Sam McBride: As direct rule creeps closer, Sinn Fein’s lack of even cursory criticism is telling

Power is inexorably shifting from Belfast to London as Parliament agrees to give Karen Bradley multiple powers which are nominally still devolved
Power is inexorably shifting from Belfast to London as Parliament agrees to give Karen Bradley multiple powers which are nominally still devolved
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Last week something which on paper should be constitutionally controversial happened at Westminster – and no one batted an eyelid.

Secretary of State Karen Bradley managed to pass legislation to give her further direct rule powers, the most significant of which now allows her to appoint an attorney general once John Larkin’s term expires in May.

When the legislation came before the House of Lords last Monday, the most notable element of the debate was when NIO minister Lord Duncan of Springbank broke into song at the despatch box.

The previous week the legislation had come before the Commons. When it did so, there was more debate around NIO minister John Penrose and Labour’s shadow minister Stephen Pound’s early years in politics – with Mr Penrose recounting how he “ate a great deal of curry” in Ealing – than there was about the legislation, so uncontroversial was its nature.

No Northern Ireland MP even spoke in the Commons debate.

The limited Westminster debate about the Northern Ireland (Ministerial Appointment Functions) Regulations 2019 is hardly a great surprise.

Even contentious Northern Ireland legislation can sail through almost empty Westminster chambers with unanimous support from the few MPs or peers who turn up.

And in this case the legislation was not even seen as controversial, but as a regrettable but unavoidable outworking of the inability of the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree to restore devolution in Belfast.

The striking thing was the reaction in Northern Ireland.

There were no demonstrations against the move, no calls for an urgent meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and not even a press release from Sinn Féin or the SDLP to register perfunctory criticism of another act of direct rule sending more power back to London.

Even in the perpetually outraged and hyper-partisan world of social media the decision passed with more comment on Lord Duncan’s vocal abilities than on the substance of how the law was being changed.

This is not an isolated case. For more than a year now there has been a plethora of direct rule legislation – individual acts of direct rule rather than a simpler and more far-reaching decision to suspend devolution and give all Stormont’s powers to the secretary of state.

The legislation passed last week allows Mrs Bradley to appoint the attorney general, a member of the Victims’ Commission, a member or chair of the Livestock and Meat Commission or a member, chair or vice-chair of the Housing Executive.

It was a simple piece of secondary legislation, the substance of which stretched to barely more than a single page. But the return of a key policing and justice power – the appointment of a local attorney general – to London made it a potentially sensitive statutory instrument.

With the agreement of Parliament, Mrs Bradley had already taken to herself the power to appoint senior police officers, members of the Probation Board, members of the Policing Board and the highly sensitive role of police ombudsman. The ability to appoint members of the Judicial Appointments Commission – the body which appoints judges – had already gone to the Lord Chancellor in London last year.

It is now routine for the secretary of state to decide on Stormont’s budget and pass it by direct rule at Westminster. And next month she will use another act of direct rule to slash the subsidies being paid to RHI claimants.

Cumulatively, these and other acts of direct rule mean that power is seeping from Stormont – where now even civil servants will not be taking the decisions – to London.

The general indifference, or grudging support, of most people – whether unionist, nationalist or other – to these moves is potentially significant.

Government and civil service sources have privately said that a reason for not implementing full fat direct rule – as happened on every other past occasion when devolution collapsed – was concern about the reaction of nationalism.

There was also probably concern about the Irish Government’s reaction at a time when the Brexit negotiations were ongoing and then, since summer 2017, the complicating factor of the DUP’s deal to keep Theresa May in power.

It is still possible that a move to implement full direct rule – especially if it was seen to allow the DUP unique influence over how Northern Ireland is run – would grab the attention of a hitherto apathetic public and could anger nationalists.

But the evidence so far is that the numerous acts of direct rule to date have provoked virtually no controversy at all - even from those such as Sinn Féin who would be expected to publicly oppose them out of ideological principle, even if quietly acquiescing in what is happening.

It is almost certainly the case that there is no grand plan from either the secretary of state or the prime minister to incrementally institute direct rule if Stormont cannot be recovered.

What she is doing is arguably not even the bare minimum to keep the most essential wheels of government turning in Northern Ireland. Mrs Bradley has, for instance, repeatedly rejected the uncontroverisal pleas of the survivors of historical institutional abuse for her to use direct rule powers to provide them with compensation.

Perhaps the reason that Sinn Fein in particular, but also the SDLP, have been so quiet is that neither of them have a viable alternative to the inexorable shift of power from Stormont to London.

Both parties – and the Irish Government – initially proposed using the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) to replace Stormont, a sort of back-door joint authority whereby London and Dublin jointly run Northern Ireland. But the Belfast Agreement precludes the BIIGC from dealing with devolved matters, something which Simon Coveney articulated clearly last July.

Since then there have been no viable alternatives put forward by Sinn Féin as to how Northern Ireland should be governed if it cannot agree to share power with the DUP at Stormont.

On Tuesday, The Irish Times reported that the government is likely to reintroduce direct rule if there is a no-deal Brexit. The paper said that several Irish Government sources had confirmed that Dublin is aware of the plans, “which have been suggested as an administrative necessity rather than a political move” due to the need for rapid legislative and executive decision-making in such a scenario.

If that does happen, it could leave Sinn Fein in an philosophically weak position unless it can propose a realistic alternative whereby urgent decisions can be taken.