The death of devolution?

Stormont, Northern Ireland

Many nationalists have come to the conclusion that devolution does not work and that remaining within the UK holds no appeal, writes Barry Turley

I have spent my whole adult life working within and around the Northern Ireland peace process. Since the mid 1990’s I have been privileged to have a close view of the momentous events which led to the Good Friday Agreement and the many twists and turns in the intervening 20 years. During that time, there have been many dark days, and one or two soaring highlights.

I have always been generally optimistic about our chances of making devolution work, and establishing a new narrative for the people who live here. However, I have to say that as I write this piece today, any optimism has all but gone.

Monday’s resignation of deputy first minister Martin McGuinness has led to the collapse of the Assembly and the imminent calling of an election. Reading between the lines, as the visibly frail and clearly ill deputy first minister announced his departure from the executive, he seemed to be admitting that Sinn Fein simply cannot work with the DUP. That is a very bad place for Northern Ireland to find itself.

Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside in the aftermath of the Renewable Heat Incentive mega-blunder and her subsequent handling of the outcry left Sinn Fein with little wriggle room – especially in the light of a newly minted opposition’s calls for her resignation.

Prior to Christmas it was clear that Martin McGuinness was trying to give the DUP room to prepare the ground for her temporarily stepping back from the role of first minister, while a preliminary investigation took place. Her predecessor Peter Robinson sent the precedent, when he was under investigation a few years ago, and republicans may well have assumed that she would accept a similar outcome while an investigation into the scheme got underway. Instead, Arlene Foster, a strong willed and tough political fighter decided to stay put, leaving Sinn Fein with little option but to pull the plug.

The DUP strategy has been to portray this situation as Sinn Fein trying to tell the DUP what to do, looking to undermine unionism per se. The election will now be fought on sectarian grounds – a zero sum tribal head count. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein will have made the calculation that their voters will turn out and restore them to pre-eminence at Stormont.

The problem is, what happens then? All trust has been lost. Relations have completely broken down. Nationalists are deeply angry at the behaviour of the DUP, while DUP supporters will retreat into the safe ground of deriding republicans. Any prospect of a return to devolution in the short term is a pipe dream – I fear we may be looking at years of direct rule.

This is especially dangerous when Brexit looks set to impact here more than anywhere else in the United Kingdom, and we will have no cogent voice at the table. It is a disaster when our health service is creaking badly, when welfare reform looks set to impact horrendously on the weakest and most vulnerable in our society, and when the manufacturing sector requires support in difficult and uncertain times. The list of problems facing Northern Ireland is a long one, and removal of a working government from the equation is simply calamitous.

Personally, my overall sense of where we are and what has gone wrong was summed up by my old boss, former deputy first minister Seamus Mallon. He said that the weakness at the heart of the Sinn Fein-DUP axis has been the general lack of any drive towards reconciliation between our people. We remain a separate people, living beside and not with each other.

The British and Irish governments have enough to worry about with Brexit looming large, while the Conservative party has nowhere near the understanding and commitment to Northern Ireland – which was so important when Tony Blair was in Number 10. Theresa May will not have the time, nor the inclination to hand hold our political parties back into the executive. Meanwhile, in the light of Brexit and the ongoing shambles at Stormont, many nationalists will have come to the conclusion that devolution does not work, and that remaining within a collapsing UK no longer holds any appeal.

The situation is grave, and there are no positives on the horizon.

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Barry Turley is managing director of Turley PR and Public Affairs, and a former director of communications for the SDLP. He tweets at @BarryturleyPRPA

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