Northern Irish politics has reached a breaking point, and it does not appear that it will survive it. The British government is due to set its upcoming budget this month, and with Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) still hopelessly deadlocked, it appears that Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire will have no choice but to defer budget responsibility from Belfast to London, thereby putting the country on the fast-track to direct rule. It won’t be the first time since the Good Friday Agreement was signed in 1998 that London will be forced to impose direct rule; it ruled Northern Ireland directly during brief periods in 2000 and 2001, and then for a more prolonged period between 2002 and 2007. It is an undesirable arrangement, but it isn’t uncommon.
Still, direct rule in 2017 is significant because of the unique circumstances in which Northern Ireland finds itself at this particular historical moment.
Firstly, Northern Irish politics have increasingly polarised over the past two decades. When the Good Friday Agreement was signed, the moderate parties – the SDLP and the UUP – still commanded the support of a majority of their communities, but since then that support has steadily eroded, and the extreme parties – the DUP and Sinn Fein – have filled the void left behind. Partisan issues in the past were more easily resolved, but in the radical political climate that encompasses Northern Ireland today, disagreement debilitates the normal operation of government. We are consistently told that the language issue is at the core of the impasse. Because of the importance both the DUP and Sinn Fein place on cultural pride, the language issue is deeper than petty legislative word-phrasing – it strikes at the heart of their respective identities. In fact, Sinn Fein recently indicated that it would not sign an agreement to restore devolution at “any cost,” demonstrating that it is unwilling to trade its cultural integrity for power. Direct rule might provide London with a means to temporarily govern the country, but it will not force the parties back together—that still requires serious inter-party negotiations in order to reach an acceptable compromise.
Secondly, the move comes in the midst of the Brexit negotiations—the moment in which Northern Ireland has needed its semi-independent voice the most since 1998. The country benefits substantially from the UK’s membership in the EU—due both to its cross-border economic relationship with the Republic as well as the direct subsidies it receives from the EU itself. A majority of the population voted to ‘Remain,’ but without a Northern Irish voice in the negotiation process, Britain—led by its Eurosceptic Tory government—will negotiate on Northern Ireland’s behalf, threatening to reach an agreement that is unfavourable to the majority there. More significantly, however, Northern Ireland’s communities voted largely along sectarian lines—nationalists voted overwhelming against Brexit while unionists voted overwhelming for it—so if the British government fails to deliver an adequate deal to the ‘Remainers,’ nationalists might use its failure to advance their ultimate objectives—an event with the potential to severely disrupt cross-community relations, especially if Brexit ultimately leads to worse economic conditions. Northern Ireland is a unique entity in a unique situation and requires a unique solution. Direct rule is unlikely to secure it.
Thirdly—and in my opinion, most importantly—direct rule today severely undermines the power-sharing arrangement—one of the central components of the Good Friday Agreement. At the previous Assembly election in March, 85.2% of voters cast their ballots for sectarian parties—a number very similar to that which voted for sectarian parties in all previous Assembly elections. So, despite the proliferation and relative success of non-sectarian parties in recent years, the election demonstrates that Northern Ireland is still largely a binary society. Indeed, the deadlock itself indicates that the essence of Northern Irish society has actually changed very little since 1998, so the power-sharing structure is as relevant and necessary today as it was then.
The Tory-DUP confidence-and-supply deal alone undermines power-sharing because it places unionists in a favoured position in Parliament; any deal that the Tories attempt to push through the House of Commons must secure the support of Arlene Foster’s party. Of course, it would be a significantly less dangerous situation if the Northern Irish devolved institutions were in place. But now that direct rule is practically inevitable, the Tory government—with its DUP crutch—will be responsible for Northern affairs. Any legislation concerning Northern Ireland presented to the House of Commons is unlikely to pass unless it receives a stamp of approval from the DUP—giving the party substantially more power in the country’s administration than its counterparts.
To be fair, direct rule is probably the only plausible outcome to the political crisis. Despite months of negotiations, pressure from both Dublin and London, and constant threats of direct rule from the NIO, Sinn Fein and the DUP have barely moved beyond the preliminary negotiation stages. Still, the imposition of direct rule is a hugely consequential event for Northern Ireland—especially in the current political climate—and it cannot be viewed as a long-term or even preferable solution. Brexit is the most urgent concern facing the country, and it is crucial that it reclaims its voice to secure an arrangement that will respect its unique situation, and preserve the fragile stability between its communities. Moreover, it is absolutely imperative to the faithful adherence of the Good Friday Agreement that a more practicable solution is arranged. Direct rule means that unionists will gain a major advantage over nationalists. Not only does that gift-wrap an abundance of political ammunition to nationalists—dangerous in itself—but it also completely undermines the power-sharing structure on which peace in Northern Ireland is founded. I am not suggesting that Northern Ireland is on the verge of returning to conflict—there is a huge distance between political stability and ethnic conflict. But unfortunately, long-term direct rule does mean that Northern Ireland will take a leap away from the precarious state of stability that its society has grown into over the past two decades.