Direct rule is not a solution – or even an option

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.

 

  • OneNI

    Written from the usual Alliance supposition that we will always have sectarian politics….

  • Steptoe

    Judging by what has gone before, it’s a reasonable supposition

  • Zorin001

    If the DUP vote holds in the face of massive incompetence then I think it confirms it.

  • Karl

    Interesting piece but it is not within the power of the government to withhold access to rights and services available in the rest of the UK.

    The UK judiciary will be asked to decide on Language Acts, marriage equality and womens rights under direct rule, not the government.

    Thats not to say the British government wont enact a plague on all your houses policy but it will be tempered by the fact that they will want to keep the Irish govt wholly onside in the Brexit negotiations.

    Its not the necessarily the unionist positions that are the main issue, its their attitude and the loss of trust. SF are going to have a v tough time selling anything to their electorate, especially as their hard line will probably have brought a more people back to the fold.

  • Dan

    Direct rule is infinitely more preferable to the nonsense we’ve had to put up with for twenty years. Allister’s suggestion is the sensible and practical way forward.
    Stormont, with its Executive pulliing in different directions, simply doesn’t work.
    Enough of sticking plaster and kicking the cans down the road.

  • Nevin

    “Disinterested ministers will occasionally fly to Belfast to open shopping centres and sign off on complex ministerial orders and legislation they’ve never read.”

    This doesn’t sound very different from the local ministers who drive (or cycle?) to Stormont before going on to open dodgily constructed public realm projects.

  • Dan

    Sounds exactly like RHI.
    ‘No-one told me the details’

  • Nevin

    Dan, I don’t see Jim being very impressed when a UK minister rubber-stamps a proposal from an Irish minister, acting in support of a nationalist interest in Northern Ireland. Such information usually only comes to light by accident.

    There’s something wonderfully naive about the TUV. I recall giving a TUV member an outline of how Irish officials had intervened in a matter pertaining to the North Antrim constituency. The response: “I’m not inclined to believe you.” The intervention had a very amusing aspect to it – but I’ll leave it at that.

  • Nevin

    Indeed. Folk who’ve become friends of mine have discovered that, when they’ve been victims of bureaucracy, the best parties to go to have been the TUV, DUP and SF; Alliance has been the worst.

    Another friend of mine hosted a driver while the Minister ‘escaped’ from the ministerial office to play a round of golf!

  • Dan

    ..

  • Dan

    Let them debate it in the assembly, then vote.
    We won’t even need parties in that scenario, we can start electing sensible people instead!

  • Skibo

    I agree Dan, enough messing about and bring on direct rule from Dublin. This can’t keep going on.

  • johnny lately

    A Unionist position at that. Nothing new just same old same old, keep the status quo, there’s not even a mention of the British governments role in being partly responsible for the fall of the institutions due to its refusal to honour commitments it made in both the GFA and St Andrews yet nationalism is expected to once again accept getting shafted by parties who’s promises are worth nothing.

  • Jollyraj

    Bizarre suggestion. Why on earth would the Irish government be admistering a UK region?

  • SeaanUiNeill

    “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 Government of Ireland Act 1920, govern themselves.”

    I’m curious to know what you mean here by describing NI as “a full part of the UK”! Its separation from the UK under the was quite similar to that of the Free State in the terms laid out in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (“The Fourth Home Rule Bill”) and the modifications of this act effected by the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922, following the ratification of the Anglo Irish Treaty by Westminster. The reason that the UK government was unwilling to assert a role in governing NI for some decades was that they had devolved a form of “Gladstonian” Home Rule to NI, in which could not at all accurately be described as “a full part of the UK”, displaying many similar characteristics of the governance of the dominions, as did the Free State itself.

    But in stating that “It is over a century since the UK government actively asserted a role in governing any part of Ireland,” you seem to be forgetting that with the suspension of Stormont in 1972 we have had a number of extended periods of direct rule from Westminster, the most recent only ending with the St Andrews Agreement in 2007. I agree fully that Westminster has been reluctant to undertake direct rule, but it has clearly ruled for extended periods and accordingly has “actively asserted a role in governing.”

