Conservatives to start governing Northern Ireland?

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.


  • barnshee

    Stick it to them

    Suspend the Rabble at Stormont
    No salaries -no “expenses” —on the dole (or is that the DLA) ASAP
    Watch them return to their well paid careers before they entered “politics” -or perhaps not.

    Then start on the “councils”

  • murdockp

    Cameron is a lazy politician and the poorest prime minister (other than Gordon Brown) in living memory. Thatcher would work twenty hours a day and Blair would stop at midnight, I am told by insiders that Cameron is often seen watching the soaps and television after six and does little in the evenings and weekends.

    Why make this point, he has little or no interest in NI, most of the Tories would happily hand the whole lot over to Dublin if they could.

    The Thick of it sketch were the cabinet minister firmly states they will do any job other than the Northern Ireland secretary is so close to truth, it is what make the sketch even funnier.

    That said, the Tories can do no worse a job that this mob. As for the comment that the public purse is empty, not true at all, it is just SF and DUP have wasted all the money.

  • submariner

    Jeff what you have described above is a dictatorship/ colonial rule not democracy. The Tories have no mandate here and have no right to just dismantle the assembly. Yes it may not be to your liking but it is what people here voted for. Would you suggest the same treatment for Scotland somehow I don’t think so. Don’t get me wrong I’m no great fan of the assembly but do respect the will of the voters having grown up in the era of the direct rule dictatorship that went before when we were ruled by people we couldn’t vote for

  • barnshee


    “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.”

    The rules apply until; you get them changed

    A “ward” in the new Derry council rejects the decisions of the Council- it has no mandate in the ” ward” -what should they do?

    “The Tories have no mandate here and have no right to just dismantle the assembly.”

    Equally they have no “mandate”to continue funding the obscenity of waste that is NI They do have a “MANDATE” to turn off the money tap and they show welcome signs of doing so.

  • Catcher in the Rye


    The consequence of this ‘special case’ stone-walling is an appalling quality of service for the electorate.

    The electorate are getting the government they voted for.

    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.

    This is what we had (with a handful of short interruptions) between 1972 and 1998. It’s called “direct rule”. The apolitical management team you mention will have little of the real power. As before, most of what happens will be decided by the civil service, with ministers signing off. The Conservatives are not interested in governing Northern Ireland – it’s a thankless, neverending task for a minister with few prospects of experience that could lead to onward ministerial promotion.

    [as an aside, this is little different from what happens under devolution. With one or two exceptions, such as welfare reform, the policy agenda of the Executive includes little that is inspired by the parties that make up the Executive. Government here is more like a restaurant; the civil service present the menu and the parties select the parts they want.]

    The other aspect that you’re hinting at, hoping that I’ve not misunderstood you, is that direct rule will bring reforms. But you must know that UK governments have never sought to push any specific domestic agenda here (beyond matters that are inherently cross cutting national concerns, such as welfare reform). There are a few reasons for this.

    First, devolution in Northern Ireland will remain UK government policy. As such, the government will not want to set up anything in terms of direct rule that looks like it will become permanent. Just as in 1972, and subsequently, any legislation that enables direct rule will be deliberately designed in the form of a stopgap.

    Secondly, they are aware that they have no real mandate here. This is not really the same as the seat with the 77% Labour majority. The people who live in that constituency accept, on some level, the Conservatives’ mandate to govern. In Northern Ireland we generally do not accept the mandate of any UK government to govern. This isn’t a new idea – it dates back to at least 1922, if not before. And it’s not just an Irish republican perspective – Unionists constantly complain about UK government involvement (for example in the form of the Parades Commission) on the basis that it is not locally accountable. The UK government is facing a similar problem in Scotland.

    These reasons are why the UK government never extended the 1967 abortion act to Northern Ireland, and why it is unlikely to legislate for marriage equality within Northern Ireland unless it is forced to by the courts. This is not new – in the 1980s the UK government’s privatisation agenda was muted here compared with the rest of the UK. The government will do the minimum necessary to ensure society has some kind of stability and that it operates. But it won’t drive the reforms that are needed.

    I’m not massively convinced that the Conservative government is “frustrated”. I don’t think it really cares. There are things the UK government could do to break the logjam – such as bending a little bit on welfare reform. They’ve shown little in the way of imagination on the matter.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Why should we suspend the government that we all voted for ?

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Jeff’s premise on this is a bit up the left.

    The people of East Ham may not have voted Conservative, but they understand (to the extent required) that the Conservatives have a mandate to govern. The Conservatives, in turn, understand the limitations of their mandate. No UK government can simply ignore and ride roughshod over the people who did not vote for it. This is one of the fundamental principles that allows the UK to be a stable democracy.

    In Northern Ireland, we’ve never really accepted the UK government’s mandate to govern here. Unionists and nationalists alike. That dates all the way back to 1922. In fact, if you want to get historical about it, it goes all the way back to the Act of Union – an ill-fitting, rushed solution which on the surface was intended to create an overarching UK government but which in practice did not. The UK has been ever-so-slowly breaking up ever since, starting with the Irish Free State, with Scotland likely to go next.

  • Turgon

    “My understanding is – based on private conversations with senior Conservatives”

    I am sorry but this is nothing more than speculation. As Catcher in the Rye says below it is simply Direct Rule with the addition of a few pieces of trivia to make it look interesting.

    If Mr. Peel has something of a scoop he should cross check it and tell us. Alternatively if he has indeed spoken to senior Conservatives I would be most surprised if they told him much as they would know it would end up somewhere like here. Unless of course this is a strategy to scare politicians or simply someone thinking aloud.

    All the above is possible but the idle speculation option looks most likely.

  • barnshee

    Whats this “we all voted for ?”
    The last turnout was around 50% from memory
    hardly a “mandate”
    cut the (metaphorical) goolies off them

  • Slater

    Sadly it won’t change. Indeed the Tories will grant semi-autonomous region status to Tower Hamlets and Bradford in due course.
    And with Sharia rather than Free P law.

  • OneNI

    No mandate? They are the UK govt and have a mandate to govern the UK. The local parties have a mandate too – to run the Assembly as part of a Subservient DEVOLVED arrangement.
    The UK Govt sets the overall public expenditure picture and NI Assembly gets to decide how it manages that. Currently the Assembly has decided not to implement welfare reform (its perogative) and are refusing to deal with the consequences (NOT its perogative).
    Its is only because the UK Govt has a duty of care for all UK citizens that it is getting involved at this level at all. They would be perfectly within their rights to say ‘ thats your call live with it’

  • GEF

    I agree with Turgon and other subscribers, Mr Peel is propagating speculation.

    For the NI assembly to be suspended and the NI office run the show once more, either SF or the DUP would have to walk out of office.

    “The Assembly has been suspended on several occasions, the longest suspension being from 14 October 2002 until 7 May 2007. When the Assembly was suspended, its powers reverted to the Northern Ireland Office.”

  • barnshee

    Here here

  • submariner

    Barnshee I realise that being a Unionist the concept of democracy is an alien to you but everyone over eighteen has the option to cast a vote those who do not don’t get a say. That is the way it works.

  • Catcher in the Rye

    Why should the people who take no interest in the governing of the country have their abstention counted in any kind of decision making ?

  • Gingray

    Yay! The Tories are coming 🙂

    After running two sectarian campaigns in 2010 and 2015, I’m sure we can count on them doing their usual fantastic job in the regions. Which generally involves making sure a supply of young white English speaking people have minimal opportunities and are forced to move to London and the south east to keep their party faithful happy.

    Unless of course this is the usual poor blog, with unnamed senior tories saying they have a plan for northern Ireland.

    The status quo suits Cameron, he will need those unionist votes as this term continues, hence why he, and the party faithful in Northern Ireland, played the sectarian game.

    I still enjoy the fact that they rule absolutely with only 37% of the vote on a 70% turnout – British democracy in action.

  • eac1968

    It is highly unlikely that we will get anything like a ‘normal’ parliamentary democracy here for the foreseeable future simply because we don’t have politicians of the calibre needed to do the job. That is not to say that the skills needed don’t exist here, it is just that those who would make good parliamentarians don’t go into politics. Why? Because the disgusting tribal nature of the existing parties in NI puts off anyone with any sense.

    At the moment, we have two main tribes standing for election. One consists of the flat-earth fundamentalist christians who believe that the planet is 6000 years old and that God buried dinosaur bones to test the faith of those who find them. The other consists of the ‘politicians’ formerly known as terrorists who gave up shooting and bombing their fellow countrymen to get the high paying jobs at Stormont and are now happy to be Ministers of the Crown that they don’t recognise. They loudly protest when it is pointed out that they are the Queen’s Ministers, but have no reply when reminded that their legislation (of which there is precious little – it would be interesting to calculate the cost per act of parliament since devolution!) only comes into force when given Royal Assent.

    Sandwiched between the former and the latter we have the minority deluded ineffectuals, the leader of one who might just be the most principled politician in the place but he only gets a job because the leaders of the 2 main mobs don’t trust them uns to do the job, while the leader of the other tries to tell us that they’re doing brilliantly at every election despite their vote shrinking all the time.

