“Leaving them to it” hasn’t worked. Time for the governments to lead. Here’s how

This is where Theresa May is at today as she meets Nicola Sturgeon in Edinburgh.

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.

  • ted hagan

    ‘Leaving them to it’?
    It comes across more as ‘Couldn’t give a damn’.

  • Nevin

    “the failure of two strands of the GFA to function in Northern Ireland.”

    Brian, NI is also involved in Strand 3 and it would seem sensible to me to develop Strand 2 in parallel with Strand 3; otherwise you get a local unionist-nationalist stand-off. For example, there are probably opportunities to improve road transport links in Scotland and England at the eastern ends of the ferry crossings.

    “Entirely naturally he’ll [Adams] want to drive a wedge between the British and Irish governments and Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in the hope of gain.”

    The two governments are unlikely to accommodate any such move and the southern parties will continue to give SF a rough ride in the Dáil.

    “They should pledge to mitigate the effect of Brexit on the border”

    Surely that will really be a matter for EU-27; if it tells Ireland to jump, Ireland can meekly ask how high and plead for some financial compensation.

    “Gerry Adams’ case has to be recognised.”

    .. as mopery and exposed as hypocrisy.

    “Worse than the divisions among the local parties has been the lack of leadership from London and Dublin.”

    The Blair-Ahern leadership pretty well wrecked the UUP-SDLP when Ahern opened the prison gates without a quid pro quo and Blair followed. Let’s hope May and Kenny don’t follow the appeasement route.

  • john millar

    A golden opportunity to devolve taxation and really “leave them to it”

  • Donagh

    Almost as many mentions of Gerry Adams as the DUP election manifesto launch. Take from that what you will.

  • Tarlas

    It Is probable that economics; not politics/politicians or demographics, will soon bring major changes to the status quo in the North. Brexit will assist.

    The Uk government will most likely crash out of the EU talks well before the 2 year timescale; Unable to deal with transparent public EU negotiations, that they actually would have to honour.

    Hence the lack of controls attached to the recent Westminster bill and perceived lack of planning or detail and seeming lack of interest in current NI talks.

    As the article below details, the economic arguments that led to partition, are now extinct.


    Now I will go and listen to Sam Cooke, “A Change Is Gonna Come”

  • Fear Éireannach

    May does not want to mitigate the effects of Brexit on the border. Admitting that there might be adverse consequences in NI is also admitting that that there will be adverse consequences in Dover and any streamlined border here prevents here from threatening Sturgeon with a new Hadrian’s wall if the Scots were impudent enough to leave. The governments had a role in the past as an honest broker in the past, but the British are no longer honest, voting against recognition of the GFA recently in Westminster is clear evidence of that.

    Sinn Féin cannot be on both side of the table re Brexit, because the British are not consulting anyone outside London on the matter, whether or not SF forms an executive. It will be the Brokenshire’s mates in the DUP, lead by a person intent on ruining her own constituency, who will have any influence, in trying to oppose practical measures to mitigate the damage.

    Edit: May not to bother visiting NI before invoking Article 50. Even if the politicians are in limbo, at least she could pretend to be interested and meet some industrial or farming interests. The future is not good.

  • Brian Walker

    fear, why don’t really say what you think?

  • Brian Walker

    Good stuff as ever from McWilliams but I think the north and the south were on different trajectories. The south was achieving closer to its natural potential over a period of 50 years from 1960 while the north was already in decline by 1914. It was the familiar curse of the rust bowl economy than the south was always innocent of. Sectarianism in underlying and violent modes were still largely unassessed inhibitors. Pressure for unity will not make them go away. But had the tiger still be roaring we might be having a different debate already. We should have it now fearlessly and try to leave the respect arguments behind us. Music -wise I’m with “I heard it on the Grapevine,” by Marvin Gaye – a murder victim of his own father…

  • eamoncorbett

    Or maybe “The Times they are a changing. “

  • eamoncorbett

    If May had visited NI she would have listened to conflicting opinions on Brexit with the soft Border option being the only common ground . It seems the Scotland visit didn’t go so well,so there’s no reason to believe that NI would have been any better. May really needs to start listening to other opinions other than Fox , Johnson etc. but above all she needs a plan ,any plan just as long as it’s a plan . She will face an EU negotiating team which will look for huge sums for free entry to the single market and will be forced into a quota system on the immigration issue , her job will be to mitigate the amount to be paid and limit the numbers allowed to come in . In the case of Ireland North and South only a tariff free border will be acceptable with a special derogation on immigration issues , this is what Theresa May should be saying to the people of this island , no real need to meet anyone if she gets the above deal.