Amid our lack of governance, the future of the Union is now water-cooler chat

Posted By: May 18, 2018

Alex Kane.Irish News. Belfast. Friday, May 18, 2018 

The Assembly hasn’t sat since January 16, 2017 – other than for an hour in March 2017, so that the re-elected MLAs could ‘sign-on’ for their salaries and expenses.

The Executive hasn’t met since December 2016. The RHI Inquiry has highlighted levels of incompetence and inefficiency that no-one could have imagined.

The consequence of Monday’s High Court ruling is that senior civil servants don’t, in fact, have the authority to take key decisions in the absence of Executive ministers.

The secretary of state refuses to introduce formal direct rule. MLAs — who, in truth, are not actually members of a legislative assembly at all—are still being paid full salaries, six months after the former secretary of state was advised, in advice he sought,  that their salaries should be cut.

Go on, read that paragraph again. Then sit down, have a cuppa, think about what you’ve just read for the second time – and then read it again. That is where Northern Ireland stands today.

A few days before the 20th anniversary of the referendum of May 22, 1998, which saw 71 percent approval for the Good Friday Agreement, and this is what we are reduced to.

Not poor government. Not weak government. Not even pretend government. Just a massive, massively subsidized farce which makes a banana republic look like a model of stability and democracy.

Let’s face it, Louie the Ape, self-styled ‘King of the Jungle’ from The Jungle Book, would probably make a better job of governance than the fiasco we’re presently enduring.

Matters aren’t helped by Mrs. Bradley still not having grasped the fact – and it’s not a hard fact to grasp – that, as secretary of state, her job is to govern Northern Ireland if the Assembly/Executive isn’t doing it.

She’s not on some sort of job-share scheme with civil servants, particularly since they don’t have the authority to take their own decisions.

Nor is it her role to play second-fiddle to the DUP in Theresa May’s pecking-order. Yes, being a member of the Cabinet is always a nice thing for an MP to add to their CV; but not as a willing stooge and seat-filler.

I know, I know, I’ve said this before, but it still irks me that we’re paying MLAs not to do their job and paying a secretary of state not to do hers, either.

Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg and Mrs. May have been having a spat about a Northern Ireland border poll.

According to him, and he hasn’t denied saying it, “If there was a border poll, I have no doubt we would win, as the UK did in Scotland,” about the 2014 independence referendum.

Mrs. May’s reply – and again, neither she nor No ten is denying she said it – was: “I would not be as confident as you. That’s not a risk I’m prepared to take. We cannot be confident in the politics of that situation, on how it plays it.”

My own suspicion is that May’s comments were not intended for Rees-Mogg – anyway, he simply blocks out anything he doesn’t want to hear – but rather for the DUP.

The last thing they want to hear from the prime minister they’re propping up is that she’s not sure the pro-Union side would win a Border poll.

I think she’s probably trying to spook them: trying to persuade them to back down a little and give her more room for maneuver. It’s what I argued a few months ago: she’ll give them a choice between backing her on something they’re not particularly happy with, or face a potential Border poll, now with her words, “we cannot be confident,” hanging over the campaign.

The other thing which should worry Unionists here is who, exactly, would come over to support them during a Border poll?

Rees-Mogg forgot to mention that the Conservatives made a monumental dog’s-dinner of the Scottish referendum and, in the end, were probably saved by a brilliant, passionate, pro-Union rallying cry from Gordon Brown.

I’m not sure that speeches of support from Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Nigel Farage, et al would do very much to win over the small-u unionists and small-n nationalists the pro-Union side need for a comfortable, credible, shutting-it-down-for-a-generation victory. And I’d love to see them trying to promote the benefits of the Union against the background of a hard Border.

So, there we have it. No governance in Northern Ireland. A cabinet divided on the final exit arrangements with the EU and a satisfactory deal on the Border. A prime minister who either believes the Union is in jeopardy or else is just trying to manipulate the DUP – neither of which is good for the DUP.

And the Union itself, and for the first time in my lifetime, now the subject of water-cooler conversations. It’s going to be a fascinating ten months.