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.             

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