Still puzzled why we still have no government’s nearly a year after Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed on a Programme for Government? You’re not alone. Despite the embarrassment of the Public Inquiry into RHI (the ostensible reason for the breakdown), the atmosphere is pretty docile.
The switch of focus to a bunch of issues, which as Newton Emerson points out in the Irish News under the Belfast Agreement, can only effectively be dealt with under devolved power:
…there is still a Stormont-sized hole in the system. Far from ‘honouring outstanding commitments’, expecting BIIG (British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference) to pass an Irish language act over Stormont’s head, for example, would be a fundamental breach. The agreement also states that BIIG’s operation will involve “no derogation from the sovereignty of either government”.
The Stormont-shaped hole pops up elsewhere too, perhaps explaining why Sinn Féin has not mentioned the agreement’s other east-west structure. The British-Irish Council (BIC) comprises both governments, the devolved administrations and the crown dependencies.
Nor has Sinn Féin mentioned the only north-south structure, the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC) and its cross-border bodies, because that would invite jeers about leaving the north without ministers.
Establishing a precursor to NSMC was the row that wrecked the 1973 Sunningdale Agreement, damning us to 30 more years of violence. Unionists bitterly opposed its resurrection in 1998, yet now republicans are in the absurd position of locking everyone out of the agreed all-Ireland structure.
…the other structures of the agreement deserve renewed attention.
As well as providing a general guarantee and safety valve on devolution, they are the perfect vehicles to address Brexit and border issues, which are set to put Stormont under years of further pressure.
The reason Brexit is so toxic to devolution is that all Stormont can do is argue about it – most of the decisions required are outside its control. Customs, immigration, trade deals, international relations, the common travel area and border security remain vested in London, making BIIG rather than Stormont the agreed forum to discuss them.
East-west and north-south EU issues are specified in the agreement as the remit of BIC and NSMC respectively (which does not mean Brexit breaches the agreement, only that the issues will change.)
The inclusion of the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands in BIC has sometimes made it seem less than serious. Suddenly, those territories’ special customs arrangements with the EU help make BIC relevant.
Drawing Stormont ministers more deeply into these structures would, frankly, force them to play with the grown-ups.
Fascinating stuff, and well worth reading the whole thing (if you can afford the subscription).
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty