Friday, 21 July 2017

'Shinner speak' hides where the hatred truly lies

This column appeared first in the News Letter, Friday 21st July 2017.

It’s a pungent irony that, in Northern Ireland, the political movement that tried to murder its way out of the UK uses words like ‘equality’, ‘rights’ and ‘respect’ incessantly. It’s even more ironic that Sinn Fein has been allowed to subvert these terms relatively unchallenged, while so many people, particularly the young and naive, have been taken in by its trickery.

When republicans talk about ‘equality’, they’re not demanding equal treatment under the law, or an equal opportunity to work, or equal access to benefits and a home, or even freedom from discrimination, because all those things are guaranteed already by some of the most stringent legislation in the western world.

Instead, Sinn Fein’s idea of equality is a pretext to attack Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

In Shinner-speak, any outward symbol of the province’s Britishness becomes a sign of inequality and the institutions and emblems of a nationalist Irish state deserve ‘parity of esteem’. This manoeuvre is designed to sidestep the ‘principle of consent’, which underpins the Belfast Agreement and establishes that our constitutional position will be determined by a majority of people here.

Similarly, when it refers to ‘rights’ Sinn Fein does not mean the type of universal entitlements to life, liberty and a fair trial that usually meet that description. The UK is a signatory to the European Convention, so Northern Ireland falls under the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights and the freedoms it protects were incorporated directly into British law by the Human Rights Act, in 1998.

For republicans though, ‘rights’ are endlessly versatile and cover just about any aspiration - cultural, economic or political - that their movement proposes at a particular time. Just now, they include diverse aims like positive discrimination for Northern Ireland’s tiny population of Irish speakers, membership of the European single market and legal recognition for same-sex marriage. However, the list of ‘rights’ Sinn Fein espouses can change suddenly and without warning.  When its spokespeople talk about a ‘rights based society’, it's another way of saying that they want their demands to be accommodated constantly, without recourse to tiresome formalities like debate and democracy.

Meanwhile, ‘respect’ is something Sinn Fein demands repeatedly, but refuses to extend to its rivals. The party perceives a lack of ‘respect’ in situations that range from perfectly legitimate opposition to republican policies through to bringing up inconveniently the provisional movement’s violent past.

The word is a particular favourite of Mairtin O Muilleoir, who now styles himself an advocate of a diverse ‘new Belfast’, but previously sat on the city council while his more practically inclined colleagues blew its streets and citizens into smithereens.

Sinn Fein has been allowed without serious challenge to abuse language habitually and portray unionists as the only disrespectful, hate-filled bigots in our community. Its success highlights not only the party’s extreme chicanery, but also the extent to which ‘parochial stupidities’ have prevented unionism from modernising and articulating its own case effectively.

At the last election almost 30% of voters supported a movement that, just a generation ago, was engaged in a brutal campaign to murder their neighbours into a united Ireland. Rather than flags, or bonfires, or contentious music, that is the clearest symbol of hatred, tribalism and disrespect in Northern Ireland, and it is also, by some distance, the most damning indictment of our divided society.

Friday, 16 June 2017

Demonising the DUP risks demonising NI voters

There are many less than admirable aspects to Northern Ireland’s largest political party - the DUP - and I’ve written about them extensively.  The Democratic Unionists have a history of sectarian intolerance and rabble-rousing populism.  

Over the years, they’ve changed dramatically, attracting support from mainstream unionists and establishing a wider membership profile, but they’ve never quite ditched their hardline, fundamentalist Protestant image.  

The DUP’s social attitudes are often strikingly traditional, its ideas about Britishness can seem foreign to people in the rest of the UK and it is sometimes criticised justifiably for an ambivalent, contradictory attitude to loyalist paramilitary groups..  

Therefore there are plenty of legitimate reasons to criticise the Tories’ decision to seek Democratic Unionist support to form a government, without resorting to the deluge of nonsense that some journalists, commentators and Tweeters directed at the party when news of a possible ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement emerged.  

The DUP is not a ‘white nationalist’ party’, nor is it  equivalent to the KKK, though its representatives have occasionally made rather ignorant remarks about other nationalities and races.  

It is not a ‘theocratic’ party - its leadership spans various christian denominations and non church-goers - though its membership does contain a high proportion of evangelical protestants.  

