Sam McBride: Something in Theresa May’s apocalyptic warnings about direct rule doesn’t add up
Our focus on Brexit has been so intense that decisions which would otherwise be startling are passing by almost unnoticed.
For several weeks the government has first been saying that a no-deal Brexit would make direct rule of Northern Ireland very likely – and then been saying that it would be inevitable.
The apparent intention was to persuade the DUP to back Theresa May’s deal to leave the EU, a fundamentally flawed strategy because the DUP has been calling for direct rule for almost two years so it is a carrot rather than a stick to the party.
But while that effort has failed, Mrs May might have unintentionally created a monster which has moved beyond her control.
Almost two weeks ago, Mrs May irked the DUP by claiming for the first time that one of the reasons for Brexit being delayed was that direct rule would be necessary, but was not yet in place.
The DUP felt that the prime minister was using the argument as a helpful excuse for her own U-turn on delaying Brexit – after all, she had known for two years that there was no devolved administration in Belfast and had not used that time to implement direct rule if it was necessary.
Nor has there been much evidence that until now Northern Ireland was a particularly high priority for Mrs May, who chose as her Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley, someone who had never been to Northern Ireland, whose knowledge of Ulster was such that she did not realise unionists did not vote for nationalist politicians and who within her first year had lost the confidence of every major party with which she has to work.
Yet this week, as Mrs May faced a second embarrassing U-turn to delay Brexit for a second time, it emerged that Northern Ireland was apparently central to that decision as well.
On Tuesday night, ITV’s well-connected political editor Robert Peston reported that direct rule had been a crucial element of that day’s mammoth seven-hour cabinet meeting before Mrs May’s offer to work jointly with Jeremy Corbyn.
Mr Peston said a minister had told him that the “defining issue was that if there was a no-deal Brexit ‘we’d have to go to direct rule in Northern Ireland’”. That minister described the move in lurid terms: “Disaster. Huge risk. Of all legacies, the break-up of the Union [of the UK], the worst for a PM. She’ll never do no deal now.”
That account was largely backed up by a series of other leaks from cabinet. The Daily Mail reported that Mrs May “firmly ruled out no-deal, warning it would lead to a border poll in Northern Ireland, and possibly a Scottish independence referendum. ‘I do not want to be the last prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland,’ she told ministers”.
It said that just before the meeting began, ministers were handed a nine-page document written by Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill.
That document was leaked, showing that Whitehall’s most powerful mandarin had said that “the running of Northern Ireland under no-deal is a sensitive issue”.
He went on: “The current powers granted to the Northern Irish Secretary would not be adequate for the pace, breadth or controversy of the decisions needed to be taken through a no-deal exit. Therefore we would have to introduce direct rule.”
The prime minister’s most senior civil service adviser also warned about the future of the Union, saying that in a no-deal scenario “the stability of the Union would be dislocated”.
In more restrained political times, this series of events would be remarkable. Here the government – both ministers and their most senior officials – are talking up the crisis which would ensue if direct rule was reinstated, with some of them leaking those details immediately. Ordinarily, one would expect them to be playing down expectations of chaos about a policy which they might have little choice but to implement.
It is still more remarkable because of the relative calm about the matter in Belfast. Sinn Féin has this year issued more press releases complaining about the inability of northern viewers to phone a premium rate RTE competition line than it has about direct rule while many other parties reluctantly want to see direct rule replace the two-year Stormont decision-making vacuum.
Until this government, direct rule was seen as the inevitable consequence if devolution fell. After Sinn Féin collapsed Stormont in January 2017, and could not agree terms with the DUP for returning, the expectation – among nationalists as well as among unionists and others – was that direct rule was weeks away.
But once Mrs May decided not to move rapidly to direct rule, that ceased to be seen as inevitable and instead became a political choice, increasing the risk for the government when it ultimately made that choice. Now, with senior ministers and civil servants talking apocalyptically about something which has not excited much passion in Northern Ireland, there is the danger of their words becoming self-fulfilling.
Until now, there has been little evidence that direct rule would leave the public less content than they are with civil servants running Stormont without democratic oversight – and unable to take many key decisions which have been piling up for two years.
Historically, unionism has been at best wary of direct rule. When it was first introduced in 1972, loyalists responded with a two-day strike and a 100,000-strong march on Stormont. Over time, their opposition waned, becoming more prosaic than constitutional, based around the principle that it is undesirable for politicians to be democratically unaccountable to the people they govern.
Nationalists are at best unenthusiastic about a return of power to London. But for two years there has been creeping direct rule, with Stormont’s budget set in London, without any protest by Sinn Féin. And far from nationalism being shut out of power, Sinn Féin has excluded itself from government. Its demands for returning have not yet been met by the DUP. But direct rule would be likely to deliver at least some of Sinn Féin’s price for returning.
Power moving to London would probably mean an Irish language act, same-sex marriage and perhaps a liberalisation of the abortion law. Some within government have been briefing along those lines for months, with the implicit message to the DUP: Be careful what you wish for.
Direct rule would also make it more likely that the plight of victims of historical institutional abuse, some of whom have died while Karen Bradley and Stormont mandarins prevaricate, will be addressed, at least in financial terms, with compensation.
It is therefore surprising that the government would believe that after two years of waiting for the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree to jointly govern, direct rule would be a constitutionally catastrophic event – even if allied with a no-deal Brexit.
Mrs May is at a disadvantage of her own making in that she has kept Karen Bradley in post not based on her knowledge of Northern Ireland nor her good relationship with the local parties but because of her personal loyalty to Mrs May. Now, at the very point where the prime minister needs a shrewd political operator to keep her informed, she has someone who is best known for gaffes.
If Mrs May genuinely has all along believed that direct rule would be a constitutionally catastrophic move, she has also known that for a year there have not even been talks to restore Stormont.
Why then did she repeatedly claim “no deal is better than a bad deal” if, as she now says, it would hasten the breakup of the Union? Something doesn’t quite add up.
It’s not hard to see why the DUP believes that Northern Ireland is being used as an excuse by a prime minister who for other reasons has decided that no-deal is unconscionable.