Siobhan Fenton

Could direct rule solve Northern Ireland’s political crisis?

Could direct rule solve Northern Ireland's political crisis?
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Power-sharing talks at Stormont have dramatically collapsed again. This is a shock to many in Northern Ireland, where an apparent thawing in the relationship between the DUP and Sinn Fein led to speculation that the announcement of a deal was imminent. Instead, the stasis continues.

Northern Ireland has now been without a functioning government for just over 13 months, since Sinn Fein first plunged Northern Irish politics into limbo by pulling out of their pact with the DUP in January 2017. The reason for their decision to back out of the power sharing agreement was Arlene Foster's apparent complicity – which she has denied – in the botched 'cash for ash' scandal. Since the collapse of power-sharing, however, Sinn Fein have added to their wish list and say they won’t come back into government unless the DUP agrees to a number of demands, including new legislation to promote the Irish language. The DUP are staunchly against the introduction of any such laws. It appears this issue is the insurmountable hurdle preventing Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government from coming back to life.

The Irish language in Northern Ireland is, of course, a divisive issue. It is primarily spoken in the region’s Catholic or nationalist community; few members of the Protestant or unionist community speak it. Wales and Scotland have both passed legislation in their devolved governments to protect the rights of Welsh speakers and Scots Gaelic. Sinn Fein are arguing that Northern Ireland needs a similar piece of legislation to protect the rights of Irish speakers locally. But the DUP argue that this will grant Irish speakers unfair special treatment.

This split has formed the basis of many of the negotiations over the course of the last year, with both parties apparently determined not to back down. However, last week it seemed a deal might be on the cards. Theresa May's decision to fly to Belfast on Monday increased these hopes. But last night, Arlene Foster poured water on talk of a deal, saying that:

'In our view, there is no current prospect of these discussions leading to an Executive being formed.'

Foster went on to call on the British Government to step in:

'It is now incumbent on Her Majesty’s Government to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure. Important decisions impacting on everyone in Northern Ireland have been sitting in limbo for too long.'

So what went wrong? It seems probable that the DUP realised that they would struggle to sell a compromise on Irish language legislation to their voters. In the last week, radio call-ins and unionist newspapers have been full of DUP voters expressing outrage at the possibility of any such compromise. The Orange Order, a hardline Protestant and loyalist grouping with close links to the DUP, also called on unionists to firmly oppose any such compromise. The DUP has long been fiercely against the Irish language for decades, with a number of key politicians in the party talking up voters’ fears that allowing the legislation would result in an erosion of Northern Ireland’s 'Britishness'. It may be that while the DUP was willing to compromise, they had simply failed to bring their voters with them in time to secure a deal.

Now, Foster has kicked the ball back into Theresa May's court. The PM is unlikely to thank Foster for this: Parliament's legislative timetable is already worryingly tight with Brexit, without the minutiae of Northern Irish affairs taking up space. Responsibility for administering Northern Ireland’s abortion laws and the definition of marriage would also transfer to Britain if direct rule was imposed. This would put the Westminster Government in the politically toxic position of coming under pressure to overturn the region’s abortion ban and legalise same-sex marriage, while also navigating the need to not be accused of unfairly interfering. 

What's more, direct rule from London would be further complicated by the DUP’s confidence and supply arrangement which is propping up the Tories. This pact would inevitable mean that many among Northern Ireland’s Catholic and nationalist communities will not consider the party as being in any way impartial. 

After 13 months of difficult and now seemingly fruitless negotiations at Stormont, it seems likely the hard decisions will be transferred across the Irish Sea. In the hands of the Tories, the fraught nature of Northern Irish politics is unlikely to prove any less toxic. Northern Ireland's political crisis shows no sign of being solved any time soon.