Boris Johnson is in Northern Ireland urging parties to “seal the deal” to the return of power-sharing. He will remind people that it is now over 900 days since Northern Ireland had sitting ministers, and that since then civil servants have been in charge, managing on a continuity, care and maintenance basis.
Attempts to restore power-sharing faltered last year. Talks resumed this year after politicians from across Northern Ireland’s political spectrum were shamed into giving it another go by a scathing speech delivered at the funeral of Lyra McKee, the journalist killed in April. Since then there are reports of progress – but no sign yet of a conclusion.
It is arguable that the course of Brexit could have been different had the power-sharing executive not collapsed in January 2017. The executive would have been forced to come up with an agreed position between its two parties – the DUP and Sinn Féin – as they had done in the letter penned by Arlene Foster and Martin McGuinness after the EU referendum. DUP MLAs in Stormont might also have been able to set the tone rather than DUP MPs in Westminster – and might have been more influenced by the needs of local business and farmers, many of whom are very worried by the prospect of no deal and (relatively) keen on the backstop.
But it might also have been too hard for a political system that, even in good times, does not have a great track record at confronting difficult trade-offs and making long-term strategic choices. If that is true on decisions like how to charge for water, or how to reform education, then it is likely to have been true for an issue which cuts straight down the middle of the nationalist–unionist divide that power sharing is designed to surmount. So if the executive had not already collapsed, Brexit might well have put it under intolerable strain.
That is speculation. But a new executive, with leaders who have not established the trust relationship between first minister and deputy first minister that is essential to make power sharing work, would surely struggle with the run-up to Brexit – and managing the fallout.
The two main parties have, during the hiatus, impaled themselves on diametrically opposed sides of the Brexit debate. Sinn Féin may see itself – and its long-term goal of Irish unification – as the big winner from a no-deal Brexit it can blame on an oblivious government in Westminster. The DUP on the other hand has traded the responsibility of power in Belfast for leverage in London through its confidence and supply agreement with the Conservatives. At the moment, it looks as though it suits both sides to be out of power.
While Northern Ireland has suffered from a lack of ministerial representation in the Brexit preparations in London, the absence of sitting ministers has enabled civil servants to be more frank about the likely consequences of no deal. Responding to those consequences will require quick decision making – something that has not been a characteristic of the executive even when functioning relatively well. It is not clear how well a new executive could cope being pitched into crisis management. The best-case scenario is that it concentrates the minds of the new ministers; more likely, though, is that it may end up in a massive blame game.
Unaccountable civil servants, operating within the limited mandate to carry on where they have existing political cover, will not be able to cope with a no-deal Brexit. This point was made by Michael Gove in March, by David Lidington before he left government last week, and implied by Dominic Raab in his interview round on Monday. This means that, however much he wants to avoid legislation, the prime minister and his Northern Ireland secretary need to be preparing to legislate in the autumn. They should brace themselves for the brickbats they will get from both the Irish government and Sinn Féin.
The PM may say power sharing is his priority – but he must accept his no-deal rhetoric is making it less likely. On top of this, his party’s dependence on DUP votes in Westminster makes it hard for it to be the credible honest broker it needs to be. Resurrecting power sharing, a couple of months before a no-deal Brexit, may just be a recipe for rapid collapse.
Although managing the immediate crisis may necessitate direct rule, in the longer run it is vital that Northern Ireland recovers its distinctive voice in UK policy. There are issues that geography simply dictates must be managed differently in Northern Ireland, namely transport, energy and the environment. There are also issues on which Northern Ireland will have very different interests: it may well want a different agricultural support regime to the pure ‘payments for public goods’ ideas Michael Gove championed at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, for example. Lastly, it will want a say in future trade agreements – not least one with the US that will have a massive impact on its dominant agri-food sector.
Even if the restoration of power sharing before a no-deal Brexit looks unlikely (and potentially undesirable even if the parties could be bribed back into government), UK ministers should act quickly after Brexit to get the power sharing show back on the road, however unpropitious the circumstances may be.