The people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning government. So why do I get the sense I'll be writing this article again in January 2020?by Stephen Donnan / January 9, 2019 / Leave a comment
This week marks two years since the power-sharing Assembly in Northern Ireland collapsed. The slow-burning fire that eventually swept the Assembly away had been smouldering since 2012 and was fanned by a succession of tit-for-tat battles over welfare reform, marriage equality, paramilitarism, murders linked to the IRA, sectarianism around emblems and flags, and investigations into the Troubles.
The Government that was formed after the 2016 Assembly election was the first to feature only the DUP and Sinn Féin as the other, smaller parties that had been the glue for a dysfunctional Executive opted out altogether. It lasted eight months before it came tumbling down.
Two years on, one might expect to see some impetus from the British Government to get the Northern Ireland Assembly back up and running. In fact, the situation has now become normalised.
Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley was appointed to the role a year ago. She has been the most ineffective in recent memory, and there are currently no plans for any talks to reestablish the devolved Government. With the Conservative Party basically held to ransom by the DUP over Brexit, Bradley is unlikely to do anything that would jeopardise the Government’s fragile partnership in the Commons on key Brexit and budget legislation.
As Private Member’s Bills gather dust in the Speaker’s Office and Committee Rooms standing dormant, the impact of the Assembly’s dissolution can be felt in the corridors of civil service offices across Northern Ireland. With no Ministers in place to make critical decisions on funding and grants, the responsibility has fallen to the Heads of Departments, who are looking to Westminster for clarity.
Bradley has sought to find a workaround by granting new powers to the civil service via the Executive Formation & Exercise of Functions Bill. This, however, has been lambasted by civil service head David Sterling, who says staff are being placed under unfair pressure to usurp a democratically elected body. In practice, Bradley is simply legislating a way out of having to call another election, giving Theresa May and the DUP time to save parliamentary arithmetic flimsier than wet toilet paper. Foster’s party, meanwhile, has little impetus to resolve the situation with Sinn Féin when they can pick up the phone to the Prime Minister whenever they want.