The Democratic Unionists certainly cannot be characterised as ‘terrorist sympathisers’, having never endorsed political violence, though they work in loyalist communities where the influence of paramilitaries is strong and a tangle of social links makes dealing with ‘ex-combatants’ difficult to avoid.

Undoubtedly, the DUP’s origins are deeply unpleasant.  Its founder, Ian Paisley, made no effort to separate his early political involvement from viscerally sectarian religious beliefs.  In ‘From Demagogue to Democrat?’, Ed Moloney describes attacks on Catholic property that followed vicious, provocative speeches on the Shankill Road.              

The party was accused of flirting with loyalist paramilitaries, for instance during the Ulster Workers’ Strike.  Later, after the Anglo-Irish Agreement, Paisley wore a beret for the gun-running ‘Ulster Resistance’ movement and spoke about the need for a ‘Third Force’ militia to defend Northern Ireland against republicans.        

Ironically, the former First Minister is now usually depicted as a peace-maker, who led his party into power-sharing with Republicans and his transformation into one half of the ‘Chuckle Brothers’ is a topic for cinema.  Yet the DUP’s current leader, Arlene Foster, a woman who worships at the moderate, Anglican Church of Ireland, and whose political biography is unblemished by extremism, is demonised as a danger to British democracy.   

The DUP still has its quotient of cranks and backwoodsmen, but clearly it has changed in a way that the post-election commentary has not generally recognised.  After the Good Friday Agreement, the party benefited from an influx of disillusioned Ulster Unionists, many of whom are now in senior leadership positions, who were not connected to Ian Paisley’s hard-line Free Presbyterian church.

The DUP is socially conservative, to say the least, but its membership is not monolithic and attitudes are changing.  UUP councillor, Jeffrey Dudgeon, who has every right to call himself Northern Ireland’s “best known gay rights campaigner”, recently refuted the idea that Democratic Unionists are uniquely hostile to homosexuality.  He acknowledges that many “draw the line” at equal marriage, but doesn’t agree that is a reason to vilify them.   

The DUP has its disreputable side, which includes allegations of cronyism and corruption, but it also has a substantial mandate in Northern Ireland (almost 300,000 voters in a population of 1.8million).  Some of the hyperbolic, inaccurate criticism it received shows ill-disguised contempt for Northern Irish voters, and deep incomprehension of a sizeable, complicated political movement that cannot be reduced merely to cliches about evangelical Protestantism and hard-line loyalism.  

The DUP attracts support from unionists for a range of reasons, including the perception that it is best equipped to check the demands of Sinn Fein, which is still led by some of the former terrorists who waged a campaign of murder against their neighbours.  Despite their uncompromising reputation, Democratic Unionists have repeatedly shown that they can be hard-headed, pragmatic negotiators, both in their dealings with the British government and Irish republicans.

Even long-standing opponents of the party are uncomfortable with some of the nonsense currently being written by people who should no better.  From hysteria at the principle of the DUP gaining influence in the next administration, it is only a short hop to argue that the uncivilised, backward voters of Northern Ireland should be denied a say in who forms their government.  That would be to deprive them of the most basic rights guaranteed by any functioning democracy.              

Tuesday, 6 June 2017

UK foreign policy did contribute to terror, but not in the way Corbyn implies.



After both the Manchester and London Bridge terror attacks, party political campaigning was briefly suspended.  However, Islamic terrorism has inevitably become an important issue in this general election and, rather ironically, Jeremy Corbyn is on the offensive, criticising Theresa May and the Conservatives for imposing cuts on the police that put public safety at risk.

This is not a subject on which the Labour leader has much credibility.  Not only has he a long record of sympathising with terrorist causes, he and his associates have also actively opposed many of the security agencies that are charged with keeping us safe.  The blogger Guido Fawkes points out that, just three years ago, Corbyn defended the idea that young British people who had fought for ISIS in Syria should be allowed to return to the UK without “legal obstacles”.

The Labour leader also argues that British foreign policy, including military involvement in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria, has helped fuel Islamist terror.  That is a more complicated point that can’t be dismissed by reference to Corbyn’s character and should be broken down a little.

Clearly Islamic extremism in the UK or elsewhere is not simply a reaction to western countries’ role in wars abroad.  The history of Islamism as an ideology is long and complicated.  Its modern prevalence has been explained with reference to Saudi money and the export of ‘Wahhabism’ or the more nakedly political doctrines of ‘Salafism’.

