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Direct rule is do-able, but would be an abject admission of failure

The Government's reluctance to give up on efforts to restore the Stormont Executive are commendable, says Prof Rick Wilford

However one describes it - a draft deal, an accommodation, a shared understanding - the document leaked by Messrs Mallie and Rowan does demonstrate the readiness of both Sinn Fein and the DUP to achieve compromise, not least on the vexed issue of Irish language legislation.

And I have to say that the model on offer is nothing like as expansive as the Welsh one, which will no doubt disappoint some but should be a relief to others. The fear-mongering peddled by some on this issue has, however, stifled a sane evaluation of the proposals.

It is also clear that the two major parties tried to ensure that a future crisis like that precipitated by Martin McGuinness' resignation and the consequential collapse of the devolved institutions can at least be postponed if not averted by providing for a cooling-off period of up to six months. Relatedly, the DUP and SF have agreed measures designed to instil a greater degree of collectivism and joined-up government within the Executive via a 'Coalition Management Committee'. It is intended to be both a means of managing risks and of progressing areas of agreement among the parties.

Like joined-up handwriting, joined-up government is a signal of maturity - in this case it represents a political coming of age. Whatever the status of the leaked document, such measures attest to the shared commitment to develop a stable and sustainable Executive, without which the prospect of a summary collapse of devolution is ever present.

Over the past year or so, the absence of devolution has flagged up a series of options designed to fill the political vacuum that has followed in its wake. They range from joint authority to direct rule, a border poll, a fresh Assembly election, the re-animation of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIGC) and the teasing idea of 'joint stewardship', described but never clearly defined by Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair in 2006. All are thinkable, but only one is do-able: direct rule.

Joint authority, sometimes mistakenly conflated with joint sovereignty, would drive a coach and horses through the GFA, which rests on popular sovereignty, north and south, and upon the consent principle and has been explicitly ruled out by the UK government.

Any agreement in, or for, NI has to rest on consent and unionists would reject joint authority out of hand.

The condition for a border poll - clear evidence of a desire for change in NI's constitutional status - has not been and is not met, while an Assembly election, without a seismic change in voters' preferences, is likely only to underscore the SF-DUP divide: moreover, those elected would still have to grapple with the neuralgic issues that have structured the recent talks process.

As for the renaissance of the BIIGC, it seems appropriate to bracket it with the vague notion of joint stewardship, once described to me by an NIO official as a 'greener form of direct rule'. There are a number of problems inherent in this option. The existence of the conference, the strand three institution of the GFA, is contingent upon the concurrent existence of an Assembly and Executive, since its agenda is restricted to non-devolved matters. That said, its terms of reference do extend to 'the totality of relationships' but provides only that the Irish government 'may put forward views and proposals' on non-devolved matters. Moreover, the British-Irish Agreement, under the aegis of which the conference exists, makes crystal clear that there will be no derogation from the sovereignty of either government, meaning in effect that neither can intervene in the internal governance of either state which, in the UK's case, does of course include NI.

The maximal interpretation of its role can only be as a forum within which bilateral co-operation can occur on 'all matters of mutual interest': in short, the conference provides a means of continuing dialogue between the two governments, but it is decidedly not an instrument through which co-governance of NI can be undertaken.

Some, however, have argued that in the absence of devolved institutions all matters are non-devolved (a debating point one might make over a pint or three of the black stuff) and that therefore the conference should step in to fill the gap: this is utterly misleading.

It was never intended that it would perform this role and, moreover, elevating its status in such a way is in itself a betrayal of the terms of the GFA.

At best, the BIIGC enables Dublin to air any concerns it may have and, where possible, to co-operate on matters of mutual interest with London 'within the competence of both governments': the internal condition of NI, its day-to-day administration, does not fall within the competence of the Leo Varadkar's government. This, it seems to me, is as far as 'joint stewardship' extends.

That leaves the default option of direct rule. Two things were clear from Tuesday's statement in the House of Commons by the Secretary of State. Firstly, that the UK government's commitment to the GFA is 'steadfast' - that's one in the eye for those like Owen Patterson, Kate Hoey and Daniel Hannan who assert that the 1998 Agreement has outlived its usefulness - and secondly that Theresa May's government remains resistant to the idea of re-introducing direct rule.

Such reluctance is commendable. To re-impose direct rule in the immediate future would be an abject admission of failure. Moreover, it would present the UK government with not a headache but a migraine. Its hands are already full contending with Brexit, while a depleted NIO - its staffing level has been severely reduced - is ill-equipped to take on the task. In addition, the confidence and supply agreement between the DUP and the Conservative Party would inevitably cast a shadow over the outworkings of a direct rule regime, no matter the lengths to which Mrs Bradley would go, as she put it on Tuesday, 'to govern with rigorous impartiality in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland'.

In the absence of agreement, we remain in limbo - but not purgatory. There will be a budget for 2018/19 struck by the NIO following consultation with the local parties, which provides welcome financial if not political stability.

Though the leaked document reveals an asymmetric draft 'deal', one that disappoints, even angers exponents of LGBT rights, a Bill of Rights, a muscular Irish Language Act and those intent on a major reform of the Petition of Concern procedure, I, like the Secretary of State, have not given up hope for Lent.

Pro tem, we need absolute clarity on whether the DUP felt unable to sell rather than buy the proposals.

If it is the former, or indeed both, then direct rule looks unavoidable and unionism may yet regret what looks like a failure of nerve and generosity.

Belfast Telegraph

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