At the end of last week, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) finally decided to accept the terms of the agreement reached at Hillsborough Castle over ten days of negotiations with Sinn Fein and other parties. So does that put devolved power-sharing government in Northern Ireland back on an even keel?
There are two hopeful aspects to the Hillsborough Castle Agreement. First, as Shaun Woodward, Gordon Brown and others have been keen to emphasise in interviews, this was an agreement reached by the parties themselves. That’s in marked contrast to the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements, which were intergovernmental agreements accepted by the parties. The difference is important. If this indeed marks the point where Northern Ireland parties are able to accept responsibility for their own relationships, it's a major step forward. For too long, parties in Northern Ireland have looked to those outside to solve their problems, and blamed those outside actors when local ones didn’t like the solutions found.
Second, what’s really distinctive about the agreement is not so much its contents as that the DUP bit the bullet and signed up. Hitherto, they’ve sought to limit the scope of their engagement with Sinn Fein, and there have been serious internal divisions about what should happen. This time, after the party leadership had negotiated the deal with Sinn Fein, the party’s group in the Northern Ireland Assembly eventually voted unanimously to support it. They have accepted what was apparent to many others—including other unionist parties—long ago: that the alternative to making devolved government work will be hugely less to their liking.
But the new agreement doesn’t mean that all is well in Northern Ireland. The present form of devolved government—stemming from the 2006 St Andrews Agreement—has been based on a deal between the DUP and Sinn Fein. One consequence of that is that it marginalises other parties, particularly the more moderate Ulster Unionists and Social Democratic and Labour Party. Even though they have ministries in the Northern Ireland Executive, they’re largely shut out by the two dominant parties. As those ministries cover such matters as housing, social welfare and health, that’s had pretty serious effects in the recession. Moreover, the effect of agreements going back to 1998’s Belfast Agreement is to reinforce divisions between nationalist and unionist communities, rather than resolve them. Political violence may have all but disappeared from life in Northern Ireland, but the two sectarian communities are, if anything, more deeply divided than they have ever been. And the new deal contains precious little of substance—it’s more about timetables, and agreements to try to resolve the difficult detailed aspects of devolving policing and justice and Protestant parading. If those timetables don’t hold, it will be back to square one.
The real challenge for Northern Ireland’s parties now is to make devolved government work well, and to find ways of identifying common interests that transcend the communal divides. For both DUP and Sinn Fein, that’s a big challenge. The timetables laid out in the Hillsborough Castle Agreement mean we’ll know if that’s happening by mid-April at the latest.
Alan Trench was a research fellow at the Europa Institute, and keeps a blog 'Devolution Matters'