Chaos First, Cooperation Second: The Northern Ireland Executive in a Nutshell

irish politicians foster and oneill

Blink once… twice… three times and yes, the Northern Ireland Executive is actually collaborating. This is a reality.

Politics in Northern Ireland is notoriously unsteady. In June 2020, it is set against the backdrop of an empty Parliament building since January 2017, resulting in unsustainable discussions. However, there now appears to be cooperation within the Northern Ireland administration during the Covid-19 pandemic. First Minister Arlene Foster was recently quoted saying herself and her nationalist counterpart (Michelle O’Neill) “differ well… [to] just get on with the common issue, the big issue of trying to save lives [during the pandemic].”

For those who are unaware of the intricacies of Northern Irish politics, the quote above would never have been used in talking about anything associated with political, economic, social, or religious decision making.

Northern Irish politics does not ‘normally’ work like that.

For years, the country was embroiled in civil war chaos between nationalists and unionists. This culminated in a document supported by both sides titled the Good Friday Agreement of 1998. Since then, the nationalist and unionist parties have been committed to working together in a joint executive… that is on paper. Fast forward to January 2017 and the picture was very different. Heightened ideological emotions against a backdrop of misspent finances, forced the executive to shut the Northern Ireland administration down. This lasted for three years. Throughout most of the Brexit talks, MLAs (Members of the Legislative Assembly) did not sit to negotiate terms due to a lack of cooperation as an elected government. This is why to “differ well” is not such a bad thing. In reality, it is probably the most collaboration we have seen in a long time.

So, why now? What has changed?

The idea of uniting under a “common issue” should not be a new phenomenon but unfortunately it is. Or at least, in the devolved nation’s recent history it is. We now talk of a “common issue” in relation to Covid-19 but what about a “common issue” with regards to nationalists and unionists clashing, violence in the streets, the bombing, the terror… the elephant in the room discussions.  I believe these too are the “common issues” a lot of people have wanted answering for some time. If having a strong role to play in the Brexit negotiations was not enough for the nationalists and unionists to build bridges at Stormont, then perhaps a pandemic was. Maybe it has taken the terror of a growing virus to alter how collaboration can be met in 2020, against a history of divisive civil unrest.

In April of this year, there were numerous articles suggesting female leaders were the ones who handled the pandemic the best. Obviously, Mrs Foster and Ms O’Neill are leaders of a devolved administration which on paper, is slightly different. However, Northern Ireland has proven to be the first devolved nation not to show any cases in a 24-hour period. They are also the first to declare the opening of their hotels and reducing the 2m social-distancing rule to 1m in the classroom. Perhaps something can be said for this female powerhouse. Representing the progress of moving forwards through the pandemic that many have craved is perhaps fuel enough to continue to “differ well” in order to work together.

After years of civil war and community clashes, it is refreshing to see Northern Irish politics now move forwards, guided by both the unionist and nationalist leaders of its executive. The Covid-19 pandemic has changed lives in ways we could not have imagined but let us hope this liaising between Foster and O’Neill signals a new start which could see similar collaborative approaches in the future. Or at least paves the way for others to do so.

Words by Lisa McGrady


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