    I say kick them all out on their ears (all right, I don’t say ‘ears’, but this is a family website) and give the place over to the UN to run. Paddy Ashdown did a great job in Bosnia, get him out of retirement and give him a crack of the whip!

  • Pasty2012

    Suspension of Democracy by the British because they don’t like the people who the people voted for is not an answer or a way to solve problems. Whilst this is always a Unionist demand and threat it may also bite them on the arse as the British would want to show the Irish and US Governments that the move is not just against Republicans and so are likely to introduce a number of new laws that the DUP/UUP are totally against but that the Conservative Party signed up to – like Same Sex Marriage, Irish Language Act etc.
    Would the DUP and UUP bring the institutions down knowing that, after all they can’t be stupid to think that the British Government will only introduce the Welfare Reform Act which will affect their voters in a big way and bring the spotlight onto the money and expenses that the Unionist politicians and their children get and which shields them from the same every day struggles as the people voting for them.
    The demands of the DUP and UUP Politicians to introduce the Welfare Reforms and Austerity may be what the likes of the PUP need to get the Unionist voters to finally back a party that is not generally Conservative and against the working class people whose votes they need to keep their massive salaries and expense accounts. How many people other than the children and spouses of the DUP/UUP politicians get paid for working for them on their expense accounts ? not feeding to many families on the Shankill or Newtownards Roads.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    “christians who believe that the planet is 6000 years old and that God buried dinosaur bones to test the faith of those who find them.”

    It’s funny you mention that, there is a great deal of evidence to show dinosaurs and man co existed. Also testing of dating methods like carbon dating being shown to be way off. Eg different parts of the same fossil being dated 10s or 100s of thousands of years apart. Or new rock from volcanic eruptions in 20th C being dated 10s or 100s of thousands of years old. Lots of interesting science vids on YouTube about the evidence for a young earth. Well worth a look.

  • Conor Conneally

    you’re having a laugh right?

    Dinosaurs went extinct over 65 million years ago when a ruddy big rock hit the planet.

    Modern Humans emerged less than 250,000 years ago.
    you know that old Episodes of the Flintstones don’t count as science right?

  • Conor Conneally

    I dont think we need some unelected English viceroy with zero democratic legitimacy ruling over us like some absentee landlord.

  • notimetoshine

    “Suspension of Democracy by the British because they don’t like the people who the people voted for is not an answer or a way to solve problems”

    The suspension of the assembly isnt because the Tories don’t like the parties voted for by the people (if it where then there wouldn’t be a welsh or Scottish assembly). The suspension would exist because the assembly failed and is failing to solve the problems presented to it. Nothing to do with ideological difference, everything to do with sheer incompetence.

    NI holds no bargaining chips. Even the vague possibility of NI parties blackmailing the Tories for more money in return for parliamentary support is gone. Add to this the rising surge of English nationalism and a heightened awareness of the subventions and costs of the devolved governments policies, as a result of the divisive Scottish referendum, means that the Tories can’t be seen to nor are they inclined to pander to wayward devolved governments.

    So we are left with two options; direct rule and the problems therein, or we suck it up accept that there isn’t any more money forth coming and we have no way of squeezing it out of London and do our best at mitigating aspects of welfare reform that don’t suit us or are unpalatable to the electorate.

    No doubt it may dent and offend the ideological purity of some of the parties but as Bismarck said: Politics is the art of the possible, the attainable- the art of the next best…

  • notimetoshine

    Ah yes YouTube, that bastion of academic rigour eh?

    I didn’t really want to comment on this as it is off topic but glaring omissions and all that.

    Firstly even though many dating techniques often have a margin of area in the tens of thousands of years we are talking geological time here, so that makes little difference. Even hundred of thousands of years age difference between what we thought and what the actual dates of fossils are make no difference.

    Oh and when you say man and dinosaurs co existed, are they homo sapiens, or some other form of archaic or early modern man?

    Or are they more generally hominids like Australopithecus?

    The last common ancestor of the hominids and apes is now considered to have been found around 10 million years ago. Even if we expand this to the 40 million years that has been considered and allow for some margin of error regarding fossils of some form of large reptile dinosaur like creatures then that still only gives an ancestor of our evolutionary ancestor existing at the same time. We hadn’t even split into apes and hominids then.

    Man was never there, end of.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    The point is that the dating techniques do not work. If your method shows a 50 year old rock to be 100000 years old and other young samples give ages all over the shop, then the method doesn’t work.
    There is a wealth of scientists presenting evidence that does not match up to the atheist world view. Check out some vids on Creation science. I find it very interesting.

