Running out of options







There has been much focus on restoring devolution to Northern Ireland, and that focus has been in the context of avoiding the return of direct administration from Westminster.

However, to all intents direct rule has been in place since 9th March, with civil servants taking decisions local politicians are not taking (because Sinn Fein continues to pressure a deal on an all (its terms) or nothing, and any decisions will have been in consultation with the Northern Ireland Office.

Much was made of a DUP MP saying it was time for Direct Rule may be a political ploy to ‘throw the cat amongst the pigeons’ ahead of the new phase of talks, coming soon. Though Sammy Wilson has said this earlier in the year too. Still a relatively recent poll (June 2017: with all the caveats, including online self-selecting panel) shows public support is greatest for devolution (albeit with an unspecified ‘reforming of the Executive’ or ‘the reformation of the NI Government institutions’)

Devolution is now part of the constitutional scaffolding in the UK, in its many forms – Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales is not of one form. None of the devolved jurisdictions has stayed static, with periodic changes to institutional arrangements. 2007 saw such change for Northern Ireland, and there is talk that perhaps it is time for a further period of reform: the positive response to devolution above was not on devolution ‘as is’; though no-one is suggesting, consociationalism, or the idea of power-sharing, is going away any time soon.

All political parties have voiced support the return of devolution and the Executive.

The largest Party, the DUP has not only made clear its desire to return to the Executive, it has used its Westminster strength to assure that some of the immediate challenges have the financial support to provide early benefits.

The second largest Party, Sinn Fein, whose agreement is required if an Executive is to be restored, has placed ‘pre-conditions’ to a return at this point in time. This is itself an odd position for a Party that has made a virtue in the past of demanding inclusion to talks only if there were no ‘pre-conditions’ and that everything was up for discussion.

Sinn Fein’s absolutist asks seem at present to be an insurmountable hurdle to restoration of the mandatory coalition. The system itself has become a barrier to any negotiation delivering a satisfactory outcome for everyone.

Alex Kane in the News Letter thinks the negotiation is stretching needlessly because neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein believe there is a realistic prospect of Direct Rule happening. However, this presumes both parties (certainly for entirely different reasons) actually don’t think direct administration isn’t a bad idea at this point: Sinn Fein focused on a likely election in the Republic don’t want to have any focus on its record in Government; the DUP remains at centre of power in Westminster and, presumably, with a line to the NIO.

The big difference between the two main Parties is that Sinn Fein seems rather absolutist in its demands – Sinn Fein’s way, or there is no way a return to the Stormont Executive is possible.

This begs the questions as to whether Sinn Fein want devolution in NI, short or long term. Its behaviour seems to raise the question as to whether the republican party, aligned for decades alongside the murderous Provisional IRA, actually wants NI to work?

Increasingly the answer seems to be affirmatively ‘no’, which then raises the issue of how to move any locally accountable administration forward with, or without Sinn Fein. That in turn brings forward a question as to whether any devolved power sharing administration can work give that an early promise by SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, to make Northern Ireland work seems to have been set to one side subsequently. Would the SDLP step forward and break with Sinn Fein on restoring devolution should it be in a position to do so.

While it may be considered that to break the impasses a voluntary system of coalition might be legislated for, it would be necessary to believe the SDLP had the cojones to step up and work to better ‘make Northern Ireland work’. Neither of the two election campaigns in 2017 would lend confidence to that notion. An agreement to power sharing such as that following Sunningdale would seem impossible today.

For Unionism, however great the desire to return to a working Assembly, it can’t be on the basis of wondering when the next crisis will be manufactured. To move forward there needs to be reliable and competent partners for Government. Sinn Fein have hardly proved reliable, or capable, in Government.

Recent behaviour on local Councils such as Belfast increase the disaffection among Unionists with the idea of restoring Stormont anytime soon.

As we move into the Autumn, a desire to see a Stormont Executive return might be strong, but the practical outworking of nationalist unpreparedness to get beyond grandstanding and knuckle down to more substantive issues that affect all – health, education, roads – makes the likelihood of a period of Direct Administration increasingly look like the only option available to the Secretary of State.