Karen Bradley's most recent comments are just the latest example of a government which thinks it can pick and choose when it comes to Northern Irelandby Sarah Creighton / March 25, 2019 / Leave a comment
Thousands protested in London at the weekend against Brexit, while nearly 5.2 million signed an online petition to revoke Article 50. Yet while people marched, few noticed Northern Ireland’s chances of a functional government slipping further away.
Northern Ireland has been without a government for nearly two and a half years since Martin McGuiness collapsed the Assembly over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal. There have been talks—and talks about talks—but no sign that the Assembly is going to be up and running any time soon.
On the 21st March, Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley stood at the House of Commons dispatch box and faced a mostly empty chamber. Despite the lack of attention, she did something significant.
Last year, there was a legal ruling that restricted the ability of Northern Ireland civil servants to act without a Minister. On the back of that uncertainty, the Secretary of State introduced legislation to clarify the law.
In that legislation is a provision which states that Secretary of State has a legal duty to call an election if Northern Ireland Executive Ministers aren’t in post before the end of March. One imagines that the government hoped that Northern Ireland’s political parties would have resolved their issues by then.
The legislation allows the Secretary of State to extend the deadline for calling an election by five months. On the 21st, Bradley did just that.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Bradley said, “I do not consider it appropriate to extend the period for any less than the five months. A shorter period could risk now allowing sufficient time for a talks process to conclude.”
The Secretary of State’s words are absurd for many reasons. There haven’t been talks between political parties in Northern Ireland in over a year. There is no indication that any talks are going to take place in the near future. When Bradley met the parties individually in November last year the SDLP’s Colum Eastwood said the meeting was “a complete and utter waste of time.”
It’s no surprise that the decision to extend the deadline for an Assembly election was greeted with derision in the Commons chamber. An irritated Nigel Dodds dared Bradley to do something “radical.”
Neither the DUP, Sinn Féin, the UUP, SDLP or Alliance appear to have much faith in Bradley’s abilities. That hampers the prospect of a resolution to the current deadlock.
Bradley caused considerable damage and hurt following her comment that state actions during the Troubles, “were not crimes.” Such was the uproar, she had to fly to Belfast to meet with the families of victims of state violence. Many have questioned the government’s ability to be an impartial broker in the current impasse.
The extension to the election deadline is procedural but, more than anything, it’s a performative and empty gesture. The government is lost when it comes to Northern Ireland. All the while, it seems to think it can use the Assembly as a political tool in the Brexit process.
The government has talked about implementing direct rule in Northern Ireland if there is a No-Deal Brexit. The suggestion is an attempt to put the thumbscrews on the DUP and push the party into backing the Withdrawal Agreement. The Secretary of State has dithered on the subject before. Owen Patterson raised the subject in the House of Commons in February and Bradley gave a non-answer.
Speaking in the House of Commons in January, Theresa May said that she wanted the Northern Ireland Assembly to have a say in whether the backstop should be implemented. She suggests this while the government makes little effort to restore the institutions. There’s also the fact that any vote in the Assembly to implement the backstop would be subject to a cross-community vote. It would be a recipe for chaos.
Despite not committing to direct rule, the government has passed two budget bills for Northern Ireland and made appointments that would normally be made by a local Minister. The government has also stepped in and legislated on devolved issues like housing. In February, Westminster intervened to prevent the debts of Northern Ireland Housing Associations being brought under the public balance sheet.
Theresa May’s government picks and chooses when it will get involved in Northern Ireland while using devolution as an excuse not to legislate on issues like abortion and equal marriage. The Supreme Court ruled last year that Northern Ireland’s abortion laws breached the European Convention of Human Rights. The decision wasn’t binding because of a legal technicality but the Judges have stressed that their words shouldn’t be ignored.
A recent opinion poll found that 79 per cent of people in Northern Ireland want the Assembly restored. It seems unlikely that they will get their wish any time soon. The government seems intent on kicking the can down the road. Whatever happens next, the situation can’t continue.