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Direct rule is inevitable as long as 'pragmatism' remains a dirty word

If NI politics continues to be a zero-sum game - if 'they' win, 'we' lose - then government by ministerial directive becomes a given, writes Rick Wilford

The widely anticipated failure of the post-election negotiations has come to pass and, predictably, the blame game is well under way.

As parties engage in mutual recrimination and, in some cases, point an accusing finger at either or both the UK and Irish Governments as failing to lend clarity, purpose and leadership at the talks, the atmosphere will further deteriorate.

The change in mood and tone that attended Martin McGuinness's funeral has proven to be short-lived and decidedly personal in its scope. It did not spill over into the final days of discussions as the red lines of the parties became increasingly indelible.

Whether the presence of a fully healthy former Deputy First Minister would have made a difference is unknowable, though it seems unlikely if not improbable. It was Mr McGuinness who pulled the plug on devolution and now the Sinn Fein leadership have walked away from the talks on terms set down by their former chief negotiator. So, we are now even more firmly locked into a situation where irresistible forces meet immovable objects.

The options now available lie most immediately in the hands of Secretary of State James Brokenshire, whose legitimacy as chair of the talks was never accepted by either Sinn Fein or the SDLP. And, it has to be said, Mr Brokenshire has failed his first serious test as Secretary of State.

By common consent among the parties, the structures adopted during the negotiations were ill-suited to the task and primary responsibility for that must lie at the door of the UK Government, though its Irish partner emerges from this impasse with little credit.

That said, the five largest parties are not, of course, guiltless. Our model of government rests firmly on the principle and practice of accommodation, expressed through our power-sharing institutions. But accommodation was evidently not the moving spirit of the talks.

Can that spirit be rekindled? To pose the question is to answer it: it has to be, or devolution for the foreseeable future will be as inert as Monty Python's parrot.

And some may, perhaps justifiably, ask whether the current Sinn Fein leadership actually want devolution to be restored. I think they do, not least because they need to demonstrate to the southern electorate that they can be reliable, effective and efficient partners in government.

But what of the short-run? What are the options available to Mr Brokenshire as he picks through the debris of the talks? There are few.

The first, as provided for in legislation, is to call another Assembly election, probably in early May. This is an unappealing prospect. The existential threat to unionism produced by our recent election may well forge a concerted pact between the DUP and the UUP - "vote unionist down the ticket" - designed to maximise their combined vote and seat count.

On the other hand, buoyed by its electoral surge and, perhaps, calculating some electoral benefit from Mr McGuinness's demise, Sinn Fein will be confident that it can thereby advance its insistent calls for Irish unity via a border poll.

In short, the scene would be set for an even more brutish contest than the one we have just witnessed. It would put Sinn Fein very much on the offensive and the DUP and UUP very much at bay.

More broadly, for nationalism a new election holds relatively few risks, whereas for unionism they are immense. Such a prospect, if it was to materialise, confronts the incoming leader of the UUP Robin Swann with a clear strategic choice.

Does he take the first steps towards unionist unity, or seek to fashion a new kind of unionism distinctively different from the DUP and one that remedies the lack of coherence that characterised his predecessor's term in office? In a context that invites a binary choice for electors - the Union or unity - the smaller parties will find it difficult, though not impossible, to articulate their cases.

The SDLP's creditable electoral performance in holding onto its dozen seats did, however, also witness its worst-ever vote share, while the Alliance Party, which saw its total vote increase by 50%, has yet to extend its electoral reach beyond greater Belfast.

There were some green shoots, true, but it is extremely unlikely that they would mature into a harvest of seats in the very short-run.

At this juncture, with the atmosphere so sour, I think the Secretary of State would be ill-advised to set another election: the political risks are too high.

That leads to the second option: extend the period for a further round of talks, with perhaps an independent chair, though the latter is no guarantee of success, as the Haass episode demonstrated. Indeed, would the Trump White House wish to enter the fray? More, would we be content to see a Trump emissary take up the role? This, surely, is a rhetorical question. But if the talks are to be extended, whoever chairs them, could they yield an agreed outcome?

Herein lies the key. It depends entirely on the readiness of the parties - primarily the DUP and Sinn Fein - to engage in pragmatism, not obduracy. But how pragmatic can they be when both seem to have boxed themselves in?

Whereas politics should be a positive-sum activity, it has deteriorated to a zero-sum stasis: if "they" win, "we" lose. If that condition prevails for the immediate future then a further round of negotiations would be an idle undertaking.

That leaves Mr Brokenshire with the third option, namely the restoration of direct rule, unless there is direct intervention by Enda Kenny and Theresa May, each prepared to engage in a diplomatic version of knocking our politicians' heads together.

To date Mrs May has demonstrated a clear hands-off approach to the politics of Northern Ireland, notwithstanding the baleful consequences of Brexit for the island of Ireland. Short of a Pauline conversion on her part, direct rule beckons - even though it is an unappetising prospect for Number 10, whose collective hands are already full and likely to come under increasing pressure following the triggering of Article 50 tomorrow.

If direct rule is reintroduced, will it take on a greener hue, a la the joint stewardship essayed by Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern in 2006? I think not. The slender working majority enjoyed by the UK Government means that the eight DUP MPs, all Brexiteers, exert a disproportionate influence in the House of Commons. The Prime Minister is loath to anger them as the terms of our departure from the EU are negotiated, because she needs all the support she can muster.

So, it looks like orthodox direct rule, not joint authority, nor even joint stewardship. It means an expanded team of British ministers in the NIO, who will set our budget, devise some sort of Programme for Government and perhaps exert some forms of fiscal discipline that a devolved Executive would not readily entertain.

Access to those ministers will not be as readily available to wider civic society and the level of accountability for their actions will be severely depleted, channelled through one select committee at Westminster rather than nine statutory committees and half-a-dozen standing committees at Stormont.

Direct rule is a blunt and diminished form of governance, which will be found increasingly wanting as the Brexit process unfolds. To avoid it means that some parties will need to blink first.

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

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