Joint action by the two governments is overdue but joint authority is a red herring

In the Irish Times today, Mick’s favourite columnist Newton Emerson asks what sort of joint authority is being cooked up in the Republic. This begs a familiar question increasingly in vogue as  the Stormont stalemate lengthens.

Emerson discerns elements of joint authority thinking  in recent statements by Varadkar and Coveney. He raps Coveney for suggesting that everything reverts to the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference for taking Northern Ireland’s government forward or even as a replacement, if they reach the conclusion that Stormont cannot foreseeably be restored.

Although they are new kids on the block, the new Fine Gael leadership are not so naive as to believe this amounts to joint authority.

Indeed on a technical point, Emerson insists that the BIIC can only operate if Stormont is up and  running ; its essential function is to review non-devolved matters.  I’m not sure he’s right about that. True, just as the GFA takes for granted continual EU membership, it also assumes a functioning Stormont. But the Conference embraces ” the totality of relationships” while each state’s sovereignty is unaffected.  This argues for something different from joint authority, although  equally ill-defined.

The description of the BIIC is one factor ruling out joint authority. What is decisive  is that it would violate the consent principle.

Further clarification – and further progress –  has become more difficult as the comparative euphoria of the GFA era has long since dissipated and is made infinitely more complicated by Brexit.

But jointery in some form is ever present. Might the greener version of direct rule which was threatened to act as pressure to conclude the St Andrew’s Agreement in 2006 be invoked again?

This looks much less likely today,  as the two governments are divided over Brexit and by the generally  cooler approach to the British-Irish  relationship  adopted by the more obviously  patriotic Conservatives  in compact with the DUP and jealous of their ” sovereign” prerogatives.

The new Irish government too are fkexing their muscles over the new-found power the Brexit negotiations has  thrust  upon them.

The situation is ripe for discord.

To cut through the issues, Leo Varadkar envisages a summit with Theresa May if another effort to restore Stormont fails, as seems likely. Obviously, she should agree. For too long has Westminster surrrendered the creative initiative to Dublin, as if Ireland has become the senior partner in the Agreement. Undue delay would only spread the heresy that the GFA is close to death . Whether the top level meeting is held under the label of  the BICC or not hardly matters;  the agenda is the important thing.

Nationalists and unionists alike are guilty of  different types of wishful thinking if they believe joint authority is round the corner. While Dublin has not asked for it, they seem to be hankering for something more than the direct rule that obtained during the decade of suspensions.

A  more dynamic east- west relationship will probably be frustrated until the course of Brexit clarifies one way or another.

Yet another Assembly election is  provided for in law and is arguably overdue. But as the context of continuing uncertainty  over Brexit favours a test of opinion for holding a border poll, it  would surely be welcomed by none except – possibly-  Sinn Fein. Although Varadkar has  poured some cold water over the idea he should firmly rule it out as an early consequence of continuing Stormont stalemate.

Both governments owe it the Northern Ireland public to declare how they’d like to proceed in the early New Year. It is approaching disgrace for the basic government of the region to languish for much longer.

For a start, they should reach agreement without delay on whether Stormont can  foreseeably be restored.

I can see no other viable medium term solution than  full and  fully sensitive direct rule by the sovereign government with Dublin fully active in its guarantor role of nationalist rights and views and looking ahead together to making work whatever will be  the outcome of Brexit .

Beyond that, to turn a famous saying on its head, no representation without taxation. Westminster cannot abdicate its responsibilities for much longer. The clock as they say, is ticking.

 

 

 

 

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