A series of short-sighted decisions means May has (yet again) backed herself into a cornerby Siobhán Fenton / February 22, 2018 / Leave a comment
In Northern Ireland, hope of a power-sharing deal has faded into obscurity and patience is wearing thin among politicians and voters alike.
Northern Ireland has been in limbo since the power-sharing government first collapsed in January 2017. First, the British government called an election to try and break the impasse, only for the electorate to re-elect the same politicians who returned with the same qualms and red lines. A deadline was then set for the parties to reach an agreement to go back into government before direct rule might have to be imposed from London. The deadline duly came and went without progress.
The deadline was extended again, with the same outcome, some 8 or 9 times.
Throughout this time, the British government has maintained that they believe the parties can agree to reach a deal if they hold off implementing direct rule for just a little longer. In the meantime, Northern Ireland has been without a government for 13 months and is instead being run by unelected civil servants who are unaccountable to an electorate. The region’s claims to be a democracy become more and more tenuous with each passing day.
In light of this, the obvious next step would be for the London government to finally make good on its promise to implement direct rule and begin running the region. Such a move would be a certain setback in the peace process and a sign that politics have not normalised to the extent that many would have hoped 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement.
However, it would not be without precedent. On multiple occasions since the Agreement, the London government has stepped into to implement direct rule and provide stability to Northern Ireland at times when the local government has been unable or unwilling to fulfil this role. The last such period of direct rule ran from 2002-2007 under then Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Despite this, it appears that the British government is doing everything it can to sidestep this option. This week, Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley updated MPs in the House of Commons on the crisis at Stormont, telling them earnestly that she still believed a deal was possible. Her counterpart in the Labour Shadow cabinet Owen Smith dryly congratulated her on what he called “Herculean optimism” for the view. In Northern Ireland, many are likely to view her hope as being at best wildly naive and at worst outright delusion.
So why is the British government continuing to maintain its position that it doesn’t need to impose direct rule and local government is still imminent at Stormont? A generous reading would be that they believe so passionately in the peace process they simply cannot bring themselves to acknowledge the grim state in which it currently lies.
However, the more likely reality is a complex mix of factors involving Brexit and their current confidence and supply pact with the DUP which push direct rule into unchartered territory.
Why Westminster is reluctant
First and foremost, sources in the Irish government are reported to have said they will not accept Northern Ireland being ruled directly from London alone. Instead, they want to have considerable influence in how it is run- a role they are entitled to have as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. The thought of Ireland having a say in how Northern Ireland is run will be met with horror by most unionists in the region, who consider Ireland to be a foreign country with no right to have a say on what they insist is an internal UK matter.
However, for Theresa May to refuse such a request could antagonist Ireland at a time when she also needs to keep them onside in EU negotiations and particularly when she is already under fire for appearing to disregard Ireland’s entitlements to involvement in Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit process.
Closer to home in London, the DUP’s pact to prop up May’s minority government causes a further headache for the Prime Minister. The party’s involvement with the government is unprecedented and has never before occurred during a period of direct rule.
For most nationalists in Northern Ireland, it would not merely be the Conservatives running the region but the DUP as well, making them biased towards the party’s particular brand of hardline unionism and making a mockery of any claims of neutrality.
A further purely practical issue would arise from direct rule in that with Westminster focused on time-consuming debates on Brexit, the parliament simply doesn’t have enough room in its legislative timetable to make space for bills on the minutiae of Northern Ireland’s affairs.
On a wider ideological level, the Conservatives are likely to view direct rule as a politically toxic matter. Direct rule would mean they would become responsible for Northern Ireland’s definition of marriage and its abortion ban.
The party is likely to come under pressure to extend marriage equality to LGBT couples who currently cannot marry in Northern Ireland, as well as overturning the abortion ban which makes having a termination a criminal offence with a sentence of life in prison.
The Supreme Court is due to issue its judgment imminently on whether the abortion ban is a human rights violation and a number of women are due to stand trial this year, which is likely to put a spotlight on the matter and calls for London to legislate will intensify.
Nevertheless, many in Northern Ireland (particularly DUP politicians and voters) are likely to be fiercely critical of any moves by the Conservatives to alter either of these laws and would condemn it as unnecessary British interference in Northern Ireland’s affairs.
Nationalists not represented
Finally, for the first time, Northern Ireland’s nationalist community is not represented in Westminster. In the last parliament, three nationalist MPs from the moderate SDLP represented the community but they lost their seats in the June 2017 elected as politics in Northern Ireland polarised amid the power-sharing collapse.
Now, only Sinn Féin MPs represent nationalists and the party have a long-held abstentionist policy which means they do not take their seats in Westminster. This means that there are no nationalist voices in Westminster: instead only the DUP are present, along with one independent unionist MP.
The decision of the nationalist community to elect abstentionist MPs suggests they are roundly rejecting Westminster’s involvement in the region, which would undermine direct rule’s credibility further.
Similarly, combined with concerns about bias due to the DUP-Conservative pact, it would add to nationalists viewing Westminster as a unionist-only talking shop.
A poisoned chalice
For these reasons, direct rule posits a poisoned chalice for the Conservatives. The combination of complex and overlapping circumstances make this one of the hardest times to impose direct rule on Northern Ireland, precisely at the time when it appears to need it for the first time in a decade.
Unfortunately, a series of short-sighted decisions on Brexit and the confidence and supply deal mean May has backed herself into a corner yet again.
As a result, it seems London will continue to stick to its public position that direct rule doesn’t need to be introduced just yet and will instead hope against all odds that the circumstances will change if they just wait it out that little bit longer. Unfortunately, all outside evidence suggests this is unlikely to happen.