The collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly can be averted

The Ulster Unionists appear to have succumbed to the revulsion many unionists feel at the very idea of sharing power with the spawn of the IRA that most of them have suppressed every day since 1998. The danger now is that they will set off a chain reaction and take the DUP with them. The  DUP MP Jeffrey Donaldson says the UUP’s move does nothing to support the DUP’s aim to exclude Sinn Fein from the Executive, even if this requires a period of suspension until a new system is sorted out.  In the present atmosphere this appears to differ from the UUP’s position only as regards timing. The only practical idea around at the moment is to restore the International Monitoring Commission which was wound up in 2011. But with the stakes being raised so high, is this likely to be enough?

We are entering a period when the British government will move heaven and earth to avoid direct rule. How prepared they are isn’t clear, even though they feared some sort of crisis if not precisely this one.

Both governments will now make their own assessments of IRA activity, on which they will want to agree and probably will, as both will rely heavily on PSNI and MI5 intelligence. The Gardai’s assessment will apparently take some months, so talk of a September deadline is unrealistic. The police services will also have to answer charges that they were less than assiduous in following up murders and intimidation fore the sake of ” peace.” All this will buy time.  But the eventual  verdict is unlikely to differ much from what we already know. Sinn Fein will find it hard to reject it. But what are they expected to do about it? Does anybody believe they could just snap their fingers to yield up the killers, even if they wanted to? The closer you look at it the more it seems to be about politics. The two governments – Dublin especially- must   resist the temptation to play electoral politics to dish Sinn Fein.

Plenty of people want them all to go away, the whole shebang of them, and end the infernal noise that passes for much of politics. But this seriously discounts the essentials of what has been achieved.

A general unionist withdrawal at this stage would be unlike the Assembly suspension of 12 years ago. For one thing seven years of more or less stable power sharing has elapsed, with all its faults.  It is of course true that not all blame should rest with unionism.The time has come for Sinn Fein to end prevarication and denounce the surviving IRA as clearly as they denounced the dissidents.

The IRA connection is now a liability for Sinn Fein. When this thought it is aired,  insiders wag their fingers, suck their teeth and say knowingly with a pitying smile. ” you don’t understand, this cuts across the fundamentals of the republican tradition.” But why does tradition always rule? If de Valera could do it under far harsher circumstances, so can today’s very different Sinn Fein.

The killings  have shown that the argument is blown, that continuing association means they can keep the IRA in check. But if Sinn Fein comply it also means that unionists can no longer hold Sinn Fein accountable for IRA activity. Politics would be free at last.

A full blown political crisis risks peace, not through a return to war, but by  strengthening the hands of the very bully boys on both sides that the Ulster Unionist move is supposedly intended to challenge.  It will have wasted much of the effort of the past 20 years. If the last decade has been frustrating, the next one may be a political Siberia with the consequent effects on Northern Ireland’s performance and morale. How else can communities develop except  finally through politics?

The Ulster Unionists are withdrawing from the Executive not the Assembly. Does anyone really believe this heralds their big breakthrough?  At best, Mike Nesbitt and his happy band are sending out mixed messages. At worst their move reeks of opportunism and damages an otherwise constructive idea because of its timing and cause. The road to opposition was marked out in the Stormont House Agreement. The UUP had been fumbling over taking it for years. This had nothing to do with trusting Sinn Fein but was designed to mitigate the frustrations of the smaller parties with the creaking DUP/ Sinn Fein duopoly. It was intended to make the Assembly work better, not bring it down.

What are the alternatives to keeping the show on the road?

An election can be held if either 72 members vote for it or if the Assembly fails to elect a first and a  deputy first minister within six weeks. The latter presupposes their resignations – in effect Peter Robinson’s resignation

In any election in the present atmosphere we are certain to have a sterile struggle within unionism   to find out who trusts Sinn Fein the least. Nationalists will fear a unionist attempt to go back on gains won since 1998 and default mainly to Sinn Fein. We will be in the same position only worse.

What are the prospects of the UUP and the SDLP making common cause against “the men of violence”?   Their best option, to regain their leading roles of 1998 through election remains implausible whatever the present euphoria within UUP ranks. The most they are likely to manage would be to make the gesture to abstain  in  the formality of voting for FM and DFM after the election. This would make the Executive a little less monolithic but not much.

What if the police and the two governments are unable to go any further than Chief Constable Hamilton has done already? This may be just enough for Robinson and McGuinness  to hold their joint line up to the scheduled  election and patch up a new deal after a lot of steam has been released between then and now.  And by the way, they will have to come up with face savers on welfare for which they will need British government help.

Whatever happens next, the consequences for trust and the reputation of politicians are likely to be serious. The internal pressures on Robinson and McGuinness are now even greater. The best that can happen immediately is for the tempo to slow down in a series of talks between all the parties  involved, with the two governments assuming the prominent role  they had so fervently  hoped they had left behind  in 2007.This will test the contingency plans of David Cameron’s government in particular, who will do all they can to avoid a return to direct rule.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London

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