The departure of Arlene Foster from her role as Northern Ireland’s first minister marks a worrying time for politics in the North in general, and the peace process in particular.
Whatever one may say about how successful or not Foster was as first minister, it is becoming clear that, while seen by many people in the Republic as a hardline unionist, she actually comes from the more pragmatic wing of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and sought to rule by consensus rather than division. She was hardly a dove, but she was no hawk either, and her attempts to find compromise on sensitive issues such as same-sex marriage and abortion placed her under pressure from the hard-right in her own party.
Unless a resolution is found over the next week or so, a stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP on the controversial issue of Irish-language legislation has the potential to derail the power-sharing institutions. If that were to happen, Brandon Lewis, secretary of state for the North, would be forced to call new elections that could lead to the sort of stalemate that led to the collapse of the Assembly four years ago.
We have been here before. On January 27, 2017, Martin McGuinness resigned as the North’s deputy first minister in protest against the DUP’s handling of a bungled green energy scheme, Irish-language legislation, marriage equality, and other issues. It took until January 2020 for devolved government to be restored.
The stand-off between the DUP and Sinn Féin is complicated by the continuing row over the implementation of the Northern Ireland Protocol in the Brexit withdrawal agreement. A war of words between British prime minister Boris Johnson and some EU leaders over the protocol, which is intended to protect the peace process, overshadowed much of the G7 summit in Cornwall last week.
One hopeful sign, however, is that this time around Northern Ireland has a secretary of state who appears to have a better grasp than some of his predecessors of the political situation there. He also appears to be more far-sighted in his hopes for the future of the North and its people. Of particular significance is his realisation that integrated education is the key to reconciliation between ‘orange’ and ‘green’.
In an exclusive interview with the Irish Examiner, Mr Lewis said this was one of the ambitions of the Good Friday Agreement and it was not being met.
“I’m regularly meeting people — successful people in a range of different careers — telling me that, as a Protestant or Catholic, the first time they met someone of a different religion was when they went to university or when they went to work,” he said.
The DUP has nominated Lagan Valley MLA Paul Givan to be the new first minister, but he needs the support of Sinn Féin, which insists that he will not get it unless the Irish Language Act is implemented.
Both parties would do well to reflect on the comment made by Foster in her resignation announcement in April: “The future of unionism will not be found in division. It will only be found in sharing this place we all call home.”