British government action not words needed to nudge the parties back to sanity

So the Executive is not quite dead. Or not dead but merely sleeping, The signs of life  evident  among ministers on both sides (minus an FM and dFM), over the rethink on the modest but totemic Líofa bursary programme, the refinancing of the RHI scheme  and mitigating the bedroom tax may be too little too late, or they may suggest a greater willingness to pick up the threads of government after an election than initially feared. We shall see.

The reports of differing civil service advice from different departments on whether legislation is necessary for implementing already agreed welfare mitigation exposes one of the key failures in the system that contributed to the RHI debacle: that despite all the protestations of good intentions from the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006 right up to Fresh Start just over a year ago,  the conduct of government  in largely separate party and departmental silos  too often  prevails over collective responsibility.

The civil service, traditionally the custodians of proper procedure in government must share the blame with the politicians. The new head of the civil service must be allowed to operate as a more effective cabinet secretary, upholding new standards of collective responsibility, enforcing compliance  with the ministerial code and holding sway over special advisers. Mrs Foster’s early denial of responsibility is a classic for getting  it wrong and an object lesson for students  of politics for many years.  But this is to anticipate.

Some things change, some remain the same 

Four points seem clear. First, the RHI fiasco is but one example of a slow trend away from the past and other traditional rubbing points towards the present.  Brexit may even recast political visions of the future.

Secondly, apart from tweaks, there is no space for a radical reworking of the institutions. The threshold of 30 for the blocking mechanism of petitions of concern should be reduced  in an Assembly of 90 and used with greater restraint, as promised in Fresh Start. It was the DUP’s margin over Sinn Fein  here that may have created the disastrous  illusion of a free hand. But  the mutual veto will continue. It really is all or nothing.

Thirdly, even if the election turns out  to be less “brutal” than Mrs Foster forecasts, all parties will overbid and so will have to given space to compromise, preferably sooner than later. At the same time, some progress is needed on Sinn Fein’s wish list, as much on merit as a purely political response to their demands. This time, there is  some recognition even within unionism that Sinn Fein have a case against the DUP. Open engagement should at last replace simple stalling or a preference for deal making behind closed doors.

The key point for politicians including Arlene Foster to grasp is that transparency and collective responsibility  in the end  can provide them with greater protection more than it inhibits their discretion in advancing their party’s cause. In coalition government politicians simply can’t afford to play zero sum games. There has to be enough for everybody.

Fourthly, the sudden collapse of the Fresh Start agreement only eight months after a promising beginning is proof that the British government can no longer persist with a lofty mediating role alone, albeit one sweetened by cash.  Executive action is needed, and quickly.

Set up the  high level inquiry

First, the Secretary of State should set up an inquiry into the RHI affair under the 2005 Inquiries Act. This has the necessary powers to compel persons and papers. If need be he should give an explicit promise not to interfere with the timetable during the course of the inquiry, which however should be set to  conclude  as soon as possible after making an  an interim report.  As well as assessing the responsibility alike of individual ministers, officials, watchdogs and regulators, the inquiry  should in effect become an independent review of the workings of the system of government including the rules of ethical compliance and reach conclusions on how to strengthen them. Main sessions should be held in public. This would be much more beneficial than a narrow attempt to pillory Arlene Foster.

Westminster to assume main responsibility for  the Past

Secondly it’s salutary to recall how much of Fresh Start was taken up with legacy issues and how much of  the can was kicked down the road. The British government’s Pilate-like approach to dealing with the past has to end. Westminster was mainly, and from 1972 wholly, legally and operationally responsible throughout the entire course of the Troubles. It has been disingenuous of successive British governments to dump responsibility for prescribing for the legacy on local parties wholly incapable of discharging it. If the Executive parties can’t agree, using the £150 million it has already aside Westminster  should immediately release the funding for  inquests which the Lord Chief Justice has repeatedly asked for.

They must then go on without delay to set up the Historic Inquiries Unit  to comb the files in Seapark and Derbyshire for evidence of wrongdoing by all sides. The funding for five years should only be extended after thorough and expert debate. The political wrangling which has accompanied stalling is largely self- cancelling. Sinn Fein’s keenness to register widespread collusion is bound to be balanced by a tacit reluctance to expose the extent of informants. The British government’s protestations of full compliance subject to national security should be put to the test.  The rest of the legacy agenda should follow on.

