Newton Emerson: Dublin need not fear direct rule of North
Without Stormont, civil servants will be unable to manage complexities of Brexit
Stormont in Belfast: Northern Ireland is careening towards direct rule regardless of the wishes of the British or Irish governments. Photograph: Paul Faith
Everyone had a quiet laugh at Gerry Adams last Thursday when he appealed during a Dáil debate on Brexit for “the Government and others, in the interests of geographical accuracy, to stop describing this state as Ireland”.
Ministers took the correct approach to this brazen pot-stirring by simply ignoring it, but moments later Minister for European Affairs Helen McEntee conceded a far more serious point.
Adams asked if the Government remained “implacably opposed” to direct rule in Northern Ireland.
“The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, other Ministers and I have always said we would never accept it,” McEntee replied.
Public and cross-party consensus is building that Westminster intervention is both necessary in the absence of Stormont and a sensible precursor to restoring it
That was the sum total of her response, at the end of a lengthy answer to other points. It seemed almost casual, yet it is a stance clearly running out of time and creating a hostage to fortune.
Northern Ireland is careening towards direct rule regardless of the wishes of the British or Irish governments. Since the collapse of devolution 2½ years ago London has made convoluted efforts to preserve a form of limbo, leaving civil servants officially in charge.
Extensions of that limbo have been rubber-stamped through Westminster on a roughly annual basis, each time draining more credibility from the notion that devolution has not been suspended in all but name. The extension Bill debated over the past two weeks in Westminster has burst the dam.
After Labour MPs successfully added amendments on same-sex marriage and abortion, a torrent of amendments followed from the Lords on issues ranging from welfare reform to injury payments for Troubles victims.
These issues reflect pent-up policy demands in Northern Ireland, not all of which Stormont was able to deliver. A public and cross-party consensus is building that Westminster intervention is both necessary in the absence of Stormont and a sensible precursor to restoring it, allowing obstacles to be removed from the agenda.
The interventions proposed still fall short of formal direct rule. However, taken together they would make it absurd for Karen Bradley, the northern secretary, to deny she was effectively in charge.
Separately, UK ministers briefed the press this week that direct rule will have to be introduced within three months if Stormont is not restored, as civil servants in Belfast will be unable to manage the complexities of Brexit.
The same-sex marriage and abortion amendments are widely viewed as making restoration within three months less likely, as they are due to be enacted by the end of October, giving Sinn Féin an incentive to let the DUP stew.
If direct rule has to be introduced, to the reluctance of everyone involved, it does not need to cause a rupture between London and Dublin. Under the Belfast Agreement, the operation of Stormont is entirely a matter of UK sovereignty. Devolution has been suspended four times since the agreement, the last time for five years from 2002.
It appears a shibboleth has been made out of a misunderstanding and nobody knows how to back down
Both governments continued to work together during those periods via the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC), the agreement’s main east-west institution. Communiques from BIIGC summits under direct rule were brief and sanguine, noting a joint commitment to restoring devolution along with ongoing co-operation on non-devolved issues.
Within Northern Ireland, direct rule remains more controversial among nationalists than unionists – but that was also the case during the last suspension. It only became a major east-west controversy in November 2017, when Taoiseach Leo Varadkar mistakenly interpreted BIIGC, then itself in limbo, as an alternative to direct rule, describing it as “a form of joint authority”.
He corrected himself a month later but continued implacably opposing direct rule. Dublin would expect “real and meaningful involvement” in Northern Ireland if devolution was not restored, Varadkar said in December 2018, adding the least he would expect was reviving BIIGC.
That was done in July 2018, yet the Irish Government still says it can “never accept” direct rule. The implication of requiring more involvement than is available through BIIGC would be a rewrite of the Belfast Agreement, which all this resolve is supposed to be protecting.
What does Dublin gain from this? If it is hoping the absence of Stormont sticks a spoke in the wheels of Brexit, that is a cynical and desperate game to play with the governance of Northern Ireland.
There is little evidence of such cynicism, however. It appears a shibboleth has been made out of a misunderstanding and nobody knows how to back down, or sees the urgency or importance of doing so.
Last Thursday was the final sitting of the Dáil before its summer recess. Tánaiste Simon Coveney, who represents the Irish Government at BIIGC, made the closing remarks in the debate, immediately after McEntee’s statement. He did not take the opportunity to finesse her comments, which was a great pity.
Direct rule is overdue, increasingly likely, potentially useful and a needless bone of contention. It is very much in Ireland’s interest to stop describing it as unacceptable.