Breaking… Brokenshire gambles with high risk threat of a new election, cutting through opening party maneouvres

 

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“James Brokenshire warns parties must agree or face second snap election”

Oh well done James,  you’ve decide to open with the joker, He’s decided to match  Sinn Fein’s bottom line with one of his own – incidentally going against the advice of his predecessor Theresa Villiers  who called  for an extension of the three week period.

Theresa May has form, with hard ball as an opening move. Quite a gamble. Will anyone pick it up in time?  This is not Home Counties politics. We are not even Scotland.

Although provided for in law this an abuse of democratic process. Shortage of funds to fight another election, the usual deterrent in normal societies, would  be the least of the problems.  After the last  election there’d be a real risk that tensions would rise to peace- threatening levels and the gap between the parties – and the British government – would widen in parallel. If this chap wants to bring the house down for a generation he’s going about it  the right way.

In early reactions, all parties except the DUP  who didn’t respond immediately, were critical of the move, all of them complaining that the British government hadn’t lived up to their responsibilities (either).

This was – to say the least – an unexpected response to earlier manoeuvres  concentrating on putting pressure on the two governments.  On the face of it, Sinn Fein’s dismissal of their first post-election encounter with secretary of state Brokenshire as “waffle, waffle and more waffle” followed by an early walk-out, is discouraging. But Brokenshire is fair game for a shot across his bows. By sharing the DUP’s criticism of legacy investigations into army actions, he revealed an alarming lack of understanding of the impartiality required of him as an arbiter in Assembly disputes.  He may have thought –if he thought at all – that he would get away with it as Theresa Villiers  brokered the Fresh Start  agreement while holding the exact same views; but the stakes are higher now.  However he was right at this stage to postpone consideration of Sinn Fein’s demand to release the funding for inquests disgracefully withheld by the DUP until they all get round the table. That actually increases Sinn Fein’s leverage over a patently just demand.

“Special status” for the north in the EU and  joint British -Irish authority together with a border poll are likely to be raised  in some form if only  to put  pressure on the Irish government to make their position clearer. The first two are little more than slogans masquerading as solutions looking for a defined problem. Newton Emerson pulls them apart in the Irish Times today.   The divisive nature of a border poll is incompatible at this stage with the priority to restoring the functioning Assembly.

However Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan will want to find a way to recognise both the scale of the nationalist success in the election and demonstrate that he shares their deep concerns over Brexit. The problem is how?

While the Irish government will not want to break ranks with the British government, they need answers to plausible Sinn Fein charges in the Dail that they have nothing more to offer northern nationalists. They have zero enthusiasm for the responsibilities and expense of joint authority even as a doomsday threat against total breakdown.  Agitation  over enhancing the nationalist  position comes up against the reality eventually  that solutions are available within the GFA. Sinn Fein should be  asked if they intend to abandon it.

“Special status” is a different matter. At this stage of the Brexit process it is indefinable, as Dublin seethes with impotence graphically described by Stephen Collins in the Irish Times.  The eventual binary choice that Ireland could face between the EU and Britain he poses is one the Irish government is desperately keen to avoid. In the longer term – and presumably beyond the scope of any conceivable time scale for the current talks – it is a theme ripe for exploitation by Sinn Fein.

The only constructive version of special status is one without constitutional significance. It would assume the nirvana the UK is looking for, of paid- for open access  to the internal market with special arrangements between the two islands and with the  most of the cross border dimension administered by the north-south bodies. This makes the GFA structures all the more important with a functioning Assembly at their heart.

 

 

 

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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