Image Credit: Son of Groucho
In the 2019 general election, opposition to Westminster and Brexit came in the form a vigorous and contentious Remain alliance, propped up by nationalist causes in Wales and Scotland. Plaid Cymru and the Scottish Nationalist Party throughout the campaign had claimed that, for the betterment of their economy and national identity, their respective nations would be better off to maintain a relationship with the European Union and set out to obtain complete state autonomy by leaving the United Kingdom.
This reflects a radical shift in demands for regional autonomy, a desire to move beyond the mere quasi-federal measures of state devolution currently in place. Of three devolved regions in the United Kingdom, Northern Irish political parties, however, were particularly absent from any national debates, giving no clear direction for the country’s future, as it too voted to remain in the EU with Scotland.
This is as a result of Northern Ireland’s democratic stalemate. Over the past three years, the Northern Irish people had suffered from serious democratic deficit. The devolved assembly at Stormont endured a breakdown in the joint executive, meaning the two major parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, were at a deadlock and were unable to resolve their differences over the contentious issue of an Irish Language Act. This was a bill that sought to implement legislative guarantees for equal status of the Irish language across the United Kingdom, which would have comparable rights and use to the Welsh language.
The two parties have come back together to form the Joint Executive and bring the devolved assembly into session. This was the result of a series of compromises, that in relation to the Irish Language Act, gave both communities linguistic recognition through the implementation of both an Irish and Ulster-Scots (Low-land Scottish) language commissioner. However, some critics cite that this has set a very detrimental precedent of a “complimentary” style of governance, that successive governments will always concede some form of policy to maintain peaceable community relations, the implications of which could potentially create a further rift and increase the societal divisions between loyalist and nationalist communities. Instead of creating all-embracing legislation that aims to unite communities, the devolved assembly appears only to passively satisfy community demands and placate cultural tensions.
With the onset of Arlene foster (DUP) and Michelle O’Neil (Sinn Fein) being elected first minister and deputy first minister respectively, political commentators have accused Sinn Féin and the DUP of an attempted power grab. That as a result of threats from the Northern Ireland secretary Julian Smith, pertaining to possible fresh assembly elections, the two major parties chose then to cement their positions, avoiding instead the potential crippling of their majorities at Stormont by losing Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs), to parties such as rival nationalist party, the Social Democratic Labour Party and the Alliance Party, sister party to mainland Liberal Democrats.
This has brought into question how these major parties can claim to bring about legitimate change. For instance, during the collapse of the devolved assembly, all legislation relating to Northern Ireland was monitored by Westminster. This had enabled the wider nation to have an influence on the moral consciousness of Ulster’s legislation, allowing for the legalisation of both gay marriage and abortion in the region, which had been previously legalised by the Republic of Ireland in 2015 and 2018.
Nonetheless, legislation has not gone without regional opposition, despite the liberalisation of women’s rights, and candidates within the DUP and SDLP have argued that this is “back door” encroachment on the religious and cultural