The Deputy Leader of the Scottish National Party, Angus Robertson MP, posed an interesting question to Theresa May at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday this week.
Having established in his first question, that the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, believes that the only route out of the current political crisis in Northern Ireland is new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, he asked a question about Brexit.
From her very first statements as Prime Minister, building on David Cameron’s departing speech on the morning of the referendum result, Theresa May stressed the importance of a United Kingdom in dealing with Brexit. In fact, she explicitly stated that the views of the Northern Ireland Executive, the Welsh Government and the Scottish Government were crucial in developing a united approach in how the UK would leave the European Union.
Now that the Northern Ireland Executive is currently defunct, following the ongoing political crisis and the resignation of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, the people of Northern Ireland will be asked to vote in new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont.
Timing is crucial. Even if James Brokenshire announces elections on 16th January 2017, he must first dissolve the current Assembly. This must be followed by a reasonable period for campaigning by the political parties, the elections themselves, the results of the elections and the first meeting of the newly elected chamber. At this first meeting, the new Assembly must choose a First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Political commentators in Northern Ireland such as the BBC Political Editor, Mark Devonport and Cormac McQuinn of the Belfast Telegraph have outlined the difficulties that will remain after the elections. Barring huge surprises in new elections, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) will be returned with the largest number of seats, although it is not inconceivable that the DUP will be punished by the electorate for causing the crisis and that Sinn Féin (SF) will emerge as the largest party.
In either case, this could prove a further obstacle to forming a new Northern Ireland Executive. If the DUP nominates its current leader, Arlene Foster, as First Minister, Sinn Féin will not nominate a Deputy First Minister and a new Executive cannot be formed. If Sinn Féin emerges as the largest party and nominates Mr McGuinness’s replacement as First Minister the DUP – and other parties – will block the appointment.
If we step back from the intricacies of the elections and political process we emerge back into the key political issue that currently dominates politics in the United Kingdom. Brexit is a UK-wide issue. Northern Ireland voted to remain in the European Union on 23rd June 2016 by a margin of 11.6% over the leave vote.
If the final agreement for British withdrawal from the EU results in a new physical border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland, the implications for the people of Northern Ireland are profound.
Theresa May’s government has established the Joint Ministerial Committee in October 2016 to bring together the First and Deputy First Ministers from Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales. The purpose of this forum is to provide a platform for the political leadership of the whole union of the UK to express their views on the strategy and detailed plans for Brexit.
The earliest that new elections can be expected to take place in Northern Ireland is Thursday 9th February 2017. A more likely date would be 16th February or even 23rd February.
Theresa May has promised to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty – the formal mechanism that triggers the process of leaving the European Union – by the end of March 2017.
In the unlikely event that the new Northern Ireland Executive is in place by the end of February 2017, the Prime Minister would provide the political leaders in Northern Ireland with precisely one calendar month to express their views in the Joint Ministerial Committee prior to invoking Article 50.
Politicians and the electorate in Northern Ireland might be expected to argue that this represents a democratic deficit at the highest level. Given that the UK Leave campaign in the EU referendum accused the European Union of operating in a democratic deficit, this would provide an irony in UK politics that the Prime Minister is likely to find difficult to dismiss.
There is no prospect of the British government delaying the process of invoking Article 50 in the planned timescale. Unless the government can provide an alternative mechanism for Northern Ireland to have its say on the Brexit process, prior to March 2016, there is a danger that the government will create a deep-seated resentment in Northern Ireland. Adding to the deep-seated resentment already prevalent in Scotland, by alienating another part of the United Kingdom, would in ordinary circumstances, be politically unwise. It is a measure of the extraordinary circumstances now faced by the UK, when the political crisis in Northern Ireland represents just another political headache for the government rather than a full-scale crisis of the union.