There’s little enthusiasm just about anywhere for this summer’s snap general election, and no more so than in Northern Ireland where voters’ growing apathy is mixed with a feeling of dread. Saying that politics in Northern Ireland is rarely straightforward or smooth is something of an understatement. But the timing of this summer’s election could not be worse for the country: the peace process is currently navigating its way perilously through one of its most difficult periods since 1998’s Good Friday Agreement. While the stasis which is paralysing Stormont shows no signs of ending: four months on since power-sharing collapsed in the region, the parties are yet to resolve their issues and agree to return to government. Attempts at resolution have had next to no success.
Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire’s attempts to break the deadlock have all, so far, failed. The snap elections in March offered nothing in the way of a solution, with the same parties returned by the electorate. Since then, the Conservative Government has announced a series of negotiations between Unionist and Nationalist politicians, in a bid to try and win them round. Each phase of these talks have failed and the deadline has been extended three times by the increasingly exasperated Brokenshire. The current deadline for an agreement is now ‘early May’. Even before a snap election, this looked optimistic. Now, it seems impossible. To prepare for the election, the Commons will be dissolved in the first week of May – just as power-sharing talks in Northern Ireland are due to finish.
If the parties in Northern Ireland fail to reach an agreement – which is almost inevitable at this stage – the absence of the Westminster Parliament will, once again, leave Stormont in limbo. The peace process structures mean that if Northern Ireland fails to form a government, then the British Government either imposes direct rule or announces new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont. Without a Parliament sitting in London, though, it is not clear what will happen to Northern Ireland when power-sharing talks inevitably end in failure.
There’s also the danger that the constant trips to the polling station are wearing voters’ patience rather thin. People have already gone to the polls twice in the last 12 months and are now facing their third local election. To add a general election on top of this means that Northern Irish voters will be going to the polls four times (or five if you count the Brexit referendum) in just over a year. For a region which already struggles with voter apathy and disillusionment due to the Troubles, there is a serious risk that this will alienate and frustrate the electorate even further.
With the political parties now in ‘election mode’, the faint chance of a power-sharing agreement being made becomes less and less likely. The parties will now, it seems, engage in divisive rhetoric and posturing as they seek to impress voters by taking more hardline stances on key issues. This will put paid to much-needed concessions at a time when a mature approach to power-sharing is vital. James Brokenshire has been quick to insist that the general election won’t harm Northern Ireland’s chances in reaching an agreement to restore power-sharing. But his protestations ring hollow.