At the launch of the Conservative Party in Northern Ireland manifesto, James Brokenshire gave the parties 21 days after the election to agree a deal before “passing the baton” to the government in Westminster to run Northern Ireland. An extended period of rule from Westminster would remove all responsibility from the DUP and Sinn Fein to moderate and compromise.
The practicalities of running a power sharing government has always forced the DUP and Sinn Fein to behave in a much more moderated manner than they might otherwise do if they simply wished to appeal to their hard-line bases. This is because a solid record in government is something the DUP and Sinn Fein have always been able to hold over the SDLP and UUP.
If the Conservatives were to remove this incentive by taking away the opportunity to govern then the parties would have little motivation to tone down their rhetoric, which would further distance the prospect of a return to the Executive.
When, in 2012 Sinn Fein were willing to eventually give up the fight over welfare reform and hand the power back to Westminster, they did so at the expense of a number of attack ads from the SDLP. Sinn Fein’s reasoning was that in accepting the reality that a devolved government without tax raising powers has very little sway over welfare issues they protected the unbroken term in government. This record in government proved to be a valuable weapon later on when in 2016 and 2017 the DUP and Sinn Fein were able to see off threats of a potential resurgent UUP and SDLP presenting themselves as an alternative Executive-in-waiting.
The same is true of the DUP when they adopted their revolving door resignations strategy over the alleged PIRA activity and the murder of Kevin McGuigan. Instead of storming out of the Executive in righteous injustice as the UUP did, they kept the institutions running, once again protecting the record in government of two unbroken terms between 2007 and 2016. It is easy to imagine that without this record to protect, the actions of our two largest parties may have been quite different on both these occasions.
As it stands the blame for a lack of a government in Northern Ireland rests solely on the DUP and Sinn Fein. Evidence of this pressure is beginning to show by Arlene Foster’s softening of her stance on the Irish language. A return to Westminster rule would levitate some of this pressure at a time when it needs to be applied as much as possible.
It is of course not the fault of the Conservatives that the Executive did collapse in 2017 and that the DUP and Sinn Fein were unable to come to an agreement as to its reformation. However, the British government will only perpetuate the problem by removing the responsibility to govern and therefore the imperative to cooperate. To add to this, devolution is not only a moderating influence on our parties but also on voters. In our divided society, one issue that has almost unanimous support is support for devolution and voters are therefore willing to accept compromise in the name of devolution.