Sam McBride: Sinn Féin ‘relaxed’ about key power shift to London

Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 27th June 2017 - 'Car�l N� Chuil�n, Pat Sheehan, Declan Kearney and M�irt�n " Muilleoir pictured at a Sinn Fein press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast, Northern Ireland.'Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.
Press Eye - Belfast - Northern Ireland - 27th June 2017 - 'Car�l N� Chuil�n, Pat Sheehan, Declan Kearney and M�irt�n " Muilleoir pictured at a Sinn Fein press conference at Stormont Castle, Belfast, Northern Ireland.'Photo by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye.

While power comes in many forms, during peacetime in a democratic system it is money which arguably wields the greatest influence.

“He who has his thumb on the purse has the power,” said Otto von Bismarck, the statesman who unified Germany and a man who understood how both military muscle and economic influence could shape a nation.

Thus, the government’s decision this week to publish its first explicitly direct rule budget for Stormont in over a decade is not merely a technical exercise in keeping public services ticking over, nor even just an embarrassment for the Stormont parties whose inability to share power has necessitated this move.

Rather, it is the emergence of a major instrument of direct rule power which will endure for so long as Stormont lies empty even if the government never moves to formally implement direct rule.

By modestly hiking domestic rates, and not hiding behind civil servants but accepting that it is her decision, Secretary of State Karen Bradley has given a clear hint of where Westminster can now shape policy.

It does not give the government access to the full suite of potential revenue-raising options because the introduction of other charges – from water to prescriptions – would require separate legislation.

But, after a year where it didn’t tamper with past Stormont policy, the government has changed course. By hitting the people of Northern Ireland increasingly hard in their pockets there is a very obvious means of getting voters to either put pressure on the parties to compromise, or at least quietly accept that outcome if it comes.

And, because the budget can shape much of the direction of government, there is scope through what could now be one annual major act of direct rule for Westminster to set out Stormont policies at a high level simply by apportioning funds for a particular area, even though the detail of those policies for which funds are allocated will remain in the unaccountable hands of civil servants operating without ministerial oversight.

There is not complete scope for policy to be shaped through a budget. If, for instance, the government wanted to introduce an Irish language act, it could not simply allocate money for that but would need to bring primary legislation to Parliament.

Nevertheless, the obvious implications of what has happened this week mean that Sinn Féin’s muted response to the altered constitutional landscape is instructive of how – even in today’s more tribalised political climate – pragmatisim is still a critical factor in modern republican thinking.

On one level, this development is embarrassing for a party which claimed that direct rule could not happen and told its supporters that under devolution it was returning more and more power to the island of Ireland.

Yet the Sinn Féin of today – a party which over the last 20 years has captured half of the SDLP’s vote – is shaped by a very different electorate to that which voted Sinn Féin during the Troubles.

It knows that without a budget there would be no public services in Northern Ireland and many of its voters would be out of work. Therefore, the party has shrewdly criticised the content of the budget, but not the fact that it is being imposed by the British Parliament.

Former finance minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir even went so far as to say that he was “relaxed” about it passing by direct rule, setting aside years of republican ideology which says that Westminster has no right to legislate for any part of Ireland.

Sinn Féin has probably calculated that few of its supporters will notice that important distinction, instead only hearing the criticism of “austerity”.

But although Sinn Féin still wields enormous electoral power, the party which 13 months ago ran the Stormont finance ministry no longer has its thumb on the purse.