The United Kingdom is a parliamentary democracy. The most important decisions are taken by an elected government that may, or may not, have an electoral mandate from all regions and all constituencies of the United Kingdom. That’s why the Conservative government’s policies are applied in East Ham – a constituency where the Labour MP polled 77.6% of the popular vote versus the Conservative Party’s paltry 12.1%.
One can imagine the reaction if the voters of East Ham were to argue that under no circumstances could welfare reforms be foisted on the population of East Ham (that incorporates some of London’s most deprived boroughs, such as Newham) because the government has no mandate in the constituency.
However, that’s precisely the argument used by Sinn Fein and Unionist MPs when they don’t like national legislation – it can’t be applied here because of special circumstances. It’s the argument used by Unionists when they opposed the extension of the 1967 Abortion Act. It’s the same argument used by Sinn Fein in relation to the proposed welfare reforms (not so much reforms as tweaks).
The consequence of this ‘special case’ stone-walling is an appalling quality of service for the electorate. Politically, Northern Ireland is in a permanent stalemate. Opposing sides refuse to budge an inch and the institutions of government allow one side to veto the other in perpetuity.
Such a political vacuum is allowed to continue by successive governments that simply will not countenance a return to direct rule despite devolution’s abject failure. The reason is the potential return to violence. Sinn Fein uses every opportunity to hint at such a return if things don’t go their way. The DUP, meanwhile, wants to hang on to power at all costs so goes along with the charade that is the Northern Ireland Executive. The NIO simply will not rock the boat. Although there is evidence that senior Conservatives are getting increasingly frustrated by the status quo.
The current NIO team, with Teresa Villiers at the helm, shows little signs of making any moves towards unblocking the stalemate. Part of the problem is that policy continues to be defined by Jonathan Caine, Special Advisor to Villiers (and Owen Paterson before her).
Caine is an old-guard Unionist who is distrusted (at best) by most of the local Conservative Party members and constituency officers. However, nationally he has been seen to be a safe pair of hands despite his involvement in some very questionable initiatives in the past – such as the UCUNF debacle that resulted in the disastrous Conservative/UUP electoral pact in the 2010 general election.
However, given the inability of the local Executive to govern – or even agree a budget – it’s clearly time for the Conservative Party to intervene and suspend the local Assembly. The institution is so fundamentally flawed that it is no longer fit for any purpose.
My understanding is – based on private conversations with senior Conservatives – that the preferred direction, and one that is likely to be argued-for at the upcoming Conservative Party Conference, is that the Executive be replaced by a temporary (and apolitical) management team that would be appointed by the Secretary of State. Each team member would ostensibly control one or two departments each and that a Finance Head would agree a budget – based on direct negotiation with the Treasury. Assembly elections in May would be suspended and the temporary management arrangements would be put in place for at least 5 years, during which time new structures of government would be defined. However, it would appear likely that the Assembly’s role and powers would be reduced to the equivalent of a county council in England. Control of welfare would return to Whitehall – and powers over Justice. Policing would remain in local control but the Policing Board would be de-politicised.
My understanding is that David Cameron is keen to see more clarity of thinking in terms of resolving the Northern Ireland stalemate. But part of the reason for a lack of progress is an abject failure on the part of the NIO to challenge a status quo in Northern Ireland politics that is resulting increasing dependence on the public purse – when the public purse is essentially bust. The NIO may be forced to face up to the fact that change is coming, and coming soon.