Addressing the DUP’s spring policy conference on Saturday, Arlene Foster said:
“Ministerial decisions being made by the secretary of state is in no way our preferred outcome. But it is far better than no decisions being taken at all.
“We will continue to work closely with Karen Bradley as she makes good on her commitment to do whatever is necessary to fulfill her Majesty’s Government’s responsibilities to the people of Northern Ireland, including working with her on ways for the Assembly – and for the people elected last year – to have an input.”
Let me tell you what Karen Bradley’s job is: in the absence of a functioning Executive and Assembly her job is to provide government for Northern Ireland; take key decisions for Northern Ireland; provide and implement a budget for Northern Ireland; ensure that the Northern Ireland Civil Service has very clear direction and instruction (one of which would be to maintain proper paper trails); and provide personal – in her role as secretary of state – accountability for government.
After 15 months of mothballed institutions she has to step up to the plate and do what they have been unable to do.
Anyway, it’s not as if we’re sitting on the cusp of a deal. Simon Hamilton has said it could be a year or longer. Arlene Foster has said months. Conor Murphy has spoken of opening “up into a period of nothing happening”.
There’s probably more chance of Gregory Campbell addressing Sinn Fein’s June ard fheis in fluent Irish than there is of Sinn Fein/DUP signing off on a deal and rebooting government.
So there really is no point whatsoever in Mrs Bradley continuing with the Mr Micawber mantra that, ‘something will turn up’. It won’t.
We don’t have functioning devolution. We don’t have direct rule. We have what Professor David Whitehead described as ‘limbocracy’. And in this bizarre world we pay MLAs to do a job they can’t, in fact do.
I’m aware that the blame for the ongoing impasse can’t be laid on UUP/SDLP/Alliance doorsteps; and I’m also aware that the DUP/SF blame each other for the latest collapse; but none of that actually matters. We don’t have a government. We’re unlikely to have a government anytime soon.
I’m wary therefore, when I hear some of the parties talk about a ‘shadow’ assembly and some sort of input for MLAs. Even by our usual standards of barking mad politics that would be particularly crazy. How could a ‘shadow’ assembly possibly scrutinise decisions being made by the secretary of state, when she would only be making them because the ‘real’ assembly didn’t exist?
What authority would it have? Since there isn’t even a Programme for Government – the previous one was made redundant last March – on what basis would a ‘shadow’ assembly (in which the DUP and Sinn Fein would have 55 of the 90 seats) scrutinise? Would the petition of concern still be available: because, if not, there would be a majority for same-sex-marriage, an Irish language act and a number of other ‘difficult’ issues.
Would MLAs continue to be paid, even though they wouldn’t be members of a genuinely functioning Assembly? Why not just go the full hog and allow Tony Lloyd, Labour’s new ‘shadow’ secretary of state, to step in for Mrs Bradley and take responsibility for what is, to all intents and purposes, pretend direct rule?
Last week Mrs Bradley said that it wasn’t her job to impose timetables or accommodations on the DUP and Sinn Fein. I agree. But nor is it her job to sit around waiting for them to do something.
So here’s an idea.
Tell the parties and the people of Northern Ireland that she is taking responsibility for government. More important, tell the parties that she won’t be pampering them in a pretend assembly, or facilitating a new round of negotiations. If they are serious about a deal then let them sort it out for themselves.
Let them sit down and talk together. And if they reach a deal that they are prepared to stand over, then bring it to her (or her successor, depending how long it takes) and allow her to make the decision about whether it’s worth restoring power and substance to the institutions.
Will she do this? Of course she won’t. The official line from the British and Irish governments is that the Good Friday Agreement remains ‘too big, too important, to fail’. The fact that the hopes it raised 20 years ago are now in history’s hoover bag and that in political/electoral terms we’re more polarised than ever, is neither here nor there.
Better, it seems, to continue with the pretence that the rogue virus can be removed from the system and replaced with a spanky new Pollyanna download, than to face the fact that maybe, just maybe, the problems can’t be fixed.
Pretence, ambiguity and naked self-interest are the deadliest enemies of reality and political progress. Between 2004-2007 the DUP and Sinn Fein worked together to cut a deal that would cripple the UUP/SDLP and secure their own roles as joint top dogs. They promised stability and consensus instead of the stop-start of 1998-2007.
Well, in terms of politics and reconciliation, we’re in a worse place than we were, with almost two-thirds of the electorate backing the DUP/SF. That’s quite a mess.
What worries me most is that the parties, governments, observers and people-on-the-street don’t yet recognise the sheer scale and debilitating nature of the mess.