January 2017 was the last time Northern Ireland had an executive branch. That is over two and a half years since any decisions regarding the day to day running of the country have been passed by the devolved government. The crisis, whilst rooted in the Renewable Heat Incentive Scandal, has rumbled on due to disagreement over issues such as gay marriage, the Irish language and the ongoing investigations into murders during the Troubles. The lack of resolution has left the task of running Northern Ireland to the civil service. However, without an executive, new policies cannot be passed and hundreds of thousands of pounds cannot be put into public services.
As we near the three-year mark of the shutdown it begs the question of how much Westminster is doing to resolve it.
Westminster has been holding continual talks with both sides to try and work towards an agreement. However, the large obstacle to achieving this is that there is little the Conservative government can do to foster compromise whilst they are being propped up by the DUP. Arlene Foster has disproportionate influence over the approach to Northern Ireland as the Tories continue to facilitate her party’s needs in return for its backing in Parliament.
As Brexit dominates all aspects of political debate, we are repeatedly told that the backstop proposed by Theresa May could not possibly be enacted as it would violate the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Some might say hardline Brexiteers are willing to disregard Northern Ireland and are using the Union as a bargaining chip to pursue an extreme Brexit. What is for sure though, is that the non-existence of a power-sharing government, a key component of the GFA, seems not to earn the same priority status on the political agenda that the backstop does.
The DUP are very vocal about how detrimental the backstop would be, yet Sinn Fein’s abstention from Westminster and Stormont’s suspension allow it to be the loudest Northern Irish voice in the debate, regardless of whether it is representative of the people of Northern Ireland or not.
There is a clear lack of interest in the Stormont Crisis from the rest of the UK. It arguably does not command the same attention as it would if it occurred in the other nations of the Union; this seems a recurring theme in Britain’s outlook on Northern Ireland.
In May this year, Game of Thrones actress Sophie Turner stated she would refuse to work in Alabama due to its outrageous change in abortion laws; it was then pointed out to her that much of the record-breaking HBO show was filmed in Belfast, where the abortion laws are equally restrictive. She faltered and moved the questioning on. This is one example, amongst many others, of the complete ignorance shown to Northern Irish issues.
However, come the end of October the DUP may be forced make concessions on abortion and gay marriage; if Stormont is not up and running again these issues could see major law changes pushed through by the Westminster government.
This is all happening whilst the results of a survey released by Lord Ashcroft show a Northern Irish majority in favour of a united Ireland. Maybe the threat of a border poll could inspire some action from the Northern Ireland parties and Westminster to find a solution to this huge constitutional problem and allow for new, much needed policies to be passed in health, education and justice. If not, it is difficult to be optimistic about the state of the Union.