After last week’s breakdown in the negotiations between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), an imminent return to devolved government in Northern Ireland appears to be a fading dream.
Talks between the two parties have proved fruitless ever since the power-sharing executive collapsed in the wake of the ‘Renewable Heat Initiative’ scandal in January 2017. Though a deal was rumoured last week to be on the cards, the DUP walked out of the negotiations, citing fundamental opposition to Sinn Fein’s demand for a free-standing Irish Language Act.
Karen Bradley, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, has told Parliament that the UK Government will continue to explore "whether the basis for political agreement" and a return to devolved government exists. In the meantime, a more central role for UK ministers in the territory seems unavoidable. Should this lead to direct rule ‘proper’, it would end the longest continuous period of devolved government in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
The Irish Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement that underpins devolution and commits it to supporting the effective operation of Stormont’s institutions – and it has signalled its opposition to any introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland. Likewise, the SDLP has previously argued that the only “acceptable position for the nationalist community is joint authority between the Irish and British governments”. The difficulty is that a greater role for the Irish state in the government of Northern Ireland is a non-starter for the DUP.
In reality, Northern Ireland has already been under the de facto control of the UK Government for some time. Ever since Martin McGuiness resigned as Deputy First Minister in January last year, civil servants have been acting as caretakers, managing finances and resources in line with the existing priorities of the outgoing executive.
The previous Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, then went a step further by asking Westminster to pass a budget for the region last November to keep devolved ministries solvent.
But the £1.2 billion package for Northern Ireland from the Tory deal with the DUP is still to be administered. Given the political direction required for decisions in areas such as education and health, the UK Government might feel it needs to accept DUP leader Arlene Foster’s demand for “‘Her Majesty’s government to… start making policy decisions”.
However, passing another budget to be administered by civil servants is one thing. For UK ministers to take policy decisions over contentious devolved matters is quite another.
When power-sharing suffered its last major collapse between 2002 and 2007, then Secretary of State John Reid was able to dissolve Stormont and assume executive powers for an expanded ministerial team through Section One of the Northern Ireland Act 2000 – emergency legislation passed by the previous Secretary of State Peter Mandelson to suspend devolution between February and May of that year.
But under the terms of the St. Andrew’s Agreement in 2006, which paved the way for the return of devolved government the following year, the 2000 Act was repealed. Should Karen Bradley move to reintroduce direct rule, she may therefore require an equivalent piece of primary legislation from Westminster.
For the time being, the UK Government seems likely to resist any formal return to direct rule, and persist with its current strategy – passing budgets to be administered by civil servants – for as long as possible.
Should direct rule proper transpire however, the UK Government will be wary of legislating any of the controversial issues that divide Stormont’s parties – equal marriage, the Irish language and abortion – whatever the pressure from the opposition benches.
However, the UK Government will have to take a stand on one issue – Brexit – that both affects and divides Northern Irish politics. Without a devolved executive, it could face the task of directly administering a hard Brexit to a part of the country that voted heavily the other way – and that could do much more to endanger the future of devolved government than legalising equal marriage or liberalising abortion law.