There seems to be a growing sense that the best option for Northern Ireland now is for a “quick dose of Direct Rule” to “sort things out” and then a restoration of devolution.
This is understandable – but very, very wrong. It cannot happen.
Firstly, it is simply ludicrous. You cannot have political stability if every time a difficult decision is required the government has to collapse for a few months to let someone else make it. The whole point of devolution is that decision making is in local hands – and not just the easy decisions!
Secondly, there are no legal means under which it can happen. The power simply to “suspend” the institutions was removed in 2006. The UK Government could in theory pass legislation to enable this, but it would be risky, requiring consultation with the Irish Government and leading potentially to a complete breakdown in relationships.
In other words, if the institutions “collapse” (because, immediately, Unionists are unprepared to work them), they will stay collapsed.
This is good news neither for Unionists nor for Nationalists. For Unionists, it makes Northern Ireland a clear exception in the UK – with Scotland, Wales and even English cities receiving more devolution, Northern Ireland would be opting for what is, frankly, colonial rule. For Nationalists, it means Conservative government and all that entails with regard to welfare and the budget – exactly what they have been trying to avoid.
We should be clear that, specifically, it is bad news for those seeking to put an end the “Republican” gangsterism. Let us remind ourselves that 13 murders in Northern Ireland in 2014 (few carried out by “Republicans” or any other “political” group) is better than 460 in 1972 (a majority by “Republicans”). We do need to move towards the goal where “Republicans”, like everyone else, accept that elections have winners and losers and no single group has a right to veto everything it does not like. However, straightforward exclusion only makes matters worse for people, not least those within communities where most self-identify as “Republican”, who are trying to ensure the case for a return to the “physical force tradition” does not gain ground. (The DUP is right, in fact, to accuse those who do not see that obvious point of “abdicating responsibility” and noting that the Ulster Unionists’ move “into Opposition” does nothing to achieve the stated objective of that move.)
Among the general public two things need to be understood about the practical real world of modern Northern Ireland. First, Direct Rule will mean better government in the short term but greater social instability, including violence, in the long term (noting that power-sharing devolution is the only form of government here whose legitimacy is not seriously contested by anyone). Second, Direct Rule cannot be implemented just for the short term.
Bearing those in mind, people just need to be careful what they wish for.