Belfast Telegraph

James Brokenshire may balk at even uttering the words, but ultimately direct rule is now all but inevitable

November's party conference season gives the DUP and Sinn Fein plenty of scope for trying to weasel out of responsibility for the impasse, writes Rick Wilford

In the wake of the failed talks process it is, perhaps, opportune to take a backward step, survey the political wreckage and ponder what may come next.

Though all participants agree that the talks ended in failure, predictably there is no agreement about who must shoulder responsibility for their collapse.

Over the next two weekends both Sinn Fein and the DUP will use their respective party conferences, at least in part, to point the finger of blame at one another, underlining the gulf that separates our two largest parties.

Additionally, SF will incriminate the UK and Irish Governments for not fulfilling what it perceives as their shared obligations to implement existing agreements, while the DUP will cling to 'nurse', the beleaguered Prime Minister, for fear of something worse.

For the DUP, both the current impasse and the prospect of direct rule hold few fears.

Buoyed by a re-energised electoral performance in May, the party's centre of gravity has shifted towards London, courtesy of its 'confidence and supply' agreement with the minority UK Government which accords it a pivotal role in the division lobbies at Westminster. While SF does not enjoy a comparable amount of leverage in the Dail, it too may have few strategic qualms about the reimposition of direct rule. Perfidious Albion is a convenient target for Gerry Adams et al, especially if the era of Tory austerity is sustained by the Chancellor's upcoming Budget. That said, even if Philip Hammond signals a relaxation of the Tories' Scrooge-like policy, the damage wrought by a decade of austerity provides rich pickings for SF, as does Brexit.

There is no doubt that the border question has been reignited by Brexit. Given the DUP's absolute rejection of a border in the Irish Sea and the outright opposition of nationalist and unionist parties of whatever stripe to a hard land border, its significance can only grow in both Ireland and the UK.

Couple that issue with an enfeebled Government in London, whose leader's authority is daily diminished and the impending uncertainties of a looming general election in the South, and the stage is set for a considerable period of instability, one underpinned by the mutually exclusive positions of the DUP and SF over Brexit - and SF does have majority public opinion on its side, given the outcome of the referendum in Northern Ireland.

In effect, the political and constitutional stakes for NI are extremely high. To diminish the costs of Brexit in general and the border issue in particular, the onus is on the UK Government to manufacture a withdrawal policy that squares the circle between Leavers and Remainers and, on a more parochial level, between the DUP and SF. But is that achievable? As things stand, Mrs May appears incapable of achieving unity within her own Cabinet, let alone of shepherding our recalcitrant parties into the same political fold. Her telephone conversations last Friday with our political leaders will have done little to bridge the yawning policy divides between and among them.

So, what next? It does look as though NI is toppling towards yet another period of direct rule despite the obvious reluctance of James Brokenshire to even utter the phrase, let alone take that formal step.

And it is a formal one: the reimposition of direct rule requires fresh legislation at Westminster to suspend our institutions and put in place an expanded team of ministers in the NIO to administer the hitherto devolved departments. Plus, it would require the tacit acquiescence, at the very least, of the Irish Government, which is not necessarily a given.

But we are not quite there yet. Brokenshire will, today, table a NI budget for the remainder of the current financial year so that the flow of public expenditure to NI departments can be sustained and public services continue to function under the supervision of civil servants.

The budget will pass through Parliament with little or no opposition, as presumably will an accompanying order releasing the £1.5bn - probably incrementally - agreed between the Government and the DUP as part and parcel of their 'confidence and supply' deal.

But this does not mean direct rule in and of itself.

If devolution is heaven and direct rule hell, then we are currently in purgatory. Such a state of limbo seems an appropriate metaphor for the current state of affairs. It offers the parties an opportunity to reflect on how they can expiate their respective 'sins' and reach an accommodation sufficient to restore devolution, ie achieve 'heaven', or else descend into the shades. The upcoming party conferences will give us some sense of which trajectory NI will take in the short to medium term.

But do we care?

We are yet to see legions of the plain people of NI marching up to Stormont demanding the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive.

Juxtapose that unlikely scenario with the growing demand to penalise the politicians by either reducing or halting their salaries and allowances. And there is precedent for cutting both: when he was Secretary of State, Paul Murphy shaved 30% from MLA salaries in 2003, while his successor Peter Hain threatened to stop all pay and allowances in 2006.

True, all parties - not just the DUP and SF - would suffer if the current incumbent at the NIO follows one or other of his predecessors' paths.

But it would bring about a rough, if in some cases undeserved, form of equality.

Few, if any, will take to the trenches should Mr Brokenshire exercise either the Murphy or Hain option.

Why should they? After all, the voters ensured the emergence of a dominant, polarised and mistrustful two-party system, in the process disproving the maxim that opposites attract.

They, we, made that bed and now must live with the consequences.

Without mutual trust, not just among the parties but also within the wider community, our political institutions will simply fall apart yet again: trust is the mortar that is meant to hold them together, but it seems to be ever crumbling.

While it is the case that considerable energy has been expended by some in imagining alternatives to both fully inclusive devolution and direct rule, they have failed to secure sufficient political traction.

Whether it is joint authority, joint stewardship, voluntary coalition, or the creation of a Citizens' Assembly, none appears politically viable unless, that is, a coach and horses is driven through the Good Friday Agreement.

So, we will tread water unless and until the Secretary of State pulls the plug and restores direct rule, which now seems unavoidable.

We at least have some understanding of how that works: most imperfectly.

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