North no longer the priority it once was for governments

It may feel like old times around Stormont but the focus has changed over last decade

The statue of Lord Edward Carson at Stormont in Belfast.  The collapse of the Executive has spurred the governments into action. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The statue of Lord Edward Carson at Stormont in Belfast. The collapse of the Executive has spurred the governments into action. Photograph: Niall Carson/PA Wire

 

Recent days have seen a flurry of telephone calls between senior Irish and British figures in the wake of the collapse of the power-sharing administration in Stormont on Monday. It was like old times.

But a variety of factors – not least that the Stormont administration has managed to govern Northern Ireland for the longest period of devolved rule since the 1960s – has meant that the North has fallen down the agenda of both governments in the last decade.

Whereas once the North was all they talked about, “nowadays it’s only a small part of what we talk about”, says one senior official.

“It’s important, of course. But it’s no longer the predominant subject of the conversation.”

The collapse of the Executive has spurred the governments into action, however.

On Wednesday, Taoiseach Enda Kenny met with Gerry Adams and Mary Lou McDonald in Government Buildings at lunchtime and later had telephone conversations with Martin McGuinness and the DUP leader, Arlene Foster. He spoke to British prime minister Theresa May the previous evening.

Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire has plunged into a series of contacts and meetings with the Northern parties and has spoken to Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan twice in recent days.

Constant contact

The two men will meet on Thursday when Flanagan travels to Belfast for a further series of meetings with Northern politicians. Behind the scenes officials have been in constant contact.

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However, on Wednesday night senior sources from both governments felt there was little chance of a breakthrough before Monday that would avert Assembly elections.

The trajectory of a Stormont crisis used to be predictable enough. The Northern parties fell out, the Assembly collapsed or faced collapse, there were dire warnings about the future of the peace process. Then Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair – and often the White House – got on the phone. Talks were convened. Many interviews were given. The crisis was eventually defused.

This time, it seems likely to work differently. “It’s up to them to sort it out,” says one Irish Government official. “Or not. You can bring a horse to water . . .”

British sources agree that the two Governments believe that Northern politicians have to take the responsibility for the success or failure of the institutions themselves.

Sinn Féin constantly reminds Government Buildings – and the British government, though their expectations of a response are low – that they are guarantors of the Belfast Agreement. Sure we are, agree Dublin sources. But they have to get on with it.

There are obvious reasons for this development. After nearly a decade of uncertainty and stop-start, the institutions have now been intact for more than a decade. Devolved rule and the politics that surrounds it have become embedded in the fabric of public life in the North.

Like their southern counterparts, few people in the North speak all that highly of their politicians and political institutions. But they expect them to be there. And as one senior Sinn Féin representative pointed out earlier this week, a professional political class has grown up in the North. Lots of people make their living from the continued existence of the Stormont institutions.

Noticeable fatigue

The passage of time since the era of constant crisis has also meant that the generation of politicians in Dublin and London, of the Ahern and Blair periods, have passed on from public office. The successor generations have less invested in the success of the Northern settlement.

There is also sometimes a noticeable fatigue in Dublin and London with the enduringly sectarian nature of Stormont’s divisions, even if all sides acknowledge that those divisions are less acute than they were a decade ago.

A further factor is unease – and sometimes downright alarm – among the Dublin political establishment at Sinn Féin’s rise. The party has traded on its record of Northern peacemaking to promote itself in the South, something that was the cause of gritted teeth in successive Dublin administrations.

That does not matter so much in London. There, the fact that the IRA’s campaign of violence was permanently ended meant that a large part of the problem was solved.

Finally, both Governments simply had other fish to fry. For one thing, Dublin was busy dealing with an existential financial crisis, while London faced the political challenge of a coalition government and, latterly, Brexit.

For all these reasons, Kenny and firstly David Cameron, and now May, believed that the primary responsibility of solving the North’s difficulties lay with the politicians of the North. For all the frantic diplomacy and politicking of the past few days, that remains the general disposition of both governments.