Acts of Islamist terror are not restricted to countries whose military has become involved in Muslim countries.  While some attackers have listed among their motivations perceived ‘wars on Islam’ by the west, Islamic terrorism seems to draw at least as much on religious hatred for western society and a kind of nihilistic youth cult that glorifies extreme violence.

Yet British foreign policy has undeniably contributed to creating chaos in parts of the Middle East and North Africa, where a political vacuum has allowed Islamists to carve out territory, from which they can spread their propaganda and train recruits.  In Iraq, Libya and Syria, the UK has been among the most enthusiastic proponents of ‘regime change’, demanding that admittedly unpleasant, but secular and stable, governments should be dislodged.  

It was always foreseeable that the alternative to authoritarian regimes was increased influence for Islamists.  That was clear even as western leaders urged on protesters during the “Arab Spring”.  In 2011, I wrote about the situation in Egypt, where the Muslim Brotherhood was soon to take control. The army later reasserted its power, but the country remains restive and dangerous.

“Nobody would describe President Mubarak as a democrat, but he has kept a sprawling and potentially volatile country stable and shown diplomacy dealing with some fairly touchy neighbours in the wider region.  The people of Egypt are entitled to challenge his regime - they certainly aren’t at liberty to vote it out of office - but we can’t be blind to the fact that a virulent strain of populist Islamism is eager to fill any political vacuum.
 
That pattern is replicated across much of North Africa and the Middle East, which is not to say that protesters shouldn’t press for democracy where it is denied.

It’s right to be wary about the outcome of events though.  For governments in the west and their allies in the Arab world, there is some truth in the maxim ‘better the devil you know’.  They can’t afford to disregard broader geo-political issues or throw caution to the wind by cheerleading revolution.”     

Subsequently, the UK was involved in toppling Colonel Gaddafi in Libya, with the result that there is still a civil war in the country.  Reportedly, the Manchester bomber, Salman Abedi, would visit in the school holidays to take part in the fighting.  It’s difficult to envisage how these formative experiences cannot have played some role in his decision to kill concert-goers in his adopted city.                

The conflict in Syria has become the greatest geopolitical quagmire in the Middle East.  While the UK military’s involvement has been limited, Britain provided political backing to the US and ‘aid’ to rebel groups that oppose the government of President Bashar al-Assad.  

Some of the support that western countries have provided rebels in Syria has assisted directly various types of Islamists, including affiliates of Al-Qaeda, while there is evidence that ISIS has been an indirect beneficiary of attacks on al-Assad, as well as ‘lethal’ and ‘non-lethal’ aid.

These circumstances mean that Corbyn is right to draw a link between UK foreign policy and the conditions that allow terrorism to flourish, but the tone and content of his arguments are flawed.

Rather than insinuating that western leaders made young Muslim people justifiably angry, with the result that terrorist atrocities were perpetrated in Britain, we should be asking why our leaders didn’t much earlier identify Islamism as the primary threat to people’s safety at home and in the Middle East.

Why, long after barbarism like 9/11 and 7/7, did the US, the UK and others still pursue policies that benefited people like the Muslim Brotherhood, Al Qaeda and then ISIS?

Monday, 5 June 2017

Focus of Northern Ireland politics moving back to Westminster

This article appeared first in the News Letter's General election supplement (1 June 2017).

Since devolution, and particularly after the restoration of the Assembly in 2007, the centre of gravity in Northern Ireland politics moved steadily away from Westminster back to Stormont.  The tendency was compounded after pressure to stop ‘double jobbing’ eventually put an end to dual mandates, so political heavyweights and party leaders could no longer juggle their responsibilities in both legislatures.
 
For a number of years, the most high profile political personalities in the media have operated from Stormont, while some MPs became relatively anonymous.  There were even occasional suggestions that difficult characters or party rivals were sent to the House of Commons to keep them out of mischief.
 
With this General Election, there is a very good chance that the political balance will shift back toward Westminster.  Many of the most urgent challenges Northern Ireland faces currently have a UK-wide dimension, while our own politics has had a higher profile on the national stage.
 
The most obvious examples revolve around Brexit.  No issue is likely to have a greater impact on Northern Ireland’s immediate future and the negotiations for a deal with the EU will be conducted by the next UK government.  
 
