Brexit is proving such a distraction that few seem to have noticed the creeping start to direct rule in Northern Ireland. While much of the coverage in the newspapers focused on the EU withdrawal bill, the Northern Ireland Budget Act – which shifts Stormont’s most important power, the task of setting Northern Ireland’s budget, to London – tiptoed its way through parliament this week.
The thing about direct rule is that once you have started, it’s hard to stop. It will also do little to heal the country’s fractured politics: the DUP will push for more; they will also seek the appointment of direct rule ministers as quickly as possible. This makes perfect sense for them, as in Westminster they now hold the balance of power, while their nationalist rivals don’t even take up their seats. Luckily for Sinn Féin, though, Brokenshire won’t do this because that would be decisive, and he isn’t. Instead, what seems inevitable is a continuation of the current vacuum, with no talks (Sinn Féin declared those over on Monday), no ministers (of either the Stormont or Direct rule flavours), and no path to Northern Ireland gaining that vital fashion accessory, a functioning government.
What is worse is that when politics judders to a halt, ugly elements from the past inevitably creep into view. Sunday night saw a knee-capping in Derry; dissident Republicans are believed to have been responsible for a pipe bomb left in Omagh on Remembrance Sunday. These events might not be directly connected to the political stasis, but the standstill in Stormont is unlikely to help matters.
As things stand, there remains no executive to represent Northern Ireland’s interests; no one to answer its telephone when it rings. Northern Ireland, its economy dominated by agricultural exports to Europe and financial services, is the UK region likely to be most affected by Brexit, and that’s even before getting to the Border question. Yet during all this, Stormont remains stuck in a deadlock.
In 2007, bitter enemies Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were coaxed and flattered and muscled into forming a joint ‘Chuckle Brothers’ executive. This involved intense engagement from London, Dublin, and Washington. By contrast, the now-broken Good Friday institutions have received no tender loving care from a Downing Street distracted by Brexit, and an eccentric White House concentrating on Twitter.
The one world leader to have met both sides has been Bill Clinton, a month ago and by sheer force of habit. But this time his power to solve the crisis was gone. Meanwhile, the post of US Special Envoy for Northern Ireland – formerly held by engaged heavyweight political bruisers like Senator George Mitchell, Richard Haass, and Paula Dobriansky – has been axed by the Trump administration altogether.
Direct Rule, anyway, is a supremely unhelpful concept because the issues dividing the DUP and Sinn Féin at the moment are Stormont-sized ones, local rows over things such as how much visibility and legal status should the Irish language have in the North. These are solvable problems – but not from London.
Brokenshire has had his day: he is unequal to his present job and has, it would seem, been cut loose by an uninterested boss. Closing the distance to a deal needs a heavyweight. It’s difficult to think of such a politician in the current Tory government, and Northern Ireland will suffer as a consequence. The distances to be bridged are not so great now. But these will only get harder in the coming months as more bits of authority get dismantled and shipped out to London. The future does not look bright for Northern Ireland.