Irish technology Newton Emerson: Suspending democracy is not the way to save it

Irish technology

At the British-Irish Council meeting in Dublin last Thursday, Northern Secretary Julian Smith said if Stormont is not restored by the statutory talks deadline of January 13th he will call an Assembly election.

Smith had to say this, of course. He could hardly admit two months in advance that the deadline will simply be moved if it is missed, as has happened at least a dozen times since devolution collapsed.

However, there will be a new political context by January, thanks to next month’s Westminster election. The DUP-Conservative confidence-and-supply agreement should be officially dead and the future of Brexit should be clearer, addressing two key obstacles to Stormont’s resurrection.

Even in confrontational election mode, there was a perceptible shift in seriousness from Sinn Féin and the DUP over the past week towards getting back to work. A Stormont deal by Easter is entering the realms of plausibility, yet for that very reason there will be carte blanche to extend the deadline again.

This is an extraordinary test to place on democracy – to say, in effect, that an election is not worth having unless it produces a different result

This time, another extension should not be shrugged off as inevitable. There must be a proper examination of the arguments for suspending democracy in Northern Ireland on the supposed grounds of saving it.

If a Stormont executive collapses or cannot be formed after an election, the law enacting the Belfast Agreement gives parties up to two weeks to try again, after which the Northern Secretary must call another election.

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The reason given and generally accepted for not going to the polls since 2017 is that it would change nothing: the same parties would be returned in the same proportions, facing the same deadlocked issues.

Extraordinary test

This is an extraordinary test to place on democracy – to say, in effect, that an election is not worth having unless it produces a different result. It comes close to saying an election should not be held without a preferred result.

In fairness to those responsible, this state of affairs evolved innocently enough.

After Stormont collapsed in January 2017, an election was called in the normal manner, with polling in early March. The DUP’s vote dropped sharply in reaction to the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. Alliance began its surge and Sinn Féin came within 1,000 votes of becoming the largest party.

When an executive still could not be formed, Sinn Féin correctly demanded another election, which it described as “one last push”.

How serious the republican party was about this is debatable but a chastened DUP definitely did not want another election and seemed ready to back down.

To facilitate talks and a deal, the British government amended the Belfast Agreement legislation to extend the executive formation period to July.

Then an unexpected general election in June saw the DUP’s lead over Sinn Féin restored. All talk of another Assembly election ceased and further extensions of the formation period have since been quietly rubber-stamped through.

What happened in the first half of 2017 was that elections briefly appeared capable of reordering the party system in Northern Ireland, until shocked unionist voters rallied around the DUP and the presumption returned that elections would change nothing.

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Legal precedent

Meanwhile, to justify the first deadline extension, the Northern Ireland Office had mined legal precedent and found court cases from 2001, when former DUP leader Peter Robinson objected to the formation period being allowed to over-run by two days.

It is amusing now to read the reams of legal chin-stroking provoked by this 48 hours of flexibility. Robinson lost, with judges ruling the Northern secretary has discretion to decide if calling an election would help restore powersharing government.

That has ended up becoming the basis of Northern Ireland’s democratic vacuum, with the acquiescence of all Stormont and Westminster parties plus the Irish government. Dublin’s acceptance looks particularly strange when it has objected so strongly to addressing the Stormont impasse through a spell of direct rule. Suspending elections is at least as problematic an override of the Belfast Agreement.

There are only so many campaigns that can be re-fought in rapid succession on the same platform, even in Northern Ireland

Talk of an election has resumed because circumstances promise change. Why are elections themselves not trusted to drive change?

Had the law and the Belfast Agreement been observed after March 2017 there would have since have been time for another 11 elections.

Who can deny that would have changed the political context?

The ordering of parties might have stayed the same but voting trends would still have compelled a response. There are only so many campaigns that can be re-fought in rapid succession on the same platform, even in Northern Ireland. How often would the DUP and Sinn Féin have refused to form an executive, knowing they were immediately sending themselves and their voters back around the electoral cycle?

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If turnout had started to fall, would that not have sent its own signal to come to terms?

Over the past three years there always seemed to be another argument not to go to the polls. Looking back, it seems inarguable that going to the polls would long ago have solved the problem.

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