called the St Andrew’s Agreement Direct Rule (Westminster managing Northern Ireland) can not return? However, if Northern Ireland’s budget is being managed in Westminster is this not Direct Rule in all but name? Devolution in Northern Ireland is in crisis – and, arguably, Brexit is masking the growing importance of getting an adequate constitutional solution to the stalemate.

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