The current crisis could give Westminster a chance to implement reform
Northern Ireland’s institutions are on their knees. Again. And this time, according to the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, they might not come back.
Doug Beattie has warned that the Democratic Unionists are risking a long-term collapse of devolution by walking out of Stormont over the Brexit Protocols. That move, combined with the threat that the party would not form an Executive if Sinn Féin are the largest party, could mean that Stormont ceases to operate.
He may well be right, and if he is then Sir Jeffrey Donaldson and his party will rightly shoulder much of the blame. But confining our blame to the Unionists and the Government, and pretending that the current crisis is simply the result of decisions made since 2016 (or 2019), would miss the point and let many guilty parties off the hook.
After all, as mentioned, this is not the first time Stormont has fallen over. Sinn Féin have walked out on several occasions, such as in the wake of the ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal or over having to implement the Coalition’s welfare reforms.
Every time this happens, the response of successive Secretaries of State has been to fly over and, after however many weeks of negotiations, basically bribe the parties to go back. Using the fragility of the institutions to extort concessions from London is part of the system.
The critical difference this time is that the DUP are holding out for something (reform of the Protocol) which is not in the unilateral gift of the British Government. Hence Beattie’s warning that this collapse might be permanent.
But it does make all the shroud-waving from Sinn Féin at their temerity in walking out a little hard to swallow. (Consider too all those people who insisted we couldn’t have a land border because republican terrorists might attack it and were then shocked that their loyalist counterparts took the point and withdrew consent for the Belfast Agreement over the sea border.)
Indeed, the current crisis has arisen in part directly from those earlier concessions. Because it was ultimately Westminster that, under New Labour, authorised the reforms which may produce a Sinn Féin first minister.
Until the St Andrews Agreement, the post was nominated by the largest caucus, unionist or nationalist, and not the largest party. Changing that rule has helped both the DUP and Sinn Féin squeeze the smaller parties — and may now see the latter secure the symbolically important ‘top job’ even if unionist parties return more MLAs overall.
Yet there may be a silver lining here. By collapsing Stormont in a manner which prevents the Secretary of State taking an easy, short-termist way out, the current crisis could give Brandon Lewis a chance to grasp the nettle of long-overdue reform.
And as negotiations about bringing devolution back drag interminably on, a period of direct rule would allow Westminster an opportunity to step in and take some hard decisions.
The local devocrats won’t like that one bit, of course. But that might just spur them to get Stormont back up and running.