  • Skibo

    Why is the UK administering a region of Ireland? just messing. The last thing we need here is British direct rule being overseen by a majority Unionist Stormont. That will lead to nationalism/ Republicanism refusing to recognise Stormont with all that that brings.

  • Nevin

    Dan, the problem with the TUV proposition is that it won’t be an option agreed by the two governments.

  • Granni Trixie

    Nevin: I’ve seen you make this statement about APNi time and time again – and I have said that you or your friends are entitled to your/their view and that I am sorry for the bad experience. It is only fair to point out however that I have heard many recount stories illustrating the very opposite experience.

  • Granni Trixie

    One of the things that drives me to support APNI is that it recognises sectarianism – you need to name a problem to address it. and believe it or not I believe it is possible to change political culture.

  • Granni Trixie

    That said, I have been shocked at the sectarian character of several parties election campaign. You know who you are.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Myself also, Granni, I have heard many commendations for my local Alliance party from those who have approached it with problems. I personally found my local Alliance councillors interested and very helpful on the issues I raise. The same simply cannot be said of the DUP in my area, although SF, the UUP and SDLP have again been helpful and interested in many issues I’ve raised, and I’ve hard them all praised for their work.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Ditto…….

  • Reader

    Brendan Heading: Therefore, the Government will ensure there are elements under direct rule that are distasteful to everyone. [Examples]
    I’m not at all sure that would be deliberate. This is a Conservative Government, so a bit of financial tightening would be delivered as being for our own good. Similarly with a catch-up on the GB liberal agenda, with the justification that there is a small majority of support in the polls for that sort of thing.
    The fact the the DUP would be raging over liberalism and that SF would be raging over British rule is merely a bonus.

  • Brendan Heading

    Interesting piece but it is not within the power of the government to withhold access to rights and services available in the rest of the UK.

    Yes it is. The 1967 Abortion Act, for example, was never introduced under direct rule.

    The UK judiciary will be asked to decide on Language Acts, marriage equality and womens rights under direct rule, not the government.

    I believe you may be a little bit confused. Direct rule will not change any aspect of the law (excepting certain consequential constitutional matters) nor will it change the jurisdiction of what you call the “UK courts”.

    I am not sure what you mean by “UK judiciary” – Northern Ireland has, as far as I understand it, its own courts system, with the UK Supreme Court acting as a final court of appeal (excluding the European courts). None of that changes whether we have devolved government or direct rule.

    Thats not to say the British government wont enact a plague on all your houses policy but it will be tempered by the fact that they will want to keep the Irish govt wholly onside in the Brexit negotiations.

    I accept that brexit may play its role here, but I am not sure how. The point of my article was to illustrate that direct rule will be punishing and a poor alternative to agreement. That would be the case whether or not brexit were to be an issue to be dealt with.

  • Brendan Heading

    Why is the UK administering a region of Ireland?

    Because it has jurisdiction there which is recognised as a matter of international law. It amazes me that after so many years people still have problems with this question.

    The last thing we need here is British direct rule being overseen by a majority Unionist Stormont.

    I think you are a little confused. Direct rule will not be “overseen” by Stormont. If it was, it wouldn’t be direct rule.

    Majoritarianism is gone and will never come back.

  • Brendan Heading

    I’m curious to know what you mean here by describing NI as “a full part of the UK”!

    I mean that NI is a fully constituent part of the United Kingdom. It has been since 1800.

    Its separation from the UK under the was quite similar to that of the Free State in the terms laid out in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (“The Fourth Home Rule Bill”)Its separation from the UK under the was quite similar to that of the Free State in the terms laid out in the Government of Ireland Act 1920 (“The Fourth Home Rule Bill”)

    I’m afraid you are mistaken. The Home Rule bills did not “separate” Northern or Southern Ireland from the UK; they merely implemented devolved government there.

    and the modifications of this act effected by the Irish Free State (Consequential Provisions) Act 1922, following the ratification of the Anglo Irish Treaty by Westminster.

    The 1922 Act did not alter NI’s status within the UK either.

    The reason that the UK government was unwilling to assert a role in governing NI for some decades was that they had devolved a form of “Gladstonian” Home Rule to NI, in which could not at all accurately be described as “a full part of the UK”, displaying many similar characteristics of the governance of the dominions, as did the Free State itself.

    As a matter of constitutional law, NI can absolutely be described as a “full part of the UK” as that is what it is.

    The UK were and are unwilling to take on a full role in governing any part of Ireland since the early 1900s because, after a century of trying, they realised that Ireland (or parts thereof) could never be governed from Westminster.

    you seem to be forgetting that with the suspension of Stormont in 1972 we have had a number of extended periods of direct rule from Westminster, the most recent only ending with the St Andrews Agreement in 2007.

    Sheesh. I did not forget this; I specifically mentioned it in my article.

    but it has clearly ruled for extended periods and accordingly has “actively asserted a role in governing.”

    You seem to have missed the point of my article, but aside from that maybe we disagree on the precise semantics.

    When I say “actively asserting” I mean Westminster actively seeking to seize control of political power in NI.

    The status since 1920 has not been “actively asserting”. The introduction of direct rule was passive – there was no desire to do so; it was done because there was deemed to be no practical alternative. The government, as I explained, worked continuously to try to find ways to restore devolution. They did not work to prolong their grip on power. They barely exercised power in NI, doing nothing except trying to keep it stable until power could be returned to a local government.

  • Brendan Heading

    I am happy to take criticism but I am at a loss to understand what I said in my article – which makes no mention of sectarian politics, of Alliance, or of what the solutions in NI may or may not be (other than to argue that direct rule isn’t one of them) – would lead you to believe it contains this “supposition”.

    For the record my supposition is that we will only have sectarian politics as long as people vote for tribal parties. Northern Ireland now has a range of non-tribal parties who present viable choices and whose elevation to power would pave the end to tribalism.

  • Nevin

    Granni, the issues I look at are mainly but not exclusively related to North Antrim and East Londonderry; the point of contact is an office in Belfast. I suspect the role and significance of constituency offices is greatly underrated; also follow-up press releases and photographs as local newspapers are now very short of journalists. The APNI vote in each constituency in 2016 slipped back to just over 3%.

  • Brendan Heading

    A Unionist position at that.

    I’m not a Unionist and I can see no opinion expressed in my article that defends any kind of Unionist position.

    Nothing new just same old same old,

    My article says nothing about this

    keep the status quo,

    article doesn’t suggest this either

    there’s not even a mention of the British governments role in being partly responsible for the fall of the institutions due to its refusal to honour commitments it made in both the GFA and St Andrews

    Yes, because this issue is nothing to do with an article about the pitfalls of direct rule.

    yet nationalism is expected to once again accept getting shafted by parties who’s promises are worth nothing.

    I made no mention of what nationalists are “expected” to do or the promises of other parties.

    Again, I do not mind taking criticism, but I am not sure exactly what I am supposed to do about comments on my article that are nothing to do with the subject I was attempting to address.

  • Brendan Heading

    From this, it appears that the problem is that you expect Alliance to fund and run a constituency office in a place where it is unelected. Isn’t this a little unreasonable ?

  • Karl

    I understand that the UK government will not introduce legislation like the Abortion Act, however, under a period of direct rule, I can see a homosexual couple bringing a case of discrimination to the UK Supreme Court about being denied the right to marriage equality in Northern Ireland and I cant see it being rejected.

  • Brendan Heading

    There is nothing to prevent a homosexual couple doing that right now. As I tried to explain, the legal system in Northern Ireland will not change as a result of direct rule.

