Mrs May will say today that her plan for Brexit can create a “more united nation”, suggesting that she will pass some powers from Brussels to the devolved assemblies.
“In Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland that means fully respecting, and indeed strengthening, the devolution settlements,” she will say, “but never allowing our Union to become looser and weaker, or our people to drift apart. So in those policy areas where the UK government holds responsibility, I am determined that we will put the interests of the Union — both the parts and the whole — at the heart of our decision-making.”
That ‘ll go down a treat in Belfast won’t it? Never has the gap been so wide between the agenda of a prime minister preoccupied with Brexit and her emotional attachment to the Union, and the failure of two strands of the GFA to function in Northern Ireland. She has never put into words how her devotion to the Union applies to Northern Ireland. If she tries it now, she’d better be careful and use a good drafter. Northern Ireland is only formally in her vocabulary and unlike her protegee James Brokenshire, she won’t want to stumble into giving Gerry Adams a hostage to fortune. Adams’ refusal to recognise Brokenshire as an “honest broker” was without doubt an obstacle to the orderly conduct of negotiations but it should not have been allowed to go so far as to leave an impression of British impotence.
But events here cry out for leadership which has been conspicuously absent. Alas “leaving them to it” it isn’t working.. Neither is all the moaning from Cassandras. The proof is in front of us.
Right now Gerry Adams is free to run about the park at will without being at all sure where he’s going. Far from having a cunning plan he implacably follows, recent history since the failed Stormont House Agreement of 2014 shows a mercurial pattern of chopping and changing and intransigence and collaboration, followed suddenly by breakdown. Lenin would not have been impressed. But now and entirely naturally, in the elation of the moment he’ll want to drive a wedge between the British and Irish governments and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in the hope of gain. Grown up, skillful politics are needed.
Later.. Now that the talks period has been extended, the two governments should grasp the nettle and start leaning on the parties while demonstrating their essential unity of purpose. As Brexit proceeds this will be more important than ever.
.They must confirm the durability, whatever the Brexit pressures, of the British-Irish relationship as a contingency against a long stalemate in the north. This is the right note to strike as Article 50 is triggered. They should pledge to mitigate the effect of Brexit on the border and look forward to practical north-south, east-west cooperation.
No one doubts that Northern Ireland will be intimately affected. Despite all the risks of squabbling over symbols and “respect”, it would be better if the Executive was in place than not. The UK government should resurrect the joint letter sent by Foster and McGuinness to May last year and acknowledge that this is local Brexit agenda that needs to be tackled. This would signal that the government are serious about involving Stormont and welcome close Irish government collaboration that will be forthcoming. Sinn Fein could exercise real influence here. Uniquely as a cross border party, they could have access to both sides of the negotiating table. This should be an incentive for them to close a fresh northern deal. They should forcefully be reminded there’s no point in shedding crocodile tears about Brexit if they boycott the means of mitigating it in preference to harvesting votes and gazing at the stars. None of this is very original but it would start to give shape to a proper talks process.
With politics in the south looking febrile, a border poll might just make the grade as a divisive issue. Fine Gael should show leadership and specifically reject it. It is not in the interest of Fianna Fail who believe they’re approaching the threshold of government but not just yet, to divide the main parties for the sake of a try-on by Sinn Fein in the north when the interest in the south in it is currently zero. The point of doing so is to start closing down some of Sinn Fein’s options and lead to them to focusing on demands which are negotiable.
Gerry Adams’ case has to be recognised. An Irish Language Act has to be feasible. I have argued that the main legacy issues are the responsibility of the British government, so to that extent Adams is right. The case for reviving a Northern Ireland Bill of Rights to replace the bedrock UK Human Rights Act has become stronger since Theresa May’s on-off- on-off flirtation with scrapping it and perhaps leaving the European Convention on Human Rights itself. Her reasons were frustrations over legal delays in deporting foreign jihadists and outrage at a ruling giving prisoners voting rights. NI was never in her mind. That in itself is an example of a fundamental problem.
None of these should be red line issues for the DUP. It may be that the problem for them is the same as what it was for Sinn Fein before their resignation, a matter of aggressive tone and style over substance or a fear of seeming weak and on the defensive. If so, both sides should share a common lesson.
The recent history around the Stormont House Agreement – Fresh Start seemed promising at the time but in retrospect Adams has a point, that too many cans were kicked down the road. Arlene Foster’s position is still as issue although less commented on.
For the uncertain number of those genuinely interested, the best outcome would be a restoration of Stormont to transact essential business accompanied by an agenda for resolution outside the Assembly, promoted, moderated and ratified by the two governments, on a sensible time limit and publicly accountable in regular reports. This basically would extend the format and ambition of the Fresh Start process. For some reason that format wasn’t adopted this time perhaps because the deal failed to stick. That was a mistake. The error if error it was, was the failure to pin enough down and gratefully take at face value the evident willingness of the DUP and Sinn to work well together at least for a while.
The task for the next few weeks is how to get back to that point, chastened by the experience of the quite unexpected collapse. I don’t believe that Sinn Fein were only looking for a excuse to pull out after the Brexit referendum. Essentially I suspect they yielded to temptation of the juicy target that Arlene Foster presented. Then it was opportunist improvising all the way.
Worse than the divisions among the local parties because less predictable, has been the lack of leadership from London and Dublin. Governments don’t have the luxury of pleading they’re too busy. They have to take politics as it comes and gosh, is it coming thick and fast. All we have at the moment is platitudes or glum silence from the governments and floods of the familiar rhetoric from the locals. Brokenshire will have to make a statement in the Commons soon as will May. They should not be allowed to get away with empty words.
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