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Even without a Tory-DUP deal, power-sharing in Northern Ireland looks doomed

The UK government's potential confidence and supply arrangement could well suit Sinn Fein as well as it suits the DUP.

With the DUP in negotiations to prop up a minority Conservative government, focus has drifted from the other set of talks the party is engaged in: those aimed at restoring the Northern Irish executive, which collapsed in February and still looks a very long way from restoration. James Brokenshire, who has kept his job as Northern Ireland secretary, has set a "final and immovable" deadline of June 29 for a deal. 

In some respects the deal is nothing new. Many of those tuning into Northern Irish politics for the first time are asking whether the deal undermines the government’s ability to act as a neutral arbiter in the talks to come.

As far as most politicians at Stormont are concerned, that question was settled some months ago: it can’t.

In the last parliament the government relied on the DUP’s eight votes to insulate itself against the whims of its more mutinous backbenchers. That fact was enough to create an abiding impression at Stormont that James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, is a biased and partisan mediator. Though Irish foreign minister Charlie Flanagan argued this morning that the Tories’ confidence and supply deal need not necessarily compromise Brokenshire, it is ultimately the perception that matters.

So the prospect of a formalised deal between May and the unionists is, in the immediate term at least, a boon for Sinn Fein (who, as the largest nationalist party in Northern Ireland, must enter coalition with the DUP).

It is no surprise that Gerry Kelly, a senior assembly member, told reporters today that the party was unconcerned by their rivals' support for the incoming government. