At the end of the year, instead of adding pressure for the restoration of Stormont, Brexit has banished it to the sidelines.
The border issue remains. Without an overall Brexit deal, the default of Northern Ireland remaining in alignment with the single market and customs union cannot easily be reconciled with the continuing integrity of the UK internal market.
In the run-up to stage two negotiations in March, pressure mounts for the British government to decide at last how close a relationship they want with the EU. The closer the relationship, the more EU obligations they must observe and the less they depart from the present convergence of standards and regulations, as the latest review of choices from the Institute for Government makes crystal clear.
If limited “divergence” in the final deal chimes with “alignment” for Northern Ireland, all well and good.
But the clouds darken over the bigger issue. The British are bound to argue for maximum free trade in services which take up 80% of the economy, as well as free trade in goods. Michel Barnier’s opening shot is to deny a “special deal” on services is on offer from the EU.
Unless this position moderates in response to British proposals, Ireland will suffer. It is in Ireland’s interests to argue within EU 27 against an EU hardline on this most fundamental of British aims in the interest of the British- Irish relations including Northern Ireland. A brutal binary choice for Britain runs flat contrary to Ireland’s interests.
Amid Brexit preoccupations, what space can be found for filling the expanding vacuum over the North’s government?
A maximalist approach by Ireland in regarding the Good Friday Agreement as “an EU document” will only irritate the British, whose reluctance to impose full direct rule hardly needs reinforcing.
The plaintive appeal from the civil service for choices to be made before the March deadline between “scenarios” for the Northern Ireland budget is truly abject.
Decisions are needed on both a Brexit strategy and on Northern Ireland’s government at roughly the same time – like now.
The recommendation to cut MLA salaries by a quarter is among them.
On spending the choices are entirely familiar. They lie between salami-slicing all round, setting priorities such as health or not all on health, or a new budget strategy of putting up the rates and tuition fees and restoring prescription charges.
As the Irish government are opposed to old-style direct rule, they should explain where their locus lies if any, in influencing this agenda.
As well as finding themselves on opposite sides of the Brussels table, Brexit has left the British-Irish relationship prickly and has reinforced the impression of the governments as champions of either side of the community at the expense of concerted action.
Mitigating this will be challenge enough. Setting new bold priorities for the budget in the absence of local politicians is more than the governments can handle. Muddling through in the real-life issues of health, education and economic development is set to continue. More’s the pity.
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