Northern Ireland’s unhappy house

14 Sep 15

Stormont is mired in multiple crises, to the extent that a temporary dissolution of the assembly might be the only way forward.

Northern Ireland is in crisis with a resignation that is not a resignation by first minister Peter Robinson. He has “stepped down” temporarily, with finance minister Arlene Foster deputising while all-party talks take place to save the Stormont Assembly and Executive. Robinson’s DUP colleagues – bar Foster – also resigned, leaving health, the economy and social development without ministerial control.

It is not one political crisis that brought us here, but three. According to Northern Ireland’s chief constable, George Hamilton, members of the Provisional IRA were involved in the recent murder of Kevin McGuigan. He was a former IRA member, widely suspected of being behind the murder of former senior IRA commander Gerard ‘Jock’ Davison. Hamilton’s comments destroyed the pretence that the Provisional IRA no longer exists.

While Sinn Féin deals with accusations of being too close to a paramilitary killing, its main partner in government has its own problems. The Democratic Unionist Party strongly denies any connection with a £7m “fixers’ fee” found in an offshore bank account that is alleged – by a member of the Irish Dail – to have been earmarked for a Northern Ireland politician or political party. The transaction is being investigated by the UK’s National Crime Agency and the US Department of Justice.

But it is the third crisis that might collapse devolution: welfare reform. Last December’s Stormont House Agreement supposedly resolved this, agreeing that Northern Ireland could adopt less severe cuts to benefits than those in Great Britain. But the details were not included in an agreement that is now mired in quicksand. Sinn Féin claimed that a bill in the Northern Ireland Assembly to cut benefits provided less protection for claimants than promised.

Cynics suggest Sinn Féin is more motivated by an election due in the Irish Republic, where it could become the second largest party. Implementing austerity in the North while campaigning against it in the South is bad politics.

Faced with this crisis, the assembly approved a “fantasy budget” that it knew did not balance – in the hope that something might turn up. It hasn’t and emergency cuts in public spending are causing serious problems. 
Robinson has urged Westminster to break the impasse by dissolving the assembly for a short period while imposing welfare reform. The secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, now says she is willing to do this. Sinn Féin politicians are furious – or say they are. The plan could, though, be a way out of this crisis.

In truth, neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP want the devolved institutions to collapse. Nor do two of the other three parties that have been represented on the Northern Ireland Executive – the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Alliance Party. But the fifth, the Ulster Unionists, have walked out of the executive, on a supposed point of principle because of the Provisionals’ reported involvement in murder. The cynical view is the Ulster Unionists are themselves being cynical – outflanking the DUP for hardline loyalist votes and also paying back the DUP for traducing the Ulster Unionists in 1998.

On that occasion it was the Ulster Unionists who signed the Good Friday Agreement, allowing Sinn Féin into government. And it was the DUP that attacked their rivals, the Ulster Unionists, for supposedly being unprincipled. Now the roles have been reversed.

The DUP and Sinn Féin understand their mutual dependency. If they cannot work together the risk is that armed conflict will return. Neither party has any wish for that. A fudge will probably be worked out. Whether Northern Ireland can permanently live off a diet of unhealthy fudge – politely termed “constructive ambiguity” – is another question.

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