In the short term, the UK General Election due to be confirmed in Parliament today is surely not good news for Northern Ireland. The Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, immediately understood that having at least one election in the offing is unlikely to create the necessary space for the type of compromise required to get an Executive back up and running at Stormont before 8 June. While some will now seek to gain electoral capital by denying it, there were signs that the parties were laying the ground for a re-start of some sort, but that re-start will at best now be somewhat delayed.
In the long term all may not be lost, however. There are a number of reasons for this.
Firstly, there is a strong case that an ‘unelected’ Prime Minister leading a party with a manifesto commitment to remain in the European Single Market (something which jars with her own commitment to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice which oversees the rules of that Single Market) should seek a democratic mandate for what she proposes to do. This may not appear at first sight to matter to people on waiting lists, or concerned about jobs, or wondering when their local school will be rebuilt, but in the current global climate democracy (or at least some semblance of it) matters.
Secondly, with regard to “Brexit”, the prospect of an increased Conservative majority may work out to be no bad thing. Arguably at least, it will enable the Prime Minister to take a more moderate negotiating position without being wholly reliant on hard-line back benchers. That, if it came to pass, would be no bad thing for Northern Ireland.
Thirdly, that likely increased Conservative majority would leave it less reliant (even potentially) on DUP MPs. This may make life easier for the next UK Government trying to find some sort of deal in Northern Ireland, as it will be seen as a (slightly) more honest broker.
Fourthly, there is the simple issue that it was never necessarily the case that a (relatively) quick deal in Northern Ireland would be a good thing. Perhaps (prospectively) taking the summer to re-build relations between the parties, assess reasonably the flaws in the institutions as they are, and work out the detail of what changes are necessary to place a future Executive on a firmer footing than the last one was.
Of course, for this optimistic assessment to come to pass, the Northern Ireland issue will need more careful management than it has had hitherto. Northern Ireland will need a voice in the Brexit debate and the DUP’s acceptance of ‘particular arrangements’ will need to be fully considered; the next UK Government itself will need to understand better its role with regard to implementing past and current agreements; and after 8 June all sides will need to be determined to put popular need ahead of electoral benefit for the good of the overall process. The outcome of the election is no sure thing either – while not calling an early election in 2007 worked against Gordon Brown, actually calling one in early 1974 worked against Ted Heath as well.
From 9 June, let us hope for determined and cool heads.