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Has Theresa May turned her back on Northern Ireland?

A new devolution settlement is now as good as impossible before June - and a bruising Brexit election won't help either. 

As U-turns go, Prime Minister Theresa May’s decision to call an early election was a spectacular one. In one respect, however, it was a move entirely consistent with a defining feature of her premiership - Northern Ireland is at the bottom of her list of priorities. Before May's statement, there was some wildly misguided speculation that it would offer some solution to the impasse at Stormont – such as a return to direct rule. June’s election will do anything but.

"It shows you how much Theresa May thinks/cares about our peace process that she'd call an election in the middle of talks". That was the verdict of Social Democratic and Labour Party leader Colum Eastwood - and it's  difficult to disagree with the sentiment. For all her insistence that now is not the time to play political games, May has plunged Northern Ireland into yet more political uncertainty for the sake of a Westminster one. 

Despite her close relationship with Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire, it’s clear that this decision was May’s and May’s alone. That a senior source at Northern Ireland Office told me they had “no idea” what the prime minister was about to announce this morning suggests this possibility wasn’t on Brokenshire’s radar until Cabinet met. He had, after all, extended the deadline for the latest round of power-sharing talks for a third time just last week, and has since said that talks will continue and that the election will not change the timetable.

But the chances of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party reaching a settlement by May were already very, very slim, and can now be taken as basically non-existent. The practicalities of holding talks in the middle of a general election campaign aside, both parties have good reason to push for another Assembly election – recent voter registration drives from both suggest their long game is to do just that – and as such were already unwilling to expend political capital reaching a messy compromise. 

This is even truer now. With the talks are as good as written off, another rancorous orange-on-green election of the type we saw in March is likely to follow. Free from coalition-building obligations at Stormont, Sinn Fein and the DUP can play mercilessly to their electoral bases again (casting further doubt on the prospects of long-term cooperation). Though Gerry Adams said on Sunday that a “new, generous unionist approach will be embraced and met with generosity from Sinn Fein and other progressives”, the weeks ahead will instead invite – and necessitate – electoral pugilism.

It is easy to assume that general elections in Northern Ireland are siloed from campaigns in mainland Britain. Not so this time. The DUP's close association with the Conservatives, and the likelihood that the Conservatives will attack both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell for their steadfast support of Sinn Fein and alleged IRA sympathies, means that electioneering pitched at middle England will feed into the culture wars that still dominate Northern Ireland's politics. The province's troubled past remains a live issue and continues to disrupt the business of devolved government. Attacking Corbyn with the Lynton Crosby playbook will do nothing to defuse it.

Things are further complicated circumstances of May’s ascension to the premiership - via Brexit - and her need to seek a mandate of her own. The DUP – more enthusiastic cheerleaders for May's premiership than much of her own party – backed Leave, against the wishes of 56 per cent of the Northern Irish electorate, and suffered at the polls as a result. They may well do so again - seats that would have otherwise been winnable, such as SDLP-held South Belfast (where Alasdair McDonnell is defending a majority of 906), are now probably unlikely to fall. By the same token, they now face the very real prospect of losing marginals such as East Belfast and Fermanagh and South Tyrone (won back by the Ulster Unionist Party under a unionist pact in 2015) to the Alliance and Sinn Fein respectively.

Perversely, however, the existential questions thrown up around the union by Brexit – and Sinn Fein’s repeated calls for a border poll – will likely ensure that 8 June is a much better day at the office for unionism than 2 March.

The nationalist vote in March was boosted both by Brexit and what’s best described as the crocodile effect – a sectarian reaction to Arlene Foster’s belligerence towards the nationalist community. There is every reason to believe that, with Irish unity on the agenda like never before, and Adams leading the Sinn Fein line, that the unionist cause will receive a "reverse crocodile" boost in June (a number of DUP MPs have told me they expect this to happen). Co-operation between the DUP and UUP delivered several gains in 2015 and will allow for consolidation of the unionist vote. Similarly, while formal pacts between Sinn Fein and the SDLP won’t happen, the Brexit factor will likely ensure tactical nationalist voting secures their three seats.  

There remains one factor that could substantially complicate the picture: another Assembly election. Among early reaction from Westminster was the suggestion that, with power-sharing talks untenable, an emboldened Sinn Fein could now demand a new Stormont poll for the same day as the general. It is doubtful that the UUP – struggling for relevance and reduced to just 10 seats in March – would cooperate with the DUP while attempting to claw back support from them on another front. The SDLP and UUP's unspoken alliance at the Assembly election is also worth bearing in mind. A united unionist front is far from a foregone conclusion.

Beyond this, there remains the fundamental question of whether the 18 Northern Irish MPs will matter very much in the next parliament at all. While the Conservatives’ slender post-2015 majority has allowed the DUP’s eight MPs to wield outsized influence at Wesminster, May will have little need to court them come June. This throws up intriguing questions about Brokenshire’s future. Parliamentary arithmetic has necessitated a close relationship between the government and DUP; doing so has meant the secretary of state has exhausted the trust and goodwill of many nationalist politicians.

