Belfast Telegraph

Could Strictly Stormont swing deal for Foster and rescue power-sharing?

DUP leader can side-step calls to stand aside by taking alternative Executive ministry while RHI inquiry reports, writes Rick Wilford

As the dust begins to settle over the much-altered electoral and political landscape, where now for Northern Ireland? All, of course, hinges on the outcomes of the latest round of seemingly interminable inter-party negotiations, scheduled to begin today.

We know that each participating party has its own red lines, some of which are drawn in bold print, not least the demand shared by Sinn Fein and the SDLP that Arlene Foster takes a period of gardening leave from the Executive Office.

This is a bitter pill for the DUP to contemplate, a decision that, if taken, would be construed as humiliation by many within and without the party.

While none should gainsay the startling electoral performance by Sinn Fein, and the Harold Lloyd-like outcome for the SDLP by hanging on determinedly, strident reiterations of this demand risk the charge that they are as guilty as the DUP in general — and Mrs Foster in particular — of hubris.

There is more than a hint, especially on the part of Sinn Fein, that it is the master now. But, in a power-sharing administration, there should be no masters, only partners — ultimately, the masters are the electors and our politicians their servants. Saying that does not, however, resolve the matter of Mrs Foster’s short-run future. We don’t know whether she enjoys the full confidence of her party in the face of — for members and supporters — such a shocking result.

There is, though, a possible solution to the conundrum, assuming that she retains the leadership of the DUP, one that saves at least some of her and the party’s face. The demand that she must step aside as First Minister as a precondition of the restoration of devolution could be countered by a proposed side-step. That is, pending the outcome of the RHI inquiry, Mrs Foster could be nominated for another Executive role on the clear understanding that, if and when she is exonerated by the inquiry, she reassumes the role of First, or, perhaps, Joint First, Minister: in effect, she would swap roles with her temporary replacement.

There is as yet no suggestion that she be prevented from serving in the Executive per se by either Sinn Fein or the SDLP — indeed, if they were to strike that position, then they could be justifiably accused of pursuing a political vendetta, of making the political wholly personal. Many would not put up with that.

Such a middle-way may appear unpalatable, but consider the alternatives. Most immediately, failure to secure agreement at the talks would either precipitate another election, probably in early-May, with, likely as not, an increase in unionist turnout. It would probably be a divisive contest, perhaps one in which the new UUP leader would be pressured to adopt a “vote down the unionist ticket” stance by the DUP. The fact that unionist unity is back on the agenda is a testament to the existential condition of political unionism created by the Assembly election, but whether it amounts to a pact on vote transfers — a diluted form of unity — or a full-scale merger (not achievable in the short-to-medium term), neither offers a solution to the problem that is Northern Ireland.

It would represent a retreat into a closed fortress rather than the open city that unionism, in my view, needs to become: a civic unionism as propounded lately by Ian Paisley MP. A second alternative available to Secretary of State James Brokenshire would be to extend the talks, if not indefinitely, then certainly beyond the end of March, perhaps until early-May, when otherwise an election could be held.

I doubt very much that either London or Dublin favour a new election, so if the protracted talks were to fail then direct rule beckons. But what kind of direct rule might it be?

As yet there is no clamour for direct rule, which, when last reintroduced in 2002, lasted for 55 months. The context then was, to say the least, difficult. Now it is doubly so because of Brexit. Given a UK Government that is intent on a hard Brexit — leaving both the single market and the customs union — Northern Ireland politicians of all stripes, including the DUP, need to coalesce around a strategy that reflects the majority here who voted to remain in the EU. Cleaving to the “it was a UK-wide vote” by the DUP is a necessary, but not a sufficient, platform on which to base Northern Ireland’s special case. Leaving it to Mr Brokenshire to argue that case looks like a risk too far, albeit that he was a Remainer.

Direct rule also prompts a question about the role of Dublin should it be reintroduced. Both Sinn Fein and the SDLP have called for joint authority, citing in support a joint statement by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in April 2006, in which they referred to the “joint stewardship” of the political process by both governments. The statement also referred to “beginning detailed work on British-Irish partnership arrangements to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is actively developed across its structures and functions” and that the British Government “will introduce emergency legislation to facilitate this way forward”. That undertaking has been construed as joint authority by some, even though there was no commitment by Dublin to introduce corresponding legislation in the Dail.

In effect, it preserved the sovereignty of the UK while suggesting that Dublin would, to resurrect Garrett FitzGerald’s phrase, have a role that is more than consultative, though less than executive. The intent of that statement was to knock primarily unionist heads together in order to secure inter-party agreement, which was eventually realised by the St Andrews Act. The fact that joint stewardship was deliberately left undefined added some urgency to the deliberations of Northern Ireland’s unionist political parties.

But is joint stewardship a synonym for joint authority: a distinction without a difference? While I acknowledge that we’re in Humpty Dumpty territory here, in the sense that words can mean anything we want them to, I think not. Joint authority implies a very hands-on role for Dublin in the day-to-day administration and policy-making for Northern Ireland. Whereas joint stewardship charges the UK Government with the protection and extension of the Good Friday Agreement, with its Irish equivalent accorded a supportive, perhaps more proactive, role as co-guarantor of the Agreement: a lighter, rather than a darker, green form of direct rule.

Whichever interpretation one places on joint stewardship, whether minimalist or maximalist, it is a thinkable option, but politically unrealistic.

Apart from the fact we are now in a very different context, the emergency legislation signalled by Blair never saw the light of day and, moreover, the current UK and Irish Governments are not bound by the undertakings, however vague, given by their predecessors 11 years ago. Nevertheless, its lurking potential should help to concentrate the minds of unionists, not least because it is shrouded in the realm of, to coin a phrase, constructive ambiguity. So, whither Northern Ireland? As someone who was wrong both on the EU referendum and US Presidential election, I’m probably the last person to ask. However, the post-election mood music does seem to have moderated, especially on the part of Mrs Foster. She struck a more emollient tone during her acceptance speech on Thursday. She has certainly been chastened by the DUP’s and Sinn Fein’s election outcomes, and quite right, too.

Sinn Fein seems to think that the talks can yield positive outcomes and in pretty short order if Mrs Foster steps aside. I think Sinn Fein’s (and the SDLP’s) optimism can also be satisfied if they are prepared for her to move sideways within, rather than entirely out of, the Executive. If devolution can be restored within the next three weeks — a goal that is in the interests of all parties and electors — so much the better.

Direct rule within the context of Brexit is an unappealing prospect. Yet it might appeal to Sinn Fein and the SDLP, who see in it an opportunity to advance the cause of unification.

Pro tem, as the Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times.”

Dr Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at the School of Politics, International Studies and Philosophy, Queen’s University, Belfast

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