Aine Lagan is a Conservative activist, and is Head of Communications for Conservative Young Women.
Northern Ireland has been without its Assembly and Executive for over two and a half years. The talks conducted by James Brokenshire and his successor, Karen Bradley, have failed to bear any fruit.
While the backstop dominates the political agenda, Westminster remains precariously quiet on the next stage for Stormont and the region in general.
Our next Prime Minister must deliver a fresh plan and a new team to solve the political stalemate. They have to remember that they will the Prime Minister for the whole of the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.
The stalemate that has been in place since Martin McGuinness’ resignation in January 2017 was a long time coming. The Stormont House Agreement was a weak plaster on an existential crisis in the institution, a temporary solution to a much deeper problem. The tensions appears to have only gotten worse. The differences that were set aside by the “Chuckle Brothers”, McGuiness and Ian Paisley Sr, have come back to the forefront under the dogmatic leadership of Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill. Equality issues have drawn yet another line in the sand in the Stormont debate.
This week, legislation came before the Commons to delay another Assembly election until, if need be, January 2020. Another election is not a simple answer – in fact, it could create more problems than solutions. The 2017 election, which was held in an attempt to break the stalemate, saw a ten per cent increase in turnout, with Sinn Fein only one seat behind the DUP.
Another election cannot be held without some form of political agreement being signed by the major parties, with fundamental reforms at its heart. Otherwise, we will end up exactly where we are now.
This same piece of legislation presents another problem for the next Prime Minister. As typical with Northern Ireland legislation, an equal marriage amendment was tabled which requires the Government to introduce same-sex marriage legislation within three months if powersharing is not restored.
Our next Prime Minister has to take a firm position on equality issues in Northern Ireland. Both abortion and gay marriage could be settled with a referendum, taking the decision out of the hands of political parties. Our party should be aware of the fact that equality issues could become a central argument in a border poll, where progressives can look over the border at a fundamentally more liberal society. Bringing the choice directly to the people would remove the ‘devolution’ barrier that prevents Westminster from intervening.
If the stalemate carries on for another year, then the Government must have a plan to take action to bring Northern Ireland in line with the rest of the United Kingdom. For now, Northern Ireland is twenty years behind the rest of the UK, and needs to be dragged into the 21st Century. The party that legalised equal marriage should be advocating for the same to happen in Northern Ireland, and they should be advocating for women in Northern Ireland to be afforded the same liberty of choice over their own body that is afforded to women everywhere else in the UK.
There’s a clear need for reform at Stormont, with the petition of concern mechanism topping the list. The DUP remain the only party largely in favour of the mechanism, which prevents the passing of legislation with the signatures of 30 MLAs, particularly because it is their principal means of preventing equal marriage and abortion legislation passing through the Assembly.
Direct rule has hardly featured in the debates around Stormont’s future. The next Prime Minister must decide if they would rather have Northern Ireland governed by civil servants, whose hands are tied, or by Westminster who can pass the legislation we need to operate day-to-day as well as implement a strategy for the future. It wouldn’t be a clear-cut decision, as direct rule would only add fuel to the fire of a border poll.
Is the presence of the SNP at Westminster, and their daily demands for ‘IndyRef2’, leading politicians to turn a blind eye to a much greater risk to the Union? Theresa May has repeatedly raised her concerns about a no-deal Brexit resulting in a border poll, and it’s a warning her successor should keep firmly in mind. How would the Government deal with Northern Ireland in the case of a no-deal Brexit if this political stalemate continues?
Above all, the next Prime Minister has to show a genuine interest in Northern Ireland. The lack of knowledge around Northern Ireland, both in the grassroots and in the parliamentary party, is concerning. It seems to only come up in conversation with regards to veterans rights and the two ‘B’ words – Brexit and the backstop. The party too often forgets that it is the Conservative and Unionist Party. The fact that our politics is sectarian is basic knowledge that can be found in a school textbook. It should be assumed knowledge for a Northern Ireland Secretary.
My country has its own unique challenges, far beyond Brexit and the border. Our employment level is four per cent below the UK average, with a high risk of automation in the decades to come. Our political debates almost always revolve around flags, parades and the past.
It won’t be an easy task, but our next Prime Minister has an opportunity to get involved in the future of Northern Ireland. I belong to the generation that Lyra McKee called the “ceasefire babies”. We’re more liberal than our parents, more metropolitan than our predecessors. We grew up in relative peace, but are frustrated by our idle politicians. My generation should be afforded the same freedom and opportunities as our peers elsewhere in the UK.
The next Prime Minister will have an opportunity to do that, and they must grasp it with both hands.