Belfast Telegraph

Now that local government has failed, would direct rule be any worse than recent chaos?

The Tories may be toxic, says Fionola Meredith, but at least they have some idea how to run a country

The prospect of a prolonged return to British direct rule is widely treated as disastrous, the worst possible outcome of the current crisis, short of the Provos taking up their guns again.

Obviously, the idea of direct rule is ideologically toxic to nationalists, but opposition to the paternal embrace of our old, familiar overlords at Westminster has traditionally had a far broader currency, right across the political spectrum.

We have been conditioned to believe that devolved power is - in and of itself - a good thing. Democratic, attuned, accountable government. Local people taking control of local matters, to the benefit of all.

But it hasn't exactly worked out for us, has it? And who's to say that reverting to British rule could be any worse?

I know, I know, I didn't feel good writing that last sentence. There are so many reasons to dread Westminster control, not least the fact that we'd be at the mercy of mean, money-grabbing Tories who make no secret of the fact they don't give a stuff about us and our squalid little problems, our collective opinion on Brexit or anything else.

Yes, Theresa May had a quick chat on the phone with Taoiseach Enda Kenny the other night to see if there was anything they could do to stop a Northern Ireland election going ahead, but it lasted all of 15 minutes. Mrs May and Mr Kenny have many other priorities, and we are far, far down their lists.

The potentially dire implications of Stormont's collapse have already been well-documented. Nothing now stands between 34,000 social housing homes and the bedroom tax, a nasty piece of welfare reform which the Executive had agreed to mitigate. Our NHS system will continue to crumble into terminal dysfunction. It looks like we can also wave goodbye to any prospect of the corporation tax rate reduction. The needs of victims of the Troubles and victims of institutional abuse, and their dwindling hopes for justice, will go unheard amid the chaos of an unwanted, vicious local election and the indifference of a distant, uninvolved government in London.

Sounds grim, doesn't it? But maybe it's time to think the unthinkable and admit that Westminster rule, remote and disconnected as it would inevitably be, would have to be an improvement on the unworkable farce at Stormont, currently expiring under the weight of its own impossible contradictions.

It hurts me to say it, but for all its autocratic, authoritarian ways, the Tory Government at least has some kind of idea how to basically run a country.

Our lot don't. They clearly haven't a clue. That's because, for the most part, they are little more than sectarian place-holders in a sectarian Assembly. Hucksters, corner-boys and gombeen-men, with few people of discernible talent, insight or ability. They might as well have taken the billions that Stormont has cost us, including the fat salaries paid to those numerous spin doctors and unaccountable Spads, and dumped the cash in the Lagan. Or, more fittingly, incinerated it in a big wood-burning boiler.

Fellow progressives should remember that if we'd been ruled directly from Westminster we would likely have abortion rights for women by now, as well as same-sex marriage. We would never have spent vast sums of taxpayers' money on trying to stop gay men giving blood, or seeking to prevent gay couples adopting. We wouldn't have a flawed, moralistic prostitution law which hurts sex workers - the very people it claimed to protect.

Westminster control would also mean that we were no longer subject to the infantile display of verbal tit-for-tat - largely, it must be said, instigated by the DUP - which passes for politics at Stormont. No more petulant, childish talk of playing chicken, no more petty renaming of boats or sneaky removal of Irish language funding.

And hey, just think - no more Sinn Fein appropriation of the high moral ground, no sanctimonious posturing as people of rare and elevated personal principle (who just happened to condone politically-motivated murder in the not-so-distant past.) Wouldn't that be a sweet relief?

Yes, we'd be forced instead to be alternately ignored and patronised by Theresa May (though mostly ignored), and her cheery little henchman James Brokenshire, MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup. But you know what they say, a change is as good as a rest.

Whatever happens, Stormont will not be gone for good. Like a scorched hen from the ashes, sooner or later it will rise once more, squawking and dropping singed feathers everywhere and making a fearful mess. Just don't expect it to be any more functional, fair or enlightened than it is now.

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