We have kept up recent events in Northern Ireland quite extensively in recent weeks, both in this column and elsewhere on the site. Suffice to say, the big strategic problem facing the Democratic Unionist Party – how to avoid sharing the doom of the Ulster Unionists after substantially folding on the Sea Border – will play out over the next few months and years.
Nonetheless, the Assembly has staggered once again to its feet, and with that heralded the first-ever nationalist first minister. Not just nationalist, indeed, but republican.
Michelle O’Neill has, naturally, used her platform to call for a referendum on unity within ten years; one could hardly expect a Sinn Féin politician to do anything else. Gillian Keegan attracted comment this week when she refused to rule one out.
But the overall significance of this moment, whatever its symbolic power, is easy to overstate.
For starters, no minister would explicitly rule out a unity referendum on a ten-year timeframe. The conditions for holding one are governed by the Belfast Agreement. For that reason, they also don’t need to: unless it looks as though such a referendum would be won by the nationalists, there is no reason to hold one.
There is little sign of that. The Protestant community remains rock-solidly against joining the Republic, and the 2022 Life & Times Survey found almost a fifth of Catholics saying that remaining part of the United Kingdom was their preferred long-term outcome for Northern Ireland, never mind the next ten years.
Boosterish comments from nationalists should also be weighed against the rash of stories this week about how the newly-reformed Northern Ireland Executive is facing a “cash crisis”; O’Neill herself has said that the £3.3bn the Government has pledged to the Province isn’t enough.
Fair enough, perhaps. But the basic economic fact of Northern Ireland’s financial dependence on the mainland militates against any move toward unity. Ireland, a much smaller economy, could not nearly so easily shoulder the burden: the Irish parliament’s official proposals for a united Ireland settled on asking the British to keep paying, in full, for 20 years; Irish voters who tell pollsters they favour unity are often opposed to anything like the increased tax burden it would otherwise involve.
Little wonder that both London and Dublin are playing down suggestions that there will be any imminent transfer of sovereignty in Ulster.
Finally, it’s worth remembering two other points. First, the offices of first minister and deputy first minister are in fact joint offices; the pretence at hierarchy was a sop to unionists, who banked a purely symbolic gesture which has now come back to bite them.
Second, the 2022 Stormont election did not see any surge towards nationalism. Sinn Féin became the largest party by dint of managing not to lose any seats; overall, unionism and nationalism lost four seats each, although on the nationalist side all were borne by the SDLP.
The key drivers of change were the continuing rise of the Alliance Party, which gained nine seats, and the hard-line Traditional Unionist Voice, which didn’t gain any new seats but tripled its share of the vote at the expense of its larger rivals.
SNP face fresh woes over tax and healthcare
It never rains but it pours these days for the Scottish National Party. Fresh from the controversy over Nicola Sturgeon’s testimony to the Covid Inquiry and her government’s practice of deleting its paper trails, Humza Yousaf is now embroiled in not one but two new rows over the Scottish Government’s policies.
First, the Institute for Fiscal Studies has rebuked the SNP’s claims to be increasing health spending. It claimed in the Scottish budget that it would rise at 1.3 per cent above inflation. But as the Daily Telegraph reports:
“A new analysis by the think tank said this figure was based on a comparison with the spending allocated in the original 2023/24 Scottish Budget, and did not take into account “in-year top ups” of extra funding that have been added since. When the latter are taken into account, it said the Scottish Government’s spending on health and social care is on course to drop by 0.7 per cent in real terms in 2024/25.”
Oops. Not great, especially in the week that the Scottish Government is being grilled over the resignation of the former health secretary over his expenses. Even more so when the IFS says that “such a cut in funding would likely see a further degradation in service quality and necessitate cuts in staffing”.
Perhaps more seriously, at least as regard’s the First Minister’s own position, Kate Forbes is leading a Nationalist rebellion against the Scottish Government’s planned income tax hike, arguing that Scotland needs to “grow its tax base” if it wants to sustain public spending.
Such an open row over policy would have been unthinkable in the Sturgeon era, when the SNP operated with phalanx-like discipline. It also shows how the big strategic question facing the Nationalists – what sort of party they really are, now the tide is going out – is already dividing the party in what are already extremely difficult political circumstances.