The Ulster Unionists today announced their decision to withdraw from the Northern Ireland Executive some time next week, before the Assembly returns on 7 September.
What does this mean?
In practical terms, it is best to start with the simple stuff: this means the Ulster Unionists will withdraw their Minister from the Executive. They are not withdrawing from the Assembly, nor have they stated any intention to bring it down.
The Minister concerned in Danny Kennedy of the Department of Regional Development, which deals predominantly with infrastructure and general transport. Under the system used to appoint the Executive proportionately, the outstanding Ministry now goes to the DUP, giving it a fifth Minister out of the ten proportionately appointed. The likelihood is they will simply appoint a new Minister, although a case could be made for re-appointing all the Ministries in order from the start.
The Ulster Unionists say they will go “into opposition”, but formally there is no such thing. They do not receive any extra speaking rights, any priority for Committee Chairs, or any particular role in assessing public accounts or such like.
What will happen now?
What happens now depends to a large extent on what other parties do.
Arguably, the DUP is caught in an awkward position, in that staying in the Executive makes it look weak on “Republicans”, but leaving makes it look like it is following the Ulster Unionists’ lead. It is likely to choose the former, and has already attacked the Ulster Unionists for promoting instability and being unwilling to govern.
Sinn Féin has no interest in risking a complete breakdown of the institutions, but is currently safe in the knowledge that, among its own supporters and would-be supporters, it is devoid of blame for the current “crisis”. It is unlikely to change stance.
The party with the most immediate problem is perhaps the SDLP. Of all the Executive parties, it has been ceding votes the fastest in recent elections; and it holds the Environment Ministry, which has been stripped of almost all its powers (and much of its funding) since Local Government Reform. Some voices within the party had already been pushing to “go into opposition”, and these will no doubt get louder.
The Alliance Party is in the curious position that, although it holds fewer seats than either the Ulster Unionists or the SDLP, it gets the same number of Ministers in the proportional allocation plus the Justice Minister. Withdrawing from the Justice Ministry, uniquely appointed by cross-community vote, would almost certainly lead to the Executive falling (most likely resulting in an early election and then uncertainty), and the party has been unwilling to risk taking the blame for this. However, the Ulster Unionists’ move changes the variables a bit and, although the party was scathing about today’s announcement, it now has a freer hand to decide its own next move.
In other words, we have no idea what will happen next!
Is Direct Rule imminent?
All that has happened is that one party has resigned its Ministry. This in itself makes almost no difference.
The crux issue remains welfare reform and the consequences for the overall devolved budget – a debate which was always fundamentally between the DUP and Sinn Féin, as they hold the power of Petition of Concern (albeit indirectly, in the latter case) and therefore to block any change in legislation or major policy they do not like.
There is also no way of simply “suspending” the Assembly. In practice, there would need to be an election followed by a failure to form an Executive before any form of “Direct Rule” could be brought in, and even then determined efforts would be made to make it as short-term as possible.
We do live in uncertain times so nothing can be said for sure, but the odds are that “collapse” is not as immediate as is popularly believed.