At the end of last night’s Slugger Punt event (which could have easily gone on for another hour, thanks to an engaging, well-informed panel and Alan’s role as compere!) there was a brief discussion on the talks process after the election and how long it would take. There was no broad consensus for a timescale, other than that there would be no all-encompassing solution within the three week deadline specified in legislation; some speculating 2-3 years of deadlock; others speculating a process ending in agreement within a year. Alex Kane’s observation spoke to our pragmatic sensibilities; he argued in support of the possibility that a quick “heads of agreement” approach to get the basics of government in place to solve immediate problems based on consensus was imminently deliverable and that, in particular, we should stop pretending that we have reached agreement on issues when we clearly have not.
I managed to sneak in a quick point at the end in support of Chris Donnelly’s observation that any talks should be completed within a few months – namely that this would necessarily be the case, as the UK government would act to ensure that direct rule would be as painful as possible, to ensure in turn that parties, and the local electorate, were motivated to return to devolution as quickly as possible. This is a point I’d like to expand upon.
There’s been a cross section of opinion in NI for a while now that direct rule might somehow be a good thing. I’ve heard social progressives argue that it’s the only way we’re going to get delivery on marriage equality and abortion reform (indeed, during the flags protest crisis in 2012, Peter Robinson issued a lengthy statement in defence of devolution naming these two issues as a consequence of direct rule). Hardline unionists argue that they’d rather be governed from London than by a powersharing executive with Sinn Féin on it. The NI Conservatives argue that London is the real government and that Northern Ireland is no different from Kent – a particularly blinkered perspective, as I will explain below. The switched-off section of the public say that giving any of our politicians power is inherently bad.
But, finally, I’m hearing some republicans hinting at this – never directly, but the implication is there. Gerry Adams has commented in the past that the British Government should enact an Irish language Act over the head of the Assembly, even though the Act is clearly within the Assembly’s devolved competence. On a radio piece last Friday, I heard John O’Dowd say that in the event of a failure to reach agreement on devolved government “the whole thing should be dissolved” which can mean nothing other than a return to direct rule. Earlier in the election campaign the SDLP leader made a reference to returning to “joint rule” in the event of a failure to reach agreement, although the party seems to have backed off from mentioning this later in the campaign.
In considering this, account must be taken of UK government policy, which has its basis in history. It is over a century since the UK government actively asserted a role in governing any part of Ireland. As the Home Rule crisis rolled on and eventually came to a head in the years following 1916, this policy solidified, leading to the current constitutional arrangements where two jurisdictions, one of them a full part of the UK, govern themselves. In 1972, when the UK government was forced to deal with the crisis in government, it did not seek to remove Stormont – it only sought to repatriate security powers, and only prorogued the entire Parliament when this request was rejected. Even that prorogation was temporary, for six months.
When the Government legislated to formally abolish Stormont in 1973, it simultaneously created the framework for a new Assembly and set about holding talks for that Assembly to take the reins of power, as it did briefly before it was brought down by the UWC strike. The Government continued to press for devolution; moving closer, with the Prior assembly, and then again, during the Brooke/Mayhew talks in the 1990s. The 1995 Downing Street Declaration mentions throughout a desire to restore agreed devolution.
The last time direct rule powers were introduced were in the Northern Ireland Act 2000, which allowed the Assembly to be suspended. These powers were repealed as part of the implementation of the St Andrew’s Agreement, mainly due to Sinn Féin’s insistence that the UK government should not have the power to suspend government within Ireland.
The periods of direct rule that have intervened sporadically since 1972 have been deliberately designed to be temporary and makeshift, avoiding the impression of permanency. The Government retained the old Departments and governed through them at arm’s reach, on a “mend and do” basis. It was effectively a technocracy; government by civil servants, keeping the administrative needs of the country ticking over, using powers to try to push economic development as part of its strategy to try to resolve the political problems. Local politicians were informally consulted, but they were often given no real say at all.
Provided the Government remains committed to restoring devolution and implementing the Agreement, which it does, it will seek to avoid doing anything that makes devolution less likely. Crucial to this is avoiding a situation where direct rule becomes popular. It will ensure that direct rule is not seen as a soft alternative to avoiding local negotiation and agreement. It will not govern Northern Ireland as it does Kent, if for no reason other than that it knows that Northern Ireland’s MPs will never be part of a British government. It wants to ensure that if the public want good government, they must vote for politicians who deliver that.
Therefore, the Government will ensure there are elements under direct rule that are distasteful to everyone. They will ensure that republicans do not get their Irish Language Act. They will ensure that hardline unionists do not get their wish that Dublin are kept out of the loop. Progressive campaigners will not get reform of abortion or marriage equality in the face of the devolved assembly rejecting it several times. For everyone else – expect water charges and rates increases, as the government seek to drive home that avoiding agreement has consequences. Disinterested ministers will occasionally fly to Belfast to open shopping centres and sign off on complex ministerial orders and legislation they’ve never read. Everything else will be placed on ice, until agreement is reached.
Direct rule is not a serious option; as a choice, it is an illusion. There is no way forward other than to find ways to secure political agreement about how Northern Ireland should be run.