Stopping the clock has sometimes been a useful resource for meeting the toughest deadlines in Northern Ireland politics. But currently the clock is ticking relentlessly towards two important dates, neither many weeks away, where stopping it will not be an option for Chris Heaton-Harris, the Northern Ireland secretary. Heaton-Harris is in a race against time, with major implications not only for Northern Ireland but also for Britain.
The two dates in question are the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday deal on April 10 and the legal obligation to call new assembly elections if there is no power-sharing agreement between Northern Ireland parties by April 13. . The dates are not formally linked. Yet each has great potential to expose the current fragility of the 1998 power-sharing deal in light of the divisions caused by the Northern Ireland protocol to the Brexit deal between Britain and the European Union.
Above all for economic reasons, Rishi Sunak rightly wants a more professional relationship with the EU. The protocol queue gets in the way of that. So he wants the argument settled and off his desk as soon as possible. To that end, Mr. Heaton-Harris has worked hard to renew a positive relationship with Ireland and seek common ground on protocol reform. He hopes, by doing this, that the hostility of the Democratic Unionists and other unionist parties can be addressed, and that they can be persuaded to return to power-sharing, thus paving the way for practical cooperation with the broader EU.
The Northern Ireland secretary’s major announcement on Thursday of an independent public inquiry into the 1998 Omagh bombing, the worst terrorist incident of the riots, must be seen, in part, in that same light. It is above all an affirmation of the rule of law and of government responsibility. But it’s also a confidence-building step. It was the right call, and it should be accompanied by an investigation in Ireland. However, the scope of the inquiry calls into question the UK government’s much more restrictive approach to other ‘legacy’ issues.
Earlier this week, Britain and the EU were reported to have reached a customs agreement that would avoid the need for routine checks on British goods destined for Northern Ireland and restrict the role of the European court of law. This was seen by some as a simple kite-flying exercise, not least because the putative agreement contained nothing long-term on the controversial issue of animal products. But it is a sign that some progress is being made.
However, positivity will only get the government so far. Better relations with Ireland and the EU are needed and welcome. So is the progress in the protocol. However, none of these satisfy the DUP’s conditions for lifting its boycott of power sharing. Judging by the tone of the party, he feels his hardline stance is being vindicated. A compromise is also of no interest to the ultra-sovereignty wing of the Brexiter of the Conservative Party. Sunak should be prepared to rely on opposition votes to reach a real deal.
Northern Ireland politics have seen enough last minute results over the years, the Good Friday deal between them, for the possibility of a deal this time around not to be ruled out. However, unless opponents of a compromise that is overwhelmingly in Britain’s interest are more explicitly confronted, Heaton-Harris will not beat the clock.