Direct Rule offers better government – but must be avoided

There is no question that Direct Rule tomorrow would offer better government for Northern Ireland. Decisions on Health would be made with a greater overview and less immediate sense of crisis; decisions over transport infrastructure would be made with the whole of Northern Ireland in mind and not to suit a particular world view; decisions, well, would actually be made! As an added bonus, the cost of government would fall, adding a few million to other coffers.

It is understandable, therefore, why so many people are reaching the conclusion that it is time to end the whole charade and return to Direct Rule – “We are incapable of governing ourselves”, after all…

Understandable – but wrong.

Devolution is absolutely necessary.

It is absolutely necessary because it is the basis of our social contract which keeps Northern Ireland relatively stable – it keeps us within the UK (reflecting our British identity), it is tied to cross-border bodies (reflecting our Irish identity), and it is dependent on power-sharing (ensuring a sense of democratic legitimacy across the traditional community divide).

It is absolutely necessary because it is the norm in the British Isles of the 21st century – with devolution flowing more and more towards Edinburgh and Cardiff; ever more direct linkages with Dublin (not requiring any UK intervention); and even a degree of devolution to London. We are tied to the greater whole, but we can also to an extent pick and choose who it is useful to deal with and learn from.

It is absolutely necessary because, frankly, we need to learn to govern ourselves and have some self-respect. For example, Direct Rule would mean, bizarrely, prospective investors having Northern Ireland sold to them at a political level by politicians from England’s West Country or Midlands (whose own motivations would be suspect) – making us, bluntly, look like some desperate and corrupt colony.

Devolution is not working, at all. It is perhaps because of our underlying insecurities that that just makes us want to give up – and it is understandable that we would, to be clear. However, the answer to devolution not working is not to abandon it; the answer is to make it work.

The current difficulty is that devolution is being deliberately left in the hands of people who are abusing it. There have to be means of passing difficult democratic decisions – so the Petition of Concern needs to be reformed to avoid its abuse. There have to be means of penalising and even dismissing those in high office who abuse that office – so the Ministerial Code needs to be independently and judicially enforceable. There has to be motivation for legislators to think of the whole of Northern Ireland, not just a particular “community”, when making decisions – so parties opting not to “designate” should if anything be rewarded, and certainly not penalised. There have to be means of holding the government to account, including with the threat of its replacement at an election by an alternative – so there must be funding and speaking rights for parties opting not to take Executive places.

Not only must we make devolution work, but there are clear and obvious structural reforms which would help dramatically. We need not expect those abusing the current system to change it, so a very brief period of “mothballing” while the UK Government in consultation with the Irish Government makes the necessary changes may well be needed.

However, to be clear, the purpose of any reform talks will not be to end devolution, but to enforce changes which will make it work (and give the electorate a real democratic choice). We are perfectly capable of governing ourselves, in fact – but only if we are motivated actually to govern.

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3 thoughts on “Direct Rule offers better government – but must be avoided

  1. The Listener says:

    The fundamental problem is that during the long period of Direct Rule, a public mindset of political involvement with governance ceased, never to recover. A period of political education is required starting at school level. In the meantime the existing arrangements with some changes will have to stagger on. At least for the most bitter of protagonists it keeps them away from espousing violence.

  2. Scots Anorak says:

    For once, I’d agree with you Ian :-). A short period of direct rule might be useful to introduce some social reforms (gay marriage, no longer forcing women to give birth to headless foetuses, etc.) — as well as the Irish language Act promised by the UK Government so many years ago.

    The risk inherent in direct rule, however, is that it might last longer than anyone expects, with attendant potential for instability. If the UK Government is sensible, it will approach welfare reform with the kind of graciousness in victory that it showed on prison uniforms 30 years ago. Instability could cost much more than preserving welfare (indeed, preserving welfare would avoid expensive social dislocation in GB, too).

    I’m not sure that London and Dublin could unilaterally make changes to the GFA, particularly since even more stringent safeguards (Executive consultation) were subsequently introduced at the behest of the DUP and are closely associated with the party. Perhaps it would be doable if the DUP and SF were annoyed equally (e.g. introduce independent certification of genuine communal issues for petitions of concern while similtaneously exempting money Bills from their effect). We’ll see.

    I think that Mike Nesbitt has played this rather well. He is following Molyneaux’s old tactic of “out-righting” the DUP by staging a fake walk-out from the Executive at a time when it had only weeks to survive anyway. There may be fresh elections before it returns, at which stage the UUP will be looking to gain votes for its stance.

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