There is a saying that whoever the Prime Minister hates, they appoint as Northern Ireland Secretary. James Brokenshire, Theresa May’s unlucky pick for the job, had three options yesterday: a new election, direct rule, or a fudge. When the clock struck 4pm, three weeks after Northern Ireland’s election, there was only one option: it was always going to be the Irish fudge.
James Brokenshire had tried valiantly to maintain the fiction, which no one believed, that at 4:01pm yesterday he was prepared to fire the starting pistol of Northern Ireland’s third assembly election in a year. It wasn’t a credible threat, and people in Northern Ireland have a way of telling the one from the other. The problem was that everyone already knew the Law Lords had issued a decision in 2001 making the three weeks something of an Irish mile. In short, this meant that three weeks can mean six weeks – making Brokenshire’s earlier threat an empty one from the outset. But it did also provide the beleaguered Northern Ireland secretary with a convenient recipe for a political fudge.
And so, when Brokenshire duly appeared – a hologram of a Northern Ireland Secretary, without weight – his ‘short few weeks’ for a deal sounded like a sofa dealer’s ‘limited time only’. His comment, that there was no appetite ‘for any immediate snap election’, begged the question of just when there had ever been a hunger for a rematch – given he was the only one who was even talking about it.
But for all the bluster, make no mistake: it is now vital for Theresa May that this ploy succeeds. She does not have the space on her Downing Street desk to deal with Brexit, Scotland, and an interminable negotiation in Northern Ireland, too. After all, direct rule has a nasty habit of sticking. The slip of power away from the politicians starts tomorrow, when under Section 59 of the Northern Ireland Act, the civil servants take control of the budgets. You’ve never heard of him, but David Sterling, Permanent Secretary of the Northern Ireland Department of Finance, whose hobbies include walking and golf – and who was once tasked with cleaning up Northern Ireland’s sewers – is now the most important person in the country.
Given the urgency of it all, it’s been asked why the PM herself isn’t here to knock heads together. But there could be a wisdom to her staying away. Sinn Féin, for example, could happily give in to a hapless Brokenshire, who looks twelve, in a way they could not to a First Lord of the Treasury.
Despite the current stasis, there is hope – even without Theresa May’s input. For the DUP, a deal is important. Arlene Foster – or another of her party – cannot rejoice in the title of First Minister if there is direct rule. For Michelle O’Neill’s Sinn Féin, the calculus is less clear. Stay away, and it becomes easier to advocate for Irish unity after the institutions of the North have come crashing down. But there could be a waffling form of Irish Language Act – and Brokenshire speaks fluent waffle – which could get the acquiescence of the DUP, and give Sinn Féin enough of a victory to take home to secure a deal after all.
But even if this happens, finding a solution will be no mean feat. Sinn Féin have already nailed their colours to the mast in saying they will not go into an Executive with Arlene Foster, at least before the ‘cash for ash’ scandal has been thoroughly poked into. If Theresa May and the DUP are serious about ending this paralysis in Stormont – and I think they are – someone with a bit more bottom than Brokenshire may be needed to put in the call for a taxi for one for Arlene.
After all, increasingly the view is forming that May’s man is out of his depth – a perception which will make it even harder for him to cosh together a deal. There are carrots, but elections can’t be his only stick. The Northern Ireland Secretary must find some truly hideous, painful, and economically vital reform that will come down hard on householders during direct rule, (like the proposed water charges of 2007) then use these to convince the local parties to get on with it. So far, though, under Brokenshire’s chairmanship, talks never even made it to the vital plenary stage, where everyone was able to settle their differences sufficiently to gather in the same room. It’s only then that you remove parties’ abilities to say different things to different people, and sniff out actual positions and red lines. Given his inability to focus minds sufficiently for this to happen over the last few weeks, it’s difficult to imagine Brokenshire succeeding in this task ever. Instead, what Northern Ireland needs is a proven dealmaker or an elder statesman to step in. Last time round, we had American muscle at the table. A funny thing, though, wasn’t that Bill Clinton I glimpsed out in Dublin on Saturday night…?