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
A No Entry sign outside Parliament Buildings at Stormont in Belfast. Photo: PA 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. Similarly, Sinn Féin is riding on the wave of anti-Brexit sentiment in Northern Ireland in the hope that it all goes pear shaped. In the event of a no-deal Brexit, which would do unmistakable economic and social damage to border communities, they would hope to push for a united Ireland. There have been burgeoning grassroots campaigns to get the Assembly back to work: the We Deserve Better movement organised rallies across Northern Ireland last August to protest the continued deadlock at Stormont, marking the moment the number of days without a Government surpassed the previous Belgian record at 541 days. Yet the campaign, started by Dylan Quinn, ran into difficulties early on, with speakers from the abortion reform and equal marriage campaigns being asked not to participate in the rallies as their messages were deemed too controversial. This led to a backlash on social media, and the campaign has not made any headway or touched the headlines since. The focus of both main parties will now be the local council elections in May, with the impact of Brexit and outstanding differences likely to feature prominently during the campaign. Home is where the heart is and neither party will dare to move an inch from their castles, especially with these being the first local elections to take place after the UK exits the EU in March. On such a fraught political battlefield, there is nothing to be gained by either the DUP or Sinn Féin crossing no man’s land to offer the hand of friendship. Leadership in this part of the UK is a rare and precious thing—especially at a time when Northern Ireland and the border with the Republic of Ireland are continually in the headlines across Europe. We do deserve better: we deserve the same rights and responsibilities as the rest of the United Kingdom. We deserve the same seat at the table as Scotland and Wales when it comes to Brexit, and we deserve a restored Assembly with a commitment to delivering on previous agreements, and to building a truly outward-looking society. Sadly, though, I can imagine all too clearly that I will be writing a similar article in January 2020, about having passed three years without a Government.