All the most relevant debates and votes that could influence the next prime minister’s approach to Brexit will take place in the House of Commons.  There may be some limited opportunities to lobby the government from the UK’s devolved institutions, but the important decisions will be thrashed out at Westminster.   
 
Currently Northern Ireland’s political institutions are not even operating.  Theresa May’s snap general election brought negotiations to form a new executive to a juddering halt.  
 
Perhaps, with campaigning out of the way, the parties will get back to their talks with renewed urgency.  However, some of the ‘red line’ demands made by Sinn Fein look insurmountable without important concessions by the DUP.  Included in this shopping list is a demand for special treatment for ‘legacy inquests’ into incidents involving the security forces during the Troubles, that would be deeply unpalatable to many unionists.
 
There is a serious chance that the parties will miss their deadline to form a power-sharing executive by June 29th.  In that circumstance, the Secretary of State, James Brokenshire, is expected to suspend devolution and restore direct rule from Westminster.  That means that the House of Commons will debate and legislate on matters currently decided by Stormont.
 
In their general election manifesto for Northern Ireland, the Conservatives have already ruled out any form of ‘joint sovereignty’ with Dublin, if direct rule is restored.  It’s significant that the governing party of the UK was prepared to make any pronouncement on the prickly issue of sovereignty here, during a campaign, rather than simply ignore the issue.  
 
The Tories wish to stress their credentials as the party that can strengthen the Union.  It’s also likely that they wish to emphasise the contrast between their party and Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.
 
Corbyn’s links with Sinn Fein and the IRA have become an enduring theme of the election.  There is ample evidence that the Labour leader and some of his colleagues had deep sympathies for the republican cause, up to and including apologising for its violence.
 
The Conservatives portray Corbyn as a firebrand, extreme left-wing MP, who attended pro-IRA meetings and rallies, to deliver an uncompromising message that the armed struggle for a united Ireland was justified.  He says that he was merely encouraging republicans to negotiate, by delivering a message of peace in language they would find “friendly”.
 
Whichever version you believe, it’s been a long time since Northern Ireland was debated so lengthily and intensely by national parties at a general election.  
 
The more immediate issue of the Irish border after Brexit has also formed part of the campaign.  Everybody agrees that a ‘hard border’ is undesirable, but the Conservatives were attacked for pledging only that the frontier will remain as “frictionless as possible”.  
 
With all of the arguments currently raging around Brexit, it’s some time since Northern Irish politics was so engaged with big national questions and UK-wide issues so entwined with local disputes.  It also seems quite possible that the MPs we return after this election will be the only representatives who get to vote directly on legislation relating to Northern Ireland, for the foreseeable future.
 
The political centre of gravity here looks to be shifting perceptibly back to Westminster.             
 

Monday, 22 May 2017

A small 'c' conservative manifesto

Previously, I wrote that Theresa May’s political instincts are ‘deeply conservative’, even if they don’t resonate with all of her colleagues in the Conservative Party .  The snap general election provides an early, rather unexpected opportunity for the prime minister to articulate her beliefs in a manifesto for government.

The document confirms that Mrs May thinks of herself as a ‘one nation’ Tory, rather than identifying with the more libertarian strain of thinking that animates many modern Conservatives.  Labour and other critics will dispute how specific policies might work in the real world, but we can tell from the tone of the manifesto how the prime minister wants the public to view her party.

At the last general election, Ed Miliband pinched the ‘one nation’ label for the Labour Party, and rather than stealing it back, Theresa May chooses to talk about “mainstream government” and “mainstream Britain”.  The language is different, but the sentiment is the same.  The PM is expressing her desire to bring people together and govern in the interests of a broad section of society.   

That means talking about the power of government to make a difference, rather than assuming that interference and regulation are always negative.  Mrs May expresses the belief that markets should be controlled and she has pledged, for example, that energy prices will be capped, which is a departure from recent Conservative orthodoxy.

The most controversial part of the manifesto deals with social care and it has already prompted a partial rethink.  The idea that people’s ability to pay should be assessed with reference to their total wealth, including their ownership of property, is something that left-wing parties have called for as a matter of principle.  That is the essence of the Tories’ plans, which suggest that costs could be recouped from anyone who owns a house valued at more than £100,000.

The threshold is rather low and the policy does mean that people who don’t save and invest for their old age are rewarded with free care.  That is the difficulty at the heart of any means test.  The fact that the total cost is now likely to be capped merely means that those with modest savings and property are likely to be hit hardest.  