  • Nevin

    Look at it the other way round, Brendan.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Brendan “we disagree on the precise semantics”, certainly, as your statements contain some very contradictory and misleading descriptive elements. But we are also disagreeing on issues of meaning and of practical application. As some of my postings have shown, I’m well aware of the reluctance with which many English politicians find themselvse linked to NI constitutionally, and I know you are trying to show just how unwillingly Westminster was ruling NI over the periods of direct rule, but unwilling or not, it was actually ruling here and no matter how “passive” (your term) might have been the intent. In fact Westminster was “actively asserting” control of all political decisions regarding what went on here, just as they are currently overruling significant local concerns in privilidging their own central interests regarding the exit from the EU.
”It is over a century since the UK government actively asserted a role in governing any part of Ireland.” Clearly not, as even a momentary glance at the reserved and excepted matters from 1920 would show. A list of just how much of governance on important issues continued to be administered from Westminster is available on Wikipedia:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Reserved_and_excepted_matters

    While you are accurate in stating that they may have been constantly attempting to devolve aspects of governance to a local assembly throughout these periods of direct rule, they were clearly administering the day to day business of local governance and were passing significant laws which were directly applied to here even when there was no direct rule. Their position on devolution itself can be described as “unwilling,” while the assembly was suspended but hardly in any meaningful sense may it be described as “passive.” While they may not have desired to administer the province directly, they actually did so and it is misleading to claim that they have not “actively asserted a role in governing.” Such usage is giving a quite specious sense of what was actually happening. 



    Also misleadingly, certainly for practical purposes, you say “I mean that NI is a fully constituent part of the United Kingdom. It has been since 1800.” Any devolution is a inevitably a rupture in the completeness of domestic sovereignty. It disrupts exclusivity of jurisdiction in that the devolved administration is empowered to contradict the central authority on those matters devolved. In practical terms this means that with devolution the devolved part ceases to be for any practical purpose a “full part of the UK” in this respect, and it was this core issue over which Home Rule was opposed by Unionism in 1912. While you may be constitutionally accurate, in the practical application of local control, the rupture of domestic sovereignty ensured that the devolved administration was left to do things, such as gerrymandering, which would not have been entirely acceptable over the water. In effect, while the remainder of the United Kingdom was an integrated polity, NI was treated from 1922 pretty much as the Free State, and later the Republic was treated, rather than as a fully integrated portion of the United Kingdom. The Free State had become a dominion with the Treaty, and NI certainly acted within the tight constrictions of the excepted matters as if it actually was a self governing dominion also, although its practical status, not to mention its constitutional status, was certainly more ambigious. You state,
”two jurisdictions, one of them a full part of the UK”, but a proper examination of practicalities shows this suggestion that NI was a full part of the UK to be quite equivocal before you’d clarified the matter with the clarification that “NI is a fully constituent part of the United Kingdom.” Constitutionally, yes, perhaps, but for many practical matters not at all.

  • Skibo

    Brendan it was Dan that mentioned Mr Allister’s proposal to keep paying MLAs to scrutinise NI legislation so allowing them to keep their salaries with Westminster holding the reigns.

  • Brendan Heading

    In fact Westminster was “actively asserting” control of all political decisions regarding what went on here

    I don’t mean to be rude – I don’t have time to read your whole contribution here, but I can pick out this part. If you believe that Westminster has been “actively asserting” power in Ireland at any point during the past century we fundamentally disagree on the interpretation of how the UK has governed over that period.

    Any devolution is a inevitably a rupture in the completeness of domestic sovereignty.

    In practical terms, maybe. In legal terms, no it isn’t.

  • SeaanUiNeill

    Brendan, don’t think of it as in any way “rude”, I have no problem with such a response, we are both right I believe, but in different ways, and each way misleads in some manner. We are certainly talking about quite different things here, you about general and quite secondary meanings which are text led, I, about direct particularised and primary experiential meaning, and I can see that this is a matter of “différance” as Derrida would put it.

    But in the matter you treat, while in legal terms no rupture may exist, it is in those “practical terms” that we actually live and experience things. Legal formulation is always a secondary attempt to interpret and codify experience, and as such is always an inferior indicator with regard to meaning than the experiential reality itself. It is with what a thing really means in practice that I’m concerned, not with the concerns about how it may be described textually alone. We are examining the thing from quite different directions.