The Prime Minister’s announcement last week that she would seek parliamentary approval for a General Election caught everyone by surprise, not least the parties in Northern Ireland.
Prior to it, the prospect of a deal to form an Executive and restore Northern Ireland’s political institutions, after the collapse of power-sharing earlier in the year, appeared as distant as ever. The reason for this? Neither of Northern Ireland’s two leading parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, really wanted an Executive to be formed.
As former US secretary of state and seasoned Cold War negotiator Dean Acheson once wrote: “Negotiation in the classic diplomatic sense assumes parties more anxious to agree than to disagree”.
While the formation of an Executive meant a return to the mundane, day-to-day business of government and assuming responsibility for looming budgetary challenges, Brexit presents both parties with a once in a generation opportunity to make significant progress upon their respective existential aims. The DUP and Sinn Fein are likely therefore to be much more incentivised to disagree than to agree.
The DUP, cognisant of the government’s slender majority, no doubt strategised that a guaranteed eight Westminster votes would prove very useful to the Prime Minister at a time when Brexit negotiations are expected to strain relations between the Leave and Remain wings of her own party. In return, the DUP might have anticipated much increased influence over the government’s agenda.
The rationale for Sinn Fein was always much more obvious. In a region where the majority of the population voted against Brexit and where leaving the EU is likely to have a disproportionately adverse impact, there may never be a more opportune moment to advance the case for Irish reunification. Republicans, to avoid any accusations of complicity or facilitation of a hard Brexit, likely determined that they must necessarily distance themselves from the Brexit process.
Until last week, this posed a problem for the government. A three-way negotiation in which both Sinn Fein’s and the DUP’s primary objectives were fundamentally aligned against those of the government offered few options for the Northern Ireland secretary. New Assembly elections would change little. The re-imposition of direct rule, unwelcome at the best of times, would increase the government’s workload at a time when Westminster’s bandwidth is already stretched to breaking point.
The calling of an early General Election changes everything. With current opinion polls suggesting a 100+ seat majority for the Conservatives, the DUP’s strategy now lies in tatters.
Paradoxically, a slightly less recalcitrant DUP might also have adverse repercussions for Sinn Fein’s strategy. While a stubborn DUP leader, Arlene Foster, may once have been a useful bête noire for the Republican movement to rally against, any positive movement by the DUP on, for example, the Irish language might now place the onus firmly upon the Sinn Fein leadership to move toward making a deal. Without movement, Sinn Fein would leave themselves open to accusations of obstructionism and political opportunism, limiting further any scope for a successful border poll.
Of course, all of this is entirely incidental. Nobody could reasonably argue that the current political impasse in Northern Ireland had any influence whatsoever on Theresa May’s decision to go to the polls. Indeed, the present government’s ambivalence towards the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland is only likely to grow once the Prime Minister has secured a healthy parliamentary majority. Nonetheless, it does appear, for now, to have neutralised a seemingly intractable situation for the government.
This would represent a shift in the power dynamic that seemed unthinkable at the beginning of last week. A week is indeed a very, very long time in politics.