Still, no other party has yet made a credible attempt to solve the problems presented by an ageing population.  At the moment, the NHS is asked to accommodate older people in hospitals who should be in their own homes or in other facilities, because care packages are not available.        

You can call it ‘red Toryism’, ‘one nation Conservatism’ or ‘mainstream government’, but Theresa May’s scepticism about immigration and willingness to interfere in markets is a deeply conservative (small ‘c’) set of ideas. Her care policy is controversial and may even be wrong, but there are mounting problems in this area for which no political party has yet devised a convincing answer.  

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Why is The Spectator commissioning biased articles about Northern Ireland?

The Spectator is Britain’s most recognisable conservative magazine.  Despite reflecting a range of opinion on the EU during the referendum campaign, it finally articulated the case that the UK should leave.  

It’s all the more puzzling then, that the magazine’s latest articles about Northern Ireland have amounted to little more than nationalist opinion pieces, launching patchily argued attacks on Brexit and the Conservative Party.  

Recent Spectator content on Northern Ireland has been commissioned from a freelance journalist called Siobhan Fenton.  Previously, she apparently spent a spell as a ‘parliamentary assistant based in Belfast’.  In her biography, she doesn’t reveal which party she worked for.  She now contributes prolifically to The Guardian, The Independent and the New Statesmen, where hostility to unionism is not uncommon, but The Spectator is more surprising.

It’s not illegitimate or even undesirable to write with a political slant, but, especially when your articles are presented as features or analysis, they’re expected at least to aspire to explain different points of view and reflect a version of reality that is recognisable.

A brief look at some of her recent work shows that Ms Fenton is not bound by these constraints.  
Her latest piece for The Spectator reports that Theresa May received a hostile reception during a visit to the Balmoral Show, just outside Belfast.  The author bases her assertion, not on eyewitness accounts, still less upon her own attendance at the show, but rather on an aggressive press release from John O’Dowd of Sinn Fein, that accused the prime minister of ‘breathtaking arrogance’ for visiting Northern Ireland.

Think about that for a moment.  The public mood in Northern Ireland was gauged by citing a vicious, anti-British diatribe from a republican politician.  It might pass for journalism in An Phoblacht, or even the Morning Star, but in a reputable conservative journal?

At almost the same time, Ms Fenton floated the idea in the New Statesman that the forthcoming General Election will see a ‘Sinn Fein surge’, with the party returning more MPs than the DUP.  Not a single credible political commentator in Northern Ireland, and few less than credible political commentators, would suggest that such a result result is a realistic possibility.  

The DUP has twice as many representatives at Westminster as Sinn Fein currently.  It’s highly improbable that Ms Fenton really believes herself that this scenario could happen, which renders her piece either wishful thinking or propaganda.

Indeed, to back up her claim, she conjures up a strange netherworld where ‘soft unionists’ vote for John FInucane, a lawyer from a notorious IRA family, in North Belfast.  She also says that the sitting MP in East Belfast, Gavin Robinson, is “likely to lose” to Alliance leader, Naomi Long.  

Even the most cursory working knowledge of Northern Ireland politics exposes the first statement as transparent nonsense and the second as highly contentious.  Long has a chance of winning the seat, but the bravest pundit wouldn’t say it’s likely.  

Freelance journalism is a tough trade, which requires a lot of work for sometimes derisory financial rewards.  I’m very loathe to attack anyone’s efforts to make a living by explaining Northern Ireland to readers in a national media where our issues are infrequently discussed.  

However, the fact that Siobhan Fenton has managed to pass off such ignorant, badly researched, transparently biased material to editors, particularly at a pro-Union magazine like The Spectator, is an indictment of their coverage of Northern Ireland.  

It’s not like there is a dearth of informed, thoughtful comment about Northern Ireland, if The Spectator and other media cared to commission it.  Ruth Dudley Edwards has written frequently for the magazine.  John Bew is a Northern Irish academic who contributes to the New Statesman and other outlets.  Newton Emerson, Eilis O’Hanlon, Alex Kane and Malachi O’Doherty all write well about Northern Ireland, from different perspectives.  There are many others.

I don’t like to perpetuate the notion that ‘they don’t care about Northern Ireland’ which often seems to colour our attitude toward the rest of the UK.  We’re a ridiculously touchy, self-absorbed little place at times, that consistently ignores its relative size and overestimates its own importance.  Still, I’d expect the editorial team of a national current affairs magazine to pick up on some of the subtleties of our politics, if it’s interested enough to run articles on the topic in the first place.

