London and Dublin must clear their lines for close cooperation on direct rule

Clarity rather than coyness is now needed over moves toward direct rule. Working on its  scope and duration is one more compelling reason for London and Dublin  to stick together.  On Monday at the otherwise disastrous Stormont meeting, Theresa May and Leo Varadkar pledged “to work together on a new plan on how to achieve a frictionless Irish border.” Good luck to them with that.

On the continuing local stand-off, two elements are essential. Enough action must be taken to prevent the interests of Northern Ireland going by default. And in doing so the two governments must consolidate  the GFA relationship, avoiding like the plague a line up that identifies Westminster only with the range of DUP and general unionist interests and  the Oireachtas  likewise with nationalism.

Too much  moaning about the Conservative-DUP pact is humbug and usually partisan-inspired. It was a natural consequence of the Westminster arithmetic after the disastrous election result  for the Tories.  For all the present inhibitions, who doubts that a similar result would benefit Sinn Fein in the Dail  in similar circumstances? A disposition in favour of the  Union need not be any more of  a violation of  impartiality than its nationalist reflection.

More frequent and frank intergovernmental contacts however should have headed off  the  unacceptable floating of an amnesty for security forces alone which so damaged the British government’s impartiality at a critical time. It seems  their own antennae, once so acute, had fallen into disuse. They need to be re-activated, if necessary with Dublin’s help. The risk of breaching the DUP pact can be exaggerated. They have nowhere else to go and careful management should avoid  the risk of self-harm. The Northern Ireland Secretary should be included in the pact management co-ordination group, from which her  predecessor  was unwisely omitted.

It’s conceded that Westminster will have to pass a Northern Ireland budget when Parliament resumes next week.  Being sensitive to claims that the pact with the DUP compromises their impartiality within GFA definitions, the UK government will not want to ruffle Dublin and Northern nationalist feathers.  But the next stage, implementation of a budget plan, is another matter. Sensitivity is all very well but it must not become an excuse for impotence and inertia.

The British seem alone in divining signs of hope for reviving inter party negotiations anytime soon.  Stalling for diplomatic reasons would be an abdication of responsibility and a complete surrender to the identity politics as defined by the warring local parties. This can easily be avoided.

If one is really necessary, there should be no problem in adopting the grand term of  “British –Irish Intergovernmental Conference” to describe  the ongoing relationship between London and Dublin  . While on the one hand, the GFA envisaged “regular and frequent meetings .. concerned with non-devolved Northern Ireland matters “ (not Stormont)   the conference’s ambit covers “the totality of relationships,” while declaring  that “there will be no derogation from the sovereignty of either Government.”

London still wants to know what  Dublin means when Simon Coveney made the latest of a series of comments saying that “the Irish Government is not going to be allowing a situation where we move easily into direct rule.”

Both governments need to cut through the pedantry, accept the situation and get on with the business of supporting real life in Northern Ireland.  And they should do it  openly with the people.

 

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