Belfast Telegraph

Be honest: if direct rule was introduced in the morning would anyone even notice? asks Eilis O'Hanlon

MLAs on full pay without a functioning Assembly can't go on forever. And there are worse things than decisions being made in London, argues Eilis O'Hanlon.

If Northern Irish politics is, appropriately enough for the season, a pantomime, then direct rule is supposed to play the part of the villain. Outraged voters are expected to boo and hiss at the mere mention of its name.

The first problem with this local version of Project Fear is that there isn't much we can do either way about the threat to bring back direct rule. The decision to restore devolution is out of our hands.

Making it work has been left instead to people who still appear to believe that their obsessive support for, or indeed opposition to, side issues such as the Irish language and same-sex marriage should take precedence over decisions affecting schools, hospitals, infrastructure, investment - even the dreaded Brexit bogeyman.

The second problem with scaremongering about direct rule is that, somewhere along the way, it just ceased to feel so scary.

Far from being the villain of the piece, direct rule is even starting to look like as if it might be the hero of the hour. There's an unexpected plot twist if ever there was one.

Other countries have muddled along for extended periods without governments. Why not Northern Ireland as well, especially since we're so used to the experience?

Direct rule has been the norm for most of the years since the old Stormont was abolished in 1972.

Even under the Belfast Agreement, Westminster still kept authority over certain matters which were "reserved" for national rather than local decision-makers; the devolved Assembly could only legislate in those areas "with the approval of the Secretary of State and subject to parliamentary control".

Direct rule never really went away.

Of course, bringing it back in all its former glory won't be as straightforward as it once was.

Triggering Article One of the 1998 Northern Ireland Act was all it took for a while, and every single Secretary of State from 1999 to 2007 had to do so at one time or another, briefly in Peter Mandelson's case, for almost his entire time in office in Peter Hain's.

That all ended when the St Andrews Agreement removed the government's automatic right to impose direct rule. Since then, taking back control of Northern Ireland first needs a vote in the House of Commons to abolish the devolved Assembly. That's quite a dramatic step. Any government would be loath to take it.

To soften the political impact, the present government probably wouldn't call it direct rule next time round if driven to that course of action following the collapse of talks on restoring devolution.

Remember how desperate James Brokenshire was, when pushing through the local Budget at Westminster last month, to insist that this "does not mean a move to direct rule", conveniently sidestepping the fact that control of the Budget is the single most important duty faced by any Executive.

Brokenshire was keen to stress that he was only following orders, and that the Budget was based entirely on "figures provided by the Northern Ireland Civil Service reflecting their assessment of the outgoing priorities of the previous Executive".

It was all very Yes, Minister, as if elected politicians were merely there to carry out the instructions of civil servants, just as Sir Humphrey used to boss around the Rt Hon Jim Hacker.

The reason the government tiptoes so fearfully around the issue of direct rule is because it's deemed to put those unelected by the people of Northern Ireland into positions of power over them. If the real decisions are in the hands of local civil servants, however, then they are being made at a devolved level, by people with its best interests at heart.

The Northern Ireland Civil Service was always separate from its UK counterpart and generally acted through the worst times with impartiality and responsibility.

Civil servants would not officially be free to make important legislative decisions, because those are the prerogative of elected representatives. Bureaucrats can only sign the cheques.

But those lines can quickly become blurred, because, somewhere in that process, they have to decide which cheques to sign, and which projects to endorse, and if politicians won't do it, why not civil servants?

Decisions wouldn't be subject to the same level of scrutiny as before. There wouldn't be committees at Stormont going through bills clause by clause - though whether MLAs were ever any good at that is a matter of debate (RHI, anyone?) and Westminster would hardly devote more time to Northern Irish matters in future than it did in the old days, when the Secretary of State's requests for new powers tended to be waived through to sparse sittings of the Commons late at night. There's definitely a democratic deficit to be paid in that respect, but at least the return of direct rule would end the ludicrous situation whereby MLAs in name only continue to be paid in full.

This may come as a surprise to some of them, but, out here in the real world, salaries tend to be dependent on actually showing up for work.

Some MLAs who lost seats in February's unnecessary election were immediately catapulted onto the dole. Those who took their seats have been paid ever since, despite doing nothing. That can't continue indefinitely.

Admitting that the restoration of Stormont is a lost cause would be bad news for unionists. The last time direct rule had to be imposed, it stayed in place for 55 months. That's nearly five years.

Republicans might prefer some kind of joint authority, such as former Prime Minister Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern appeared to threaten when the St Andrews talks ran into the sand; but Sinn Fein wouldn't exactly be distraught if British ministers took the flak for unpopular decisions for a few years, while republicans sat things out to see how the ground lay post-Brexit.

Everything might have changed by then.

That carries some risks for them, too. Direct rule in the past has tended to bring Northern Ireland more in line with the rest of the UK. If that also involved more austerity, it could end up impacting hard on vulnerable groups. Resentment could begin to fester, retoxifying local politics.

Right now, though, that risk might have to be taken. Even another five lost years doesn't seem like a deal-breaker, considering that the Brexit negotiations and transition period are set to take that long anyway.

The whole country feels as if it's in abeyance right now. Chances are that we'd barely notice direct rule at all.

Belfast Telegraph

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