Northern Ireland

It is a gross injustice to a lovely part of the UK that when Northern Ireland makes the news, it is seldom good news. Nonetheless, it is the rule.

Since we provided an overview of the deteriorating situation in Ulster’s devolved government less than a fortnight ago, the situation has not improved.

Peter Robinson, the First Minister and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, has stood aside and pulled almost his entire party out of the Executive (leaving only one to serve as acting First Minister).

The smaller Ulster Unionists had pulled out already, and a senior member of Sinn Fein has been arrested in connection with an execution by Republican terrorists last month.

Whilst that act, and the attendant revelation that the IRA may not have disbanded, have been the immediate cause of the crisis the roots run much deeper, stretching back almost two years.

Sinn Fein have brought the Assembly to a standstill by refusing to implement welfare reforms, incurring huge fines from the Treasury which have necessitated deep cuts in departmental budgets.

David Cameron painstakingly thrashed out a deal last year, the so-called “Stormont House Agreement”, only for the Republicans to u-turn on it in weeks.

Nonetheless, the Government’s solution is “more talks”. If they fail, there will be more talks. And yet more.

Both London and Dublin seem to believe that keeping the Stormont show on the road is the highest priority. Theresa Villiers, the Northern Ireland Secretary, refused Robinson’s request even for a temporary suspension.

But this attitude is counter-productive.

Neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP want the Assembly to collapse. Robinson may strike a loyal pose by signing the anti-Home Rule Ulster Covenant, but the truth is that his party is wholly wedded to it. Devolution means jobs, titles, and cash, and his phalanx of MLAs (and all their staff) know it.

So when Britain and the Republic of Ireland both offer copper-bottomed assurances that Stormont is secure, they are almost writing a blank cheque for bad behaviour.

“Throw what tantrums you please”, they say, “and feel under no great pressure to properly discharge the duties of government. We know you’re too important to lose.” That’s no basis for success.

The DUP and Sinn Fein don’t like working together, and each seeks electoral advantage by grandstanding against the other. This tactic has allowed each to squeeze out their more moderate counterparts (the UUP and SDLP, respectively), which previously dominated the province’s politics.

They’ll only be forced to cooperate through fear of something worse: direct rule.

It wouldn’t be permanent, but the discreditable performance of the Northern Ireland Assembly over the past few years makes an eloquent case for the idea that Ulster’s devolved settlement needs a serious redesign, and such a redesign would presumably take several years to negotiate.

That case makes a transitional period of direct rule a credible threat, and the Prime Minister should find the steel to wield it. Patching Stormont up so it can stagger on for a few more months is a delaying tactic, not a solution.

22 comments for: To save Ulster’s government, Cameron must show he’s prepared to end it

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