  • Sir Rantsalot

    I’m not having a giraffe ! Do a few searches and watch what evidence is presented. You know that there have been many forged missing link bones found over the years right? Lots of things that are presented as fact by atheist scientists have no actual evidence to support their claims. Have a look at a few scientists giving lectures and then cross check what they say.

  • notimetoshine

    And what are these dating techniques that don’t work? Examples please.

    There are many different dating methods in fossil research

    Oh and the only method of dating that you mentioned radio carbon dating isn’t in general really useful or relevant beyond about 50000 years give or take.

    Creation science, please

  • Reader

    Here you go:
    Let us know if you find an issue that isn’t dealt with properly. You should probably start in the Geology section, then move on to Paleontology.

  • Ian James Parsley

    I’d love to know who these “senior figures” are, but they don’t live in the real world.

    And, of course, Northern Ireland is not East Ham. Democratic legitimacy as agreed in 1998 derives from power-sharing devolution (and cross-border bodies) within the UK – but it is the whole package. The whole thing is a balance designed to secure democratic legitimacy, giving a nod to all identities (UK, all-Ireland, Northern Ireland, Unionist, Nationalist). Tamper with it, and you lose the legitimacy.

    Of course, the 2006 St Andrews Agreement removes the ability simply to “suspend” (the Smith Commission has done likewise for Scotland), thus creating essentially a federal state – “Parliamentary sovereignty” now has no practical meaning. In any case, in Northern Ireland, the convention since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement is that all decisions are taken alongside the Irish Government (which will simply not countenance what these “senior figures” want, and with justification).

    The likeliest move if there is no movement at all in September is that the NIO will do nothing – something which is entirely justified, as it is for the Assembly to sort the mess out. It will scrabble along until May.

    The second likeliest move is the NIO will find some way of forcing an early election. Again, this is a basic misunderstanding of Northern Ireland – the NIO will think that somehow an election will “solve” things by giving a mandate to one or other side in the welfare gridlock, whereas actually it will merely reinforce both sides.

    Such an election, whenever it occurs, could be followed by some form of mothballing simply because parties may refuse to nominate the relevant office holders. That is not the same as “suspending” and it still (quite rightly) leaves the emphasis with the locally elected parties to resolve the outstanding problems.

    (There will be no fundamental change to the structures because they are the way they are for a reason. Subtle things, such as guaranteed Chairs for parties not in the Executive or independent enforcement of the Ministerial Code are possible – and while not fundamental changes, they may make a fundamental difference. But they could be implemented tomorrow, without suspension or anything else.)

  • Catcher in the Rye

    “none of the above” is a cop out.

    Those of us who are adults know that reality – life – seldom offers us a choice that ticks all the boxes. Every decision we make in our lives is a compromise. “none of the above” is for people who want everything to be their way all the time. That can’t happen.

  • Thomas Girvan

    You have been taking the Flintstones too literally.

  • John Collins

    In Australia you are find if you do not cast your vote. The opinions of those who did not bother to vote are utterly irrelevant. They had their chance and for centuries ordinary people had no vote. Shame on them.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Oh Jeffrey, this assertion the Conservatives will come in and fix everything … Look at all the foibles of direct rule, and I don’t just mean all the Troubles related ones.

    If Northern Ireland really was as Finchley as Finchley the angst for the local Tories here and the Senior (citizen) Tories who want Northern Ireland to go back to the familiar dreary steeples and the loyal military ally to their comrades in England … would go away and they’d no longer need to retreat to fantasy lands.

    UCUNF wasn’t a disaster, it may’ve been a mistake but it held a mirror up to the Tories and rather than applying makeup they broke the mirror. How can you win votes, if you’re afraid of losing an election?

    It’s probably embarrassing for them to humble themselves before a population they want to be stakeholders in their vision, when they think they can dictate away tribalism, or social segregation, or unemployment but only if the people validate your political and economic superiority.

    At least UCUNF made the Tories deal with the real people here in the here and now rather than their fantasy of the Finchley-like Ulster of the War years.

    It’s a smug superiority complex that make the Conservatives completely unlikable even to business people, self made men and women, British nationalists and right wingers here they might otherwise admire.

    Ultimately, Conservatives are uncomfortable here, that may also be the case in Scotland and Wales too. These parts of the UK are more foreign to this group of English Tories than France, Germany, the U.S. and neighbouring Republic of Ireland … Completely off their radar at times.

    It was the Conservatives that asserted the lack of a self, strategic and economic interest and they aren’t interested, but they do at some levels the same time want to control it all the same.