Brokenshire is deemed out of his depth by the Stormont establishment and by an increasing number of his own party. Should the Tories win a landslide, the DUP management aspect of his role will have disappeared – but questions over his supposed partiality, justified or not, will still remain. His continued presence could prove a barrier to a new settlement after the election - at which point Northern Ireland will have been without a devolved executive for almost six months. The government are loth to give Sinn Fein a scalp. But with a transition to direct rule by stealth already in train, could he be replaced come a victory reshuffle?

Patrick Maguire writes about politics and is the 2016 winner of the Anthony Howard Award.

Photo: Getty
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The UK press’s timid reaction to Brexit is in marked contrast to the satire unleashed on Trump

For the BBC, it seems, to question leaving the EU is to be unpatriotic.

Faced with arguably their biggest political-cum-constitutional ­crisis in half a century, the press on either side of the pond has reacted very differently. Confronting a president who, unlike many predecessors, does not merely covertly dislike the press but rages against its supposed mendacity as a purveyor of “fake news”, the fourth estate in the US has had a pretty successful first 150-odd days of the Trump era. The Washington Post has recovered its Watergate mojo – the bloodhound tenacity that brought down Richard Nixon. The Post’s investigations into links between the Kremlin and Donald Trump’s associates and appointees have yielded the scalp of the former security adviser Michael Flynn and led to Attorney General Jeff Sessions recusing himself from all inquiries into Trump-Russia contacts. Few imagine the story will end there.

Meanwhile, the New York Times has cast off its image as “the grey lady” and come out in sharper colours. Commenting on the James Comey memo in an editorial, the Times raised the possibility that Trump was trying to “obstruct justice”, and called on Washington lawmakers to “uphold the constitution”. Trump’s denunciations of the Times as “failing” have acted as commercial “rocket fuel” for the paper, according to its CEO, Mark Thompson: it gained an “astonishing” 308,000 net digital news subscriptions in the first quarter of 2017.

US-based broadcast organisations such as CNN and ABC, once considered slick or bland, have reacted to Trump’s bullying in forthright style. Political satire is thriving, led by Saturday Night Live, with its devastating impersonations of the president by Alec Baldwin and of his press secretary Sean Spicer by the brilliant Melissa McCarthy.

British press reaction to Brexit – an epic constitutional, political and economic mess-up that probably includes a mind-bogglingly destructive self-ejection from a single market and customs union that took decades to construct, a move pushed through by a far-right faction of the Tory party – has been much more muted. The situation is complicated by the cheerleading for Brexit by most of the British tabloids and the Daily Telegraph. There are stirrings of resistance, but even after an election in which Theresa May spectacularly failed to secure a mandate for her hard Brexit, there is a sense, though the criticism of her has been intense, of the media pussy-footing around a government in disarray – not properly interrogating those who still seem to promise that, in relation to Europe, we can have our cake and eat it.

This is especially the case with the BBC, a state broadcaster that proudly proclaims its independence from the government of the day, protected by the famous “arm’s-length” principle. In the case of Brexit, the BBC invoked its concept of “balance” to give equal airtime and weight to Leavers and Remainers. Fair enough, you might say, but according to the economist Simon Wren-Lewis, it ignored a “near-unanimous view among economists that Brexit would hurt the UK economy in the longer term”.

A similar view of “balance” in the past led the BBC to equate views of ­non-scientific climate contrarians, often linked to the fossil-fuel lobby, with those of leading climate scientists. Many BBC Remainer insiders still feel incensed by what they regard as BBC betrayal over Brexit. Although the referendum of 23 June 2016 said nothing about leaving the single market or the customs union, the Today presenter Justin Webb, in a recent interview with Stuart Rose, put it like this: “Staying in the single market, staying in the customs union – [Leave voters would say] you might as well not be leaving. That fundamental position is a matter of democracy.” For the BBC, it seems, to question Brexit is somehow to be unpatriotic.

You might think that an independent, pro-democratic press would question the attempted use of the arcane and archaic “royal prerogative” to enable the ­bypassing of parliament when it came to triggering Article 50, signalling the UK’s departure from the EU. But when the campaigner Gina Miller’s challenge to the government was upheld by the high court, the three ruling judges were attacked on the front page of the Daily Mail as “enemies of the people”. Thomas Jefferson wrote that he would rather have “newspapers without a government” than “a government without newspapers”. It’s a fair guess he wasn’t thinking of newspapers that would brand the judiciary as “enemies of the people”.

It does seem significant that the United States has a written constitution, encapsulating the separation and balance of powers, and explicitly designed by the Founding Fathers to protect the young republic against tyranny. When James Madison drafted the First Amendment he was clear that freedom of the press should be guaranteed to a much higher degree in the republic than it had been in the colonising power, where for centuries, after all, British monarchs and prime ministers have had no qualms about censoring an unruly media.

By contrast, the United Kingdom remains a hybrid of monarchy and democracy, with no explicit protection of press freedom other than the one provided by the common law. The national impulse to bend the knee before the sovereign, to obey and not question authority, remains strangely powerful in Britain, the land of Henry VIII as well as of George Orwell. That the United Kingdom has slipped 11 places in the World Press Freedom Index in the past four years, down to 40th, has rightly occasioned outrage. Yet, even more awkwardly, the United States is three places lower still, at 43rd. Freedom of the press may not be doing quite as well as we imagine in either country.

Harry Eyres is the author of Horace and Me: Life Lessons from an Ancient Poet (2013)

This article first appeared in the 20 July 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The new world disorder