Unless The Spectator has made a conscious decision to present, unchallenged, a contentious slant, it’s recent commissioning decisions reflect apparent indifference to the quality of its coverage of Northern Ireland. The same is true of other outlets. I think we should expect better, because too many articles lately have presented a highly eccentric interpretation of this place, that few people who live here recognise.

Monday, 15 May 2017

Devolution in Northern Ireland has been a dismal failure.

When should we admit that devolution in Northern Ireland has so far been a dismal failure?    Even when the power-sharing Executive operated, it rarely legislated and refused to tackle the most pressing problems afflicting our society and economy.  
Twenty years after the IRA renewed its ceasefire, is it still enough that bombs don’t explode regularly on our streets?   Maybe the latest political crisis should be the point at which we finally insist upon a system of government that gets things done.
The Good Friday Agreement launched a process intended to build a peaceful and successful Northern Ireland.  The institutions it established were supposed to develop into a functioning local government, capable of taking decisions about health, education, the budget and other aspects of policy that comprise ‘normal politics’.
Perhaps even more importantly, power-sharing was supposed to create a ‘shared’ Northern Ireland, where the social and financial costs of segregation were drastically reduced.  The Agreement specified that the Executive was obliged to encourage integrated education and mixed housing, for instance.
None of this has happened remotely convincingly.   
The most difficult policy decisions are either deferred - like reforming the health service, solving the 11-plus impasse and rebalancing the economy, or become part of Stormont’s regular crises - like devolving policing and justice, implementing welfare reform and dealing with the past.  Rather than pursuing integration, the devolved Executive has actually magnified differences between identities and elevated them into a kind of fetish.
After the St Andrews’ accord in 2007, the Hillsborough negotiations on policing and justice, the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and the ironically titled ‘Fresh Start’ of 2015 it’s both staggering and drearily predictable that the parties are in another round of talks aimed at getting power-sharing started again.  The RHI green energy scandal that prompted the crisis has been practically forgotten, while Sinn Fein focuses on its ever shifting shopping-list of demands.
That party is particularly addicted to set-pieces, because its political strategy is dependent upon nurturing disenchantment and instability.  It showed formidable cynicism and hypocrisy when it collapsed the Executive.  
Republicans certainly tell bare-faced lies about the past, in order to legitimise their twisted version of what happened in the Troubles and their notion of ‘equality’ is just an just underhand way of attacking Northern Ireland’s constitutional position.  Yet the DUP showed little cunning in dealing with such slippery, dishonest opponents, allowing them to drag everything from Brexit to gay marriage into a dispute about boilers.      
This is the way business gets done in Northern Ireland and the pattern is reinforced by the involvement of both the British and Irish governments in negotiations.  Meanwhile, because the Executive did not agreed a budget for this financial year, public services face cuts, as civil servants do not have the same freedom to take far-reaching decisions as elected representatives.
That could be devastating for Northern Ireland’s health service, which is already creaking, thanks to successive ministers’ failures to implement badly needed reforms.  Schools here also expect to lose 2.5% of their funding.  Yet the parties who won’t get back to work continue to blame civil servants and the British government.
The self-importance of some politicians at Stormont has been indulged for far too long.  They shouldn’t need to be constantly cajoled and appeased to get them to do their jobs.  If they won’t take responsibility for governing Northern Ireland, then devolved powers will have to return to Westminster.  Perhaps the Assembly could retain some kind of consultative role at the committee stage of legislation, though only if its wages and expenses were pruned drastically.
Alternatively, the government might refuse to facilitate any more talks or elections until the parties agree to discuss serious reform of the Assembly.  At a minimum, the opposition needs seriously beefed up powers.  
The parties could be offered three choices after the Westminster election has taken place and talks resume, either go back to work now without any preconditions, accept important reforms to make Stormont operate better or face direct rule immediately.  
If there isn’t agreement on developing the devolved institutions and if there were a lengthy spell of direct rule, some of the long-standing problems with the health service, education and rebalancing the economy might finally be addressed.  The local parties have proved incapable of taking difficult or potentially unpopular decisions and until there is evidence that they’re prepared to be more responsible, power-sharing is a meaningless sham.