Why NI's devolved government should be waving and not drowning
Unionists who prefer direct rule to sharing power with Sinn Fein would be well-advised to be careful what they wish for
Returning refreshed by a week in Rome, during which I avoided all news sources, I nursed the faint hope that sufficient progress had been made by the parties to enable the speedy restoration of devolution.
Now it seems such heavily guarded optimism was misplaced - just another triumph of hope over experience.
That is not to say there are no straws in the wind. While cryptic, both Arlene Foster's apparent new-found suppleness in respect of cultural matters and Gerry Adams' "hopeful, but not naive" remark taken together hinted at pragmatism. Did they signify a glimmer in the dark? Or were they merely will o' the wisps? It's probably too early to tell just yet, but time is running extremely short.
At this point I have to acknowledge that, since the Sinn Fein-inspired collapse of the institutions earlier this year, I believed that it would not agree to the re-establishment of the Executive and Assembly until the RHI Inquiry has run its course, probably towards the middle of 2018.
Consequentially, it meant that Sinn Fein would veto the return of Mrs Foster as First Minister unless and until she is exonerated fully by the inquiry. In my view this meant a hiatus in devolution for at least 18 months.
Although, perhaps strangely, RHI has not featured prominently in recent exchanges between Sinn Fein and the DUP, nor indeed has Mrs Foster's role, if any, in a swift resurrection of the Executive - its centrality to the continuing stalemate remains, even though it has been obscured by, primarily, the neuralgic issue of a stand-alone Irish Language Act (ILA).
Incidentally, whether expressed as a threat or an opportunity, the current debate over a free-standing ILA reminds me - a South Walian - vividly of the contending arguments that surrounded the introduction of a Welsh Language Act, first in 1967, and then in a more muscular form in 1993.
The latter, which placed Welsh on a co-equal footing with English as an official language, embracing its usage across all public services including the justice system, was greeted with much alarm and dismay by, primarily, Anglophones.
They feared that the Welsh-speaking elite would commandeer public spaces, displace English-only speakers from employment and fuel the political fortunes of Welsh nationalism.
None of these apprehensions was realised. The use of the language and subsequent policies designed to further promote its usage have been normalised by legislation: far from being "weaponised", the Welsh language has been disarmed by legislative action and is now seen as the common stock and property of all across the country.
Whether the Welsh case is an instructive model for Northern Ireland is, admittedly, a moot point, but equally it seems rather myopic of Sinn Fein to insist on a stand-alone ILA, rather than a catch-all piece of legislation that is sensitive to the needs of all cultural traditions here - even though, and perhaps ironically, Ulster-Scots in a strict sense does not qualify as a language.
To return to the main thrust of this article: whither devolution?
If it proves impossible to resolve the current deadlock in whatever time is available then there are two options for the UK Government: a fresh Assembly election, or the formal reintroduction of direct rule.
Let us assume that it dismisses the former, which holds no fear for either the DUP or Sinn Fein, and would anyway merely reinforce existing divisions, and instead plumps reluctantly for direct rule. For those who favour the latter, my message is that you need to be careful what you wish for.
For unionists in general direct rule may well be a tolerable, even welcome, outcome of the present impasse.
But in large measure this depends on how proactive a direct rule regime could turn out to be. It is undeniable that the DUP does have a strong hand at Westminster via its confidence and supply agreement with the UK Government, but it is a hand that is not unconstrained.
What matters is whether the Government, through the agency of the NIO, is minded to be either pro, if not hyperactive on, say, social and economic policy matters, including same-sex marriage and its recent, albeit marginally moderated, austerity package, or alternatively, relatively inactive: that is exercising direct rule in a "lite" rather than heavy manner.
In the short run, its preference I believe would be for a light-touch approach: that is a do-little rather than a do-nothing administration, not least because its hands are already full with Brexit.
On that matter, which will define the current parliament and probably the next, relations between Dublin and the NIO/London will take on especial significance.
In particular the Strand Two, cross-border aspects of the Belfast Agreement could bulk larger as the Brexit negotiations unfold.
While any extended development of those cross-border institutions - surely one means of addressing the vexed border issue - would be embraced by republicans and nationalists, it will receive short shrift from unionists in general and the DUP in particular.
Of course any such initiative would also require the active support of the Dublin, which, to say the least, would be extremely unhappy should direct rule be reimposed, which can only happen if London reintroduces legislation enabling it to formally suspend devolution, a power it relinquished in the 2006 St Andrews Act.
Whatever form relations between London, Belfast and Dublin might take under renewed direct rule, the option of joint authority has been resolutely dismissed more than once by the UK Government, much to the chagrin of Sinn Fein.
Yes, there could be a greener form of direct rule, abbreviated in 2006 as "joint stewardship" by Messrs Blair and Ahern, but whatever they may have meant, it was never intended to imply co-sovereignty over Northern Ireland: the consent principle would and will remain intact.
However proactive or inert direct rule could be, it is an extremely blunt method of governing Northern Ireland. It affords nothing like the level of scrutiny provided by devolution, nor is it a substitute for local knowledge and understanding, whether in relation to health, education, infrastructure or whatever else.
While the NIO might seek to ameliorate direct rule by establishing an Assembly with scrutinising committees, much as Jim Prior attempted in the early-1980s, the likelihood of Sinn Fein participating in such an improvised arrangement is utterly remote.
Meanwhile, the idea that the UK Parliament could match the Assembly in subjecting law and policy to forensic examination is illusory.
The sheer volume of Brexit-related law and policy itself will shunt the day and daily internal governance of Northern Ireland into the margins of Westminster, notwithstanding the salience of the border.
Given the uncertain and fraught context of Brexit, more than ever devolution really does matter - ask the Scots and the Welsh.
Right now, Northern Ireland devolution should be waving, not drowning.
Rick Wilford is Professor of Politics at Queen's University, Belfast