On Thursday, James Brokenshire issued a written statement on the situation in Northern Ireland in which he signalled that he might, after ten months with no devolved administration in the Province, be forced to step in.
The driving force behind this untypical decisiveness is the fact that Ulster’s public services are about a month away from grinding to a complete halt when their budgets run out.
As it becomes impossible for a restored Northern Ireland Assembly to pass its own budget in time after the 30th of October, the Northern Irish Secretary has confirmed that he will have to legislate for one at Westminster if the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein don’t arrive at a written agreement to restore the Executive by that date.
This isn’t the only time Brokenshire has shown a little steel in his handling of the collapse of Stormont. Last month he threatened to slash MLAs’ pay if they didn’t start doing their jobs – Ulster’s legislators have cost taxpayers over £10 million since last they sat.
But for the most part the Secretary of State’s approach has been one of the utmost passivity, setting deadlines which pass without consequence and letting the civil service run the Province on autopilot, and without democratic oversight. But as Sam McBride, a Northern Irish journalist, wrote after Storm Ophelia battered Ireland:
“The risk for Mr Brokenshire – and to some extent, also for Sinn Fein and the DUP – is that if there is a major crisis and Stormont is seen to fail in its response to the situation, he will be accused of having allowed to develop a situation in which lives were placed at risk for reasons of high politics.”
Whilst Brokenshire’s statement expresses deep regret at the lack of an Executive, and some words about how essential it is to the proper functioning of Northern Ireland, recent experience suggests that Stormont was barely functional even before Martin McGuinness brought down the Executive in March. As this site’s Ulster columnist, I spent the better part of two years keeping readers up to date on the last great crisis, when Sinn Fein refused to implement the Coalition’s welfare reforms.
That crisis really did highlight the absurd timidity of the British Government’s approach. The obvious resolution was to repatriate welfare powers, since Westminster had no intention of allowing Ulster to set its own welfare policy. David Trimble, the former First Minister and now a Conservative peer, even suggested as much. But impasse was preferred.
Now veteran commentators such as Alex Kane are going as far as to suggest that the power-sharing arrangements laid down in the Good Friday Agreement no longer enjoy majority support. Certainly, the DUP and Sinn Fein don’t seem to be under any great pressure from their voters to reach an agreement.
Such pressure ought to be being applied by the Northern Irish Office, but Brokenshire’s manifest unwillingness to countenance ‘no deal’ – halting MLA’s pay and governing the Province from the NIO – means he has little leverage. A Government which insists that no deal is better than a bad deal in Brussels refuses to apply the same logic to Belfast.
The Secretary of State no longer has the ability to simply impose direct rule – one of a long string of concessions to keep ‘the process’ on track which Sinn Fein have banked and disregarded, and which ought surely to be reconsidered if Stormont does collapse completely. But Parliament can authorise him to do so, and the time is surely approaching, if not yet past, when it must.
Of course the old-fashioned, vice-royal role of the Northern Irish Secretary was very different to its post-devolution reinvention as mediator-in-chief, and its restoration may need a different set of skills. What the Prime Minister does with the NIO in the next reshuffle will reveal whether she is prepared to grasp that nettle – the DUP and Sinn Fein will be watching closely.