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Bizarrely, unionists have most to fear from direct rule

By Liam Clarke

Published 23/07/2015

It is generally assumed that, overall, direct rule would be a better option for unionism than nationalism, but does that really stack up?
It is generally assumed that, overall, direct rule would be a better option for unionism than nationalism, but does that really stack up?

It is generally assumed that, overall, direct rule would be a better option for unionism than nationalism, but does that really stack up?

London rule, on this reckoning, would make us almost as British and as unproblematic as Finchley. Westminster would take the difficult decisions on welfare reform over our heads, leaving local politicians free to protest and posture with impunity. London would clearly impose rules on the flying of the Union flag, perhaps even parading, and they might have a distinctly British slant to them.

Experience suggests otherwise. One of the main reasons those on the DUP's religious Right accepted sharing power with Sinn Fein was that it gave Stormont the right to set the rules on several broadly "moral" issues.

These included the gay blood ban, same-sex marriage, abortion, selection at age 11 and Sunday trading rules. This was made quite explicit on a number of occasions. At the time, Jeffrey Donaldson pointed out that if there had been devolution sooner same-sex civil partnerships would have been avoided.

In the past, such issues have been used as bargaining chips. Under the Blair government, they were often held back with warnings that Westminster would eventually have to legislate. Peter Hain held back proposals to abolish selection to encourage the DUP to do a deal.

It is pretty clear that the London Government would have gone ahead with the Maze peace and reconciliation centre, built on the old prison site, if it was up to them. Central Government backing for the Parades Commission is unwavering and bipartisan; unless the local parties can agree an alternative, it is unlikely to be touched.

Overall, there are a number of issues which have been held back by unionist vetos at Stormont, just as welfare reform was held up by nationalists.

The other assumption which may not hold water is that direct rule would mean a more British environment in terms of flags and symbols as well as less Irish government involvement in our affairs. With Sinn Fein not attending Westminster, unionists and the SDLP would hold any influence there. The new, more powerful local councils would allow a tier of regional government so we would hardly miss Stormont.

So the argument goes, but experience suggests otherwise. When Stormont has collapsed in the past, it has always signalled a moving together of Dublin and London to try to contain the problem.

We only have to remember the example of James Molyneaux, the Ulster Unionist leader who showed most enthusiasm for direct rule. In fact, he favoured complete integration and he would have liked the look of the new councils, too.

Mr Molyneaux had friends in high places in the Tory party - Harvey Proctor and Airey Neave, to mention just two. He was convinced that Mrs Thatcher, the Prime Minister, agreed with him, but he didn't really know what she thought.

In her biography, she expressed frustration with the unionist approach and turned instead to Dublin as a more reliable partner. That produced the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

This time, links between Britain and the Republic are far closer and friendlier than they were then. Mrs Thatcher was not entirely comfortable with the agreement she reached, but there is no sign of discomfort, or policy difference either, between Enda Kenny and David Cameron now.

We might expect still-closer co-operation under direct rule. And what if the government changed in the Republic, putting Sinn Fein in cabinet? Then they could deal directly with the British Government and without a devolved institution unionists would find it harder to resist politically.

Usually our politics are conducted as a "zero sum game", where benefits for one side are assumed to come at the other's expense. Walking into direct rule risks creating a game where both sides will lose power, authority and comfort.

Whatever the difficulties, it is simply crazy for politicians to abandon the power to make decisions because the decisions are likely to be tough.

Once you give up power, you may never get it back.

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