Patrick Murphy’s apt question in the Irish News. “ Why do we think Dublin would be any better than running the North than London?” prompts the even more basic question:. What sort of new Dublin “input” is wanted or even necessary?
Later this month, “Direct Rule” in whatever guise would in key respects be inevitably different from the direct rule of 1972 when the two sovereign states had barely begun to cooperate. Today, the British- Irish relationship through governments and parliaments is permanent and unassailable. Its outworking in the main covers the human rights and citizenship issues stemming from the legacy of history and the Troubles. But it reaches far wider than that, to the contexts of British-Irish reconciliation and up to March 2019 it would seem, joint membership of the EU.
While Brexit is of course a hugely unwelcome complicating factor, if anything it strengthens the need for British-Irish cooperation over a host of issues to make the eventual outcome work.
But direct rule applies to the domestic governance of Northern Ireland, mainly on how public money is spent. Does Dublin really require a say in that? What would be their locus to intervene on health, education and welfare? What would be different from the direct rule of the first half of the previous decade when the Assembly lights were similarly shorting?
There is the principle of government introduced in the American Revolution. “ no taxation without representation.” We might turn that on its head to read “ no representation without taxation”. In other words unless Dublin wishes to acquire fiscal responsibility and stump up significant funding for the North, it is not appropriate for them to assume a detailed role in this area.
What is the issue here anyway? I’m at a loss to understand it. We have a form of joint authority already although not of the constitutional kind. Nor should we. Is it that Dublin and northern nationalist opinion generally are afraid that Theresa May’s faltering government would somehow allow an Orange state to develop out of the DUP pact? Or Brexit? The idea is completely fanciful
Or might nationalists go on to develop the embryonic argument that Irish and therefore EU citizenship for northerners would give them trading and other social rights different from UK citizens in our region? This is equally fantastic.
Or it “greener” direct rule – a NIO notion of former days – raising its head again as to put pressure on the DUP?
Our obsessive public discourse concentrating on legacy and identity encourages this sort of unreal argument which basically sidelines the practicalities of government. The political objections to them are substantial : not only are they unacceptably vague, but the idea of a new nebulous role for Dublin under direct rule simply places the prospect of a return to the Executive in a deeper freeze. Under our present over-arching British-Irish arrangements, it is a distraction and arguably undemocratic.
Brokenshire is palpably reluctant to do anything that annoys anybody. Only a few would like him to do a Peter Hain and deliberately threaten either main parties’ cherished positions. Oh for a brave British minister who would shake them out of their complacency! But that’s the biggest fantasy of all.
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