The DUP is being threatened with joint authority again, this time by former leaders of Alliance and the UUP.
Since the previous collapse of Stormont in 2017, nationalism has warned there can be no return to “British-only direct rule”, as Simon Coveney carefully described it when Minister for Foreign Affairs.
So far, the most prominent unionist to agree is Conservative peer Reg Empey, who led the UUP from 2005 to 2010. Speaking to the Belfast Telegraph in February, he said a failure to restore devolution would lead “gradually but inexorably towards a benign form of joint authority”.
“It won’t be called that, of course, but Northern Ireland’s place in the UK would be further eroded.”
John Alderdice, now a Liberal Democrat peer, led Alliance from 1987 to 1998 before becoming Stormont’s speaker until 2003.
In a widely reported blog last weekend, he wrote “in the absence of a Northern Ireland Assembly, the inevitable trajectory is towards de facto joint authority”.
Alderdice suggested this may occur with or without Stormont as the total nationalist vote surpasses unionism and a Sinn Féin government in Dublin deals directly with London.
Asked about Alderdice’s remarks, Empey largely agreed, although his agenda may be more about cajoling the DUP back to work than predicting the future. “London will not be introducing direct rule as we knew it in the past,” he said on Tuesday.
“The DUP have totally misjudged this whole fiasco ... Dublin will be cooking up some plan for joint authority.”
Alderdice and Empey broke taboos and made headlines by taking discussion of joint authority beyond nationalism. If such speculation spreads, it could have a significant impact. But there is no guarantee this will improve the stability of Stormont – it could merely tempt people to consider an alternative.
Irish governments have no mandate to spend southern taxes in the North or British taxes in the North, and almost all serious decisions involve serious money
The perverse allure of joint authority is that it cannot exist to any practical degree. An enhanced consultative role for Dublin would have symbolic power for nationalists, yet Dublin would have no actual power, limiting the potential to annoy unionists. Within unionism, cynics might quietly welcome an artifice that keeps nationalists happy while keeping Northern Ireland part of the UK.
Previous attempts to give Dublin a say in Northern Ireland show cynicism would be warranted. An Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Council was set up in 1981, which went nowhere. The 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement created an intergovernmental conference with a standing secretariat of British and Irish civil servants, based in Belfast. It was signed over unionism’s head and supplanted a four-year attempt to restore devolution, making it closer to joint authority than anything tried before or since. Once in operation, however, it quickly became apparent it was of no consequence. The enormous unionist backlash it had provoked appeared ludicrous in retrospect.
The Anglo-Irish council, conference and secretariat still exist, renamed by the Belfast Agreement as the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Nobody notices or cares. London and Dublin decided the conference was irrelevant after the 2006 St Andrews Agreement and it did not meet again for a decade. Nobody noticed that either. Alderdice said the conference was a vehicle that might deliver joint authority. Its past suggests otherwise.
The DUP is often said to have been threatened with joint authority at St Andrews. Premiers Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern sent the party a letter warning that if Stormont were not restored they would operate the Belfast Agreement under “British-Irish partnership arrangements”.
The fundamental problem is that any disagreement under joint authority comes down to indivisible sovereignty - somebody has to have the final say
This was a useful scare story for the DUP to tell unionist hardliners but it was not joint authority, as the UK government quickly informed the Commons. Nobody could say what it would have meant, beyond another Anglo-Irish damp squib.
How have all these efforts at “partnership” amounted to so little? The fundamental problem is that any disagreement under joint authority comes down to indivisible sovereignty – somebody has to have the final say. There is also a double bind of no taxation without representation. Irish governments have no mandate to spend southern taxes in the North or British taxes in the North, and almost all serious decisions involve serious money.
A Sinn Féin government in Dublin would run into the same constraints. Polls show voters in the Republic do not want to pay for deeper involvement in Northern Ireland or make political compromises towards it.
So a Sinn Féin government might settle for an enhanced consultative role, while cranking up the optics and aspirational rhetoric. Britain would continue paying the bills and British direct rule ministers – they would not call it direct rule – could start taking the unpopular decisions Stormont has ducked for two decades. Taxes might rise but improved public services would follow. There would still be peace and unionism would have councils and Westminster to grandstand in as it shrank to the margins. After a few benign years of this gradual but inexorable process, where would a majority be found to end it?