Elections are a Necessary Inconvenience
A Letter from Ireland a Chara,
The election may be canceled. Yes, that is right. Some political leaders have offered the opinion that an election will not change anything, would be divisive, and could make things worse. Yes, an election is a legal requirement, but the government can change the law.
I’m not writing about the US, but the planned election in the North of Ireland.
In January 2020 both the Irish and British Governments and all parties signed up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement that led to the re-establishment of the Assembly and Government in the North of Ireland. One element of the agreement was that if a government had not been formed within 6 months of an election then a further election would be called. This agreement was legislated for in London.
An election in the North was held in May returning Sinn Féin, an Irish Republican party with the largest number of seats, and Michelle O’Neill as the First Minister Elect. A historic first in a State designed and gerrymandered to be led by a British Unionist Party. The election returned a vast majority of parties that wanted to work together in Government.
The largest Unionist Party, the DUP received just over 21% of the vote, refused to respect the election result, and blocked the establishment of a government for six months.
The deadline for establishing a government was midnight Thursday, October 27th. The DUP again refused. British Minister Christopher Heaton-Harris was adamant that he would stand by the New Decade, New Approach agreement's legal obligation to call an election to be held within six weeks. The announcement was to be made on Friday, October 28th with an election date of December 15th briefed to the media.
No announcement was made. It appears that the new British Prime Minister Sunak overruled his minister. We are now left without a Government, an Assembly, imposition of direct rule from London, and no date for an election. The British Government has announced that there will not be an election before Christmas and are refusing to set a date in early January to meet their legal obligations. The British are now considering the option of breaking the 2020 agreement and rewriting the law to their own ends.
The position of the Irish Government matches the mess in London. The outgoing Taoiseach Micheal Martin stated that there should be no return to direct rule and challenged the British government's approach to breaking agreements and the law on issues of Brexit and the legacy of the conflict over the past number of years.
Simon Coveney, the Irish Government's Minister, visited Belfast and claimed, “we don’t believe an election at this time is a good thing for Northern Ireland”. Conceding that the British had the legal right to break the January 2020 agreement.
It is very dangerous ground when Governments and ministers feel free to consider breaking agreements and amending laws to prevent the people from having a say.
At the heart of this is the DUP, a party that refuses to respect the outcome of the election in May and could take the same position in a future election. Other parties see an election as an inconvenience and threat to their current standing. Neither is a valid reason for canceling an election.
Nor can the governments claim the democratic high ground. Rishi Sunak is the second British Prime Minister since December 2019 that was never elected into office. The current Irish Government was formed as an alliance to keep Sinn Féin the largest party out of government. They will swap out Taoiseach Micheal Martin for Leo Varadkar in December as part of a deal that was never put to the people.
Whatever your political persuasion I hope you vote next week. The true value of democracy is only realized when it is exercised. Elections are never an inconvenience but a necessity
Ciarán Quinn is the Sinn Féin Representative to North America. Each week he writes a letter from Ireland with news and analysis. It is featured in the weekly Friends of Sinn Féin USA Newsletter. Be sure you are subscribed to stay up to date.