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Newton Emerson: The wrong threat is being used against the DUP over its Stormont boycott

The rise of the unaligned centre in Northern Ireland politics has made reform of Belfast Agreement structures imperative

There is no such thing as joint authority. Almost everyone reportedly claiming otherwise over the past week has been careful to avoid that expression.

Reports began after a gathering of party leaders at Stormont last Friday.

A journalist asked Alliance’s Naomi Long what would happen if the DUP boycott caused a collapse of devolution.

“I think we will be talking about a form of direct rule that would involve Irish participation and not just directly from Westminster,” she replied.


UUP leader Doug Beattie added: “If people think there’s a utopia out there, that it’s just going to be a direct route from London, then they’re mistaken”.

Sinn Féin picked up the theme in subsequent days. In Belfast on Monday, while appealing to the DUP to return to Stormont, Mary Lou McDonald said: “The alternative is not direct rule from London but a joint partnership approach from London and Dublin and in both those scenarios Sinn Féin will be central.”

On Virgin TV that evening, Fianna Fáil TD Jim O’Callaghan said: “If there is a failure on the part of the politicians in Northern Ireland to run Northern Ireland then it’ll fall to the responsibility of both governments. The days of direct rule by the British government of Northern Ireland are over.”

All this is about putting pressure on the DUP to return to Stormont. None of it is inconsistent with the Belfast Agreement, which empowers the Irish Government to make proposals on non-devolved matters. That power operates via the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the successor body to the Anglo-Irish Agreement, responsible for “the totality of relationships”.

When devolution collapses, the council does not take over running Northern Ireland but it is the usual forum to discuss restoration. As Beattie noted, London and Dublin tend to have “equal say in getting this government up again”.

This is still not joint authority, no matter how attractive nationalists find that concept or how useful the media finds that phrase.

Any meaningful form of joint executive control would be a novel form of government anywhere. Introducing it to Northern Ireland would mean ditching the Belfast Agreement, the consent principle and the right of northerners to elect their government. Spending decisions would be in conflict with mandates for taxation. It is a fantasy, which is why the threat of it leaves the DUP unmoved. Even discussing direct rule is absurd at this stage, as the last collapse of Stormont showed London will leave Northern Ireland on local administrative autopilot for years before taking control.

The notion of joint authority is only floating around due to a wilful misunderstanding. When Sinn Féin collapsed the executive in 2017, it had to explain why it was risking direct British rule. So it unearthed a document from the 2006 St Andrews negotiations, where both governments warned the DUP that a refusal to restore devolution would have “immediate implications for their joint stewardship of the process”.

The Belfast Agreement requires regular and major reviews of all its institutions to reform their structures. This has not been delivered

Sinn Féin said this meant “a form of joint authority” but it was neither joint authority nor a warning — it was assistance to the DUP leadership to bounce unionist hardliners into accepting power-sharing with republicans. The party continued finding this helpful for years.

An effective threat against the DUP would be to consider what Alliance is actually proposing — reforming Stormont to prevent any one party collapsing it again.

Long renewed that call on Tuesday to new prime minister Rishi Sunak.

“Reform is the only route to stability and ending ransom politics for good,” she said.

Alliance suggests an initial tweak to power-sharing, so that the two largest parties are still entitled to be in the executive but can opt out. Nobody would be excluded, except by their own choice.

Sinn Féin and the DUP both reject any such change and the consensus is it could not be imposed over their heads. But imposition is legally possible — the question is whether forcing the issue is politically feasible.

The Belfast Agreement requires regular and major reviews of all its institutions to reform their structures. This has not been delivered. The rise of the unaligned centre has made reform imperative, as the Taoiseach told the Dáil earlier this month.

Both main parties are on thin ice blocking reform. The DUP supported reform of mandatory coalition right until ceasing to be the largest party — and it has never officially supported the agreement. Sinn Féin refused to deliver key republican pledges in the first decade after the agreement, then spent more than half the next obstructing or boycotting Stormont. It is clearly defending the DUP’s veto only to maintain its own.

The agreement is ultimately a treaty between the UK and Ireland, in which they commit themselves to nudging Stormont parties towards an ever more normal democratic system.

A firm shove, jointly of course, would be well timed and long overdue.