The aftershocks of last month’s general election continue to make themselves felt, and the latest is that Northern Ireland will this afternoon see the restoration of devolved government at Stormont.
Julian Smith and Simon Coveney have both urged the local parties to endorse a newly-published deal titled ‘New Decade, New Approach’, which aims to try and resolve the disputes which have seen the Province go without a local legislature for almost three years.
If you had to summarise the package you could do worse than this: “DUP overcompensated with pork as price for legitimising Irish Language in any form”. In essence the Government has offered a big financial bung to try and help the Democratic Unionists sell what is effectively a climb-down on the prospect of Irish language legislation.
Whilst there won’t technically be a stand-alone act – and the DUP will now try and convince everyone that this technicality was the crucial point, for some reason – there will be a commissioner and other official organs to promote, and police, the use of the language. It will also gain official status.
Owen Polley neatly sums up the problem, writing of “unionist concerns that a language commission will generate endless demands, impose costly legal obligations on public bodies and promote divisive policies around signage aimed at eroding Northern Ireland’s sense of being part of the UK.” They need only look at Wales, where the use of language requirements in things like public sector recruitment has effectively created nationalist fiefdoms.
Given that the DUP’s base has already torpedoed one previous deal, it is not yet certain that Arlene Foster and the rest of the party leadership will be able to make this stick, no matter how desperate they are for Stormont’s return now they have lost their leverage at Westminster.
But the deal is not just problematic from the perspective of an Ulster Unionist. It also, as Patrick Maguire has noted, cuts across two important elements of the Government’s strategy. A pledge to swiftly implement various legacy proposals, for example, completely undercuts Johnny Mercer on the subject of historical prosecutions of ex-servicemen.
Another pledge to ensure Northern Irish businesses have “unfettered access” to the British internal market, on the other hand, is if anything even more problematic. The Prime Minister only recently, and controversially, abandoned his previous commitment to keeping the Province fully-aligned to the mainland. If that remains the case, the only way businesses based in Ulster could simultaneously have frictionless access to the British market is through a high-alignment Brexit, i.e. exactly the sort of ‘UK-wide backstop’ that Theresa May tried, in vain, to sell to Boris Johnson.
(Of course, a cynic might argue that such a high-alignment Brexit is probably the easiest one to sort out if your overriding political priority is getting a deal without extending the transition period…)
Has the Cabinet really grasped the implications of the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ plan for its wider strategy? Or is it the product of a silo in the Northern Irish Office?
A long-standing concern amongst Unionists is that the NIO is, fundamentally, not on their side. More than one has put to me that there is no British counterpart to the Dublin, which is viewed as being a solid partisan for nationalism. The form of today’s announcement – a joint statement with the Irish Government, despite the latter having no formal role in governing the Province – will no more assuage these concerns than the content.
They also cite the Department’s extraordinary willingness to allow part of the United Kingdom to go for several years without proper democratic oversight rather than grasping the nettle of introducing direct rule, even temporarily. Polley writes of “relief” at the prospect of even a flawed Stormont deal, but much of that relief stems from the fact that both James Brokenshire and Karen Bradley preferred to leave crucial decisions unmade than shoulder the responsibility for making them. Bradley in particular regularly exploited provisions intended for emergencies to circumvent Commons scrutiny even of the minimal legislation she did pass.
Smith’s deal might have got Stormont back on its feet, at least for a little while. But its governance provisions are weak, and its implications for broader policy troubling. If the Government is serious about the Union with Northern Ireland – and at the minute that is an ‘if’ – then Johnson will need fresh thinking and a much bolder, more pro-active approach to supporting British interests in the Province. A Secretary of State prepared to challenge, rather than champion, the institutional attitudes of the NIO would be a good place to start.