We are teetering on a cliff edge of absurdity about calling an Assembly election “ nobody wants. ” From the DUP viewpoint Peter Robinson brilliantly describes the contradictions in every party’s position except his own. He might have added that it was Chris Heaton Harris and his cronies in the ERG who more than any other faction got us into this trouble in the first place by championing a Withdrawal Agreement with the Protocol attached under frankly false pretences.
The miracle of Assembly restoration is unlikely to happen. Its faint glow in the form of temporary ministers will be snuffed out over the next few weeks In an election campaign the debate will rage louder about the political and constitutional alternatives, anything to avoid taking responsibility for the real life consequences .
The Taoiseach has declared direct rule from Westminster is “not an option because this is where the British Irish Intergovernmental Council “ kicks in.” Sure enough it does, but on non devolution matters not internal governance. The SDLP poor darlings are impaled on an uncomfortable hook. Let’s look at Clare Hanna’s words on the Nolan show.
She made clear the SDLP believes the Irish Government should have a role in running integral parts of Northern Ireland life including schools and hospitals.
Ms Hanna said: “That is exactly what we’re saying. Of course the template and the framework isn’t set down. the day-to-day running of schools and budgets and what pennies go where and what systems are in many cases done by civil servants and so on.
“It’s not that a direct rule Minister is ever going to be doing it. But in terms of strategic direction, absolutely there should be consultation and engagement because quite clearly the Conservative party does not represent and does not have the interests of people here at heart.”
“Jointery” is demanded and no doubt we’ll get it in the shape of the British Irish Intergovernmental Council. But with what results ? Consult to your heart’s content; but has the Irish government anything useful to say about NI schools and hospitals and disgracefully delayed energy relief payments? The only template is from 2006 when Blair and Ahern discussed “joint stewardship” as a contingency to prod the DUP towards north-south compliance.
As Newton (and I among others) have often argued, “joint authority” is a nonsense. But this won’t stop the local debate soaring towards a border poll and all the usual pleasing diversions. At intergovernmental level, pressure for Assembly reform to remove the mutual veto and coordinated support for a Protocol deal could be significant contributions, assuming both government could agree on the terms.
The received wisdom is that successive UK governments “don’t care” and don’t want more any more responsibility than they can help for governing NI alone. They let a vacuum persist for three years to January 2020 in a perverse attempt to encourage stability. If they took over entirely unionists might have seen no need for an Assembly and nationalists pushed harder for a united Ireland for which Dublin is entirely unprepared. Despite all their unctuousness about honouring the terms of the GFA , there is a good deal of humbug is each government’s position.
Yet in the past couple of years we have seen a new activism at Westminster. Much of it was prompted by the active diplomacy of the much missed Julian Smith that produced New Decade News Agreement. Unlike its Ill fated predecessors of the Stormont House Agreement and Fresh Start, NDNA did t stop there. The unlamented Brandon Lewis cut a Gordian knot of legacy deadlock with what amounted to a controversial “all is forgiven” Bill.
The enigmatic Chris Heaton Harris has just declared the UKG will themselves commission long delayed abortion services resisted by the DUP. Entirely consistently with the GFA and New Decade, New Agreement Westminster is passing a Language and Identity Bill to the DUP’s evident fury. If ever there was a natural local matter this was it. And yet Westminster stepped in. If this is candid friendship on the part of the government, I’d like to know what constitutes opposition. Nationalists should carp quite a bit less.
What the Government is doing about the Protocol is a complete puzzle to me. The ERG leaders who bizarrely form the NIO ministerial team are swapping warm words with Dublin and declaring strong sympathy with everybody in NI who’s trying to keep the show on the road, while sticking with the Protocol Bill before fresh talks with Brussels. The DUP are impressed by neither soothing words nor threats. And from their point of view, who can blame them? After Boris, they aren’t going to write another blank cheque.
So with these precedents of UKG activism, what can reasonably prevent Sunak’s new government intervening to start making energy relief payments immediately and pass a budget followed by extensive consultation for implementation that applied during former periods of direct rule? And what Dublin government would dare refuse support?
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