The elaborate machinery discussed in Haass to deal with traditions and parades are devices to get round  the abdication of responsibility by the Assembly.  In fact the solutions have mostly been identified and where the solutions aren’t implemented they are well understood.  Since the lapse into tolerance of the City Hall Union flags regime and the lifting of Camp Twaddell, careful monitoring and enforcement are more effective than trying the reach fresh formulae which will fail to impress the unruly and can always be violated by mischief and suspicion on the ground, including theatrical enactments of internal and external communal differences.

The on the ground approach adopted by the three person panel for finally ending paramilitary structures and activity is a much better model. It was willingly accepted by Sinn Fein  – a fact that deserved warmer acknowledgment by the DUP – despite Sinn Fein’s resentment  that the DUP were sucking up to and slyly funding loyalist paramilitaries at the very time when Sinn Fein  were expected to  denounce IRA  godfather activity.

Irish is for everybody. Paul Givan says so 

It was interesting that the DUP’s failure sufficiently to respect Irish language and culture was placed so prominently in Sinn Fein’s list of complaints.   DUP Communities minister Paul Givan, if not exactly the “ignoramus” condemned by Gerry Adams, showed that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing by abruptly stopping the funding for a  few children to  go to the Gaeltacht and then reversing his decision under pressure in a glaring admission of “ I got it wrong.”

However lessons from Wales do not favour full blown bilingualism in the public sphere.   Taking Givan at his word as a custodian of Irish and a fan of its depoliticisation, what would do massive good for community relations and cultural enrichment would be state-funded solutions involving general dual language for signage and certificates for births marriages and deaths, combined with much wider cross community Irish language  and cultural educational  options from elementary level onwards.

Absent for Brexit and the programme for government 

Brexit  will have a transformative effect, even if no one yet knows what. Supporters of direct rule  – and there are many –like to say that government is better without local politicians in charge . With the DUP and Sinn Fein divided over Leave or Remain,  this may seem more plausible than ever. Imagine a progressive LGBT regime under a direct rule secretary of state like Peter Hain; but under a Tory minister?  Imagine too all- Ireland as a near-free trade zone if the UK manages to negotiate near- free trade with the EU but outside the single market.  This is the nearest we are ever likely to get to Colum Eastwood’s British-Irish joint authority. It’s a line he would do well to develop as an opposition strategy with the Ulster Unionists, quite different from the old notions of jointery which will be shunned by any foreseeable Dublin government and would serve only to antagonise unionism. The functioning  jointery is implemented  through the GFA. As it works why fix it?

Apart from the high politics for the two governments, the Brexit agenda involves serious threats to  EU peace funding  and to northern farmers in a largely all-Ireland  agriculture sector. A whole raft of new powers in the environmental area is to be  transferred direct from Brussels to Stormont.  Does anyone really believe  that either  government preoccupied with greater concerns would be alert enough to take the tricks on behalf of  our particularly local needs?

And aside from Brexit what happens to the 2017 budget and the future of corporation tax which only local politicians can decide?  What is the fate of the programme for government based on  principles of “well being which we were proudly told were being negotiated between the DUP and Sinn Fein even as they were fighting the last election?  One of the most deplorable aspects of this sudden crisis is that when the chips are down, the urgent issues of government  count for so little in political calculations. In the end although they’d deplore the language, they rely dependently on  “Mother England”  always stepping  in.

The separate Northern Ireland Bill of Rights on Gerry Adams’ list so far opposed by unionists  may become essential if the May government persists with its aspiration  to replace the Human Rights Act embedded in the GFA  with a “British Bill” less subject to the European Convention on Human Rights. Either way NI rights will remain inviolate.

Looking ahead to a nationalist majority  

These are among the powerful reasons for returning to the Executive table. But above them is a political dynamic that  so far has been  deliberately under-emphasised but may not be for much longer – namely the unknown impact of a nationalist majority within twenty years.  Increasingly  – and out of necessity rather than magnanimity –  the DUP and Sinn Fein have to balance satisfying their core vote with appeals to the other side.

Unionists would be very  foolish to take for granted nationalists’ acceptance of continuing UK membership even under the GFA.  Nationalist politicians would be equally ill-advised to sit it out and wait for an impending majority to create nirvana by majority  consent. It is an unpalatable thought, but even though unionism is much weaker than it was a century ago, why should a unionist minority be any easier to manage in the 21st century than a nationalist minority was in the 20th?  The undoubted attractions of Unity within the EU for a sizeable number of unionists are still unlikely to supplant the old allegiances.

History tells us that appeals to democratic rectitude alone do not work. What may work – and this is another lesson from the past – is democratic government that keeps communal interests broadly satisfied  and their  antagonisms in check, and the respect – and even friendliness – it must engender to survive. Abstentionism  and majoritarianism alike are the wrong courses to follow.

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