Northern Ireland faces a bunch of bad options as it strives to keep devolution alive

Plenty of unfinished business in Northern Ireland. EPA/Paul McErlane

Bill Clinton, when US president, referred to having only “a bunch of bad options” while attempting to tackle the Milosevic regime during the war in Kosovo. The UK’s Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, now faces a similar set of difficult choices as he contemplates what to do given the latest breakdown of devolved government.

Following the failure of the ruling parties to form a Northern Ireland Executive on March 27, Brokenshire declared, in his statement to the House of Commons the following day, that the government would “consider all options” if the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein (SF) cannot settle their differences by Easter. But his implicit message was that all of these options were bad ones.

Under power-sharing rules, Northern Ireland had an assembly election on March 2 2017 after the resignation of former deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness. The result reinforced the dominance of the DUP and SF as the two largest parties in Northern Ireland but only served to magnify the differences between them that caused the election in the first place.

The DUP’s advantage over SF shrank from 10 seats to a single seat. It came within a gnat’s whisker of being overtaken in first preference vote share by SF – clinging to a 0.2% lead with 28.1% to SF’s 27.9%. The politics of the result have meant that an embattled DUP is now fighting a rearguard action to save Arlene Foster’s leadership of the party in the face of an emboldened SF – which is fresh from a rip-snorting nationalist mandate to hold the DUP to account and in the midst of collective grief over the death of its beloved Northern figurehead, Martin McGuinness. None of this is conducive to political compromise.

The death of republican hero Martin McGuinness has given Sinn Fein a renewed sense of purpose. EPA/Paul McErlane

The issue of transparency and integrity in government that triggered the March 2 election has been overlaid with a range of other issues relating to what are referred to as “legacy issues” of the conflict, as well as Sinn Fein’s demand for the DUP to agree to an Irish Language Act.

It is unlikely that the DUP and SF will have resolved their differences by Easter. The DUP cannot afford to look like it is dancing to SF’s tune, given its recent poor performance. SF meanwhile, will want to return to devolved government on terms significantly better than those that caused their now deceased former leader Martin McGuinness to resign in the first place.

In the absence of agreement, further talks between the DUP and SF alongside a creeping form of direct rule is a likely scenario. This will see the Northern Ireland civil service stepping in to run essential public services in the interim. The failure to restore devolved government means that Northern Ireland currently has no budget for the new financial year that begins on April 6. The civil service has had to step into the vacuum left by the NI executive. David Sterling, the permanent secretary in Northern Ireland’s Department of Finance, assumed responsibility for 75% of Northern Ireland’s £10bn budget on March 29 and has now started taking decisions on how to allocate these resources.​

The longer this goes on, the greater implications it will have for any future programme agreed between the DUP and SF – as the money may not be available to deliver what they want to do. Rate Bills (the equivalent of the Council Tax in GB) have not been set either, or sent out to local businesses or householders. This raises revenue of £1.2bn for local council services – money that will now have to come directly from the Department of Finance.

If these emergency arrangements continue beyond the summer, there will be a legal requirement on the Department of Finance to impose a 5% budgetary cut across public services, many of which are already impoverished.

And so to Brexit, the shadow of which looms large across all of the above. Should direct rule be the medium-term future for Northern Ireland, it will take place against the backdrop of the UK’s negotiations over its departure from the European Union in a context where Britain will need Ireland as an ally. While leverage over Northern Ireland affairs would perhaps be too crude a way of putting it, some significant Irish influence over the shape of direct rule is a reasonable working assumption.

Without the buffer of its devolved government, NI politicians will cede local control over a swathe of economic, political and social policy matters. Thus, in the absence of devolution, the UK government could pass legislation to give effect to an Irish Language Act if it chose to do so, which the DUP have been adamantly resisting. It could also impose stringent welfare reforms that SF have been against for a number of years. However, given the Brexit context, where the UK will be desperate for European allies, direct rule may take on a decidedly green tinge over the next two years.

Bill Clinton spoke with great pathos at Martin McGuinness’s funeral on March 23 about how the former deputy First Minister “expanded the definition of us – and shrank the definition of them”. Whatever option James Brokenshire chooses over the coming weeks, it will need to deliver on this axiom if devolved government in Northern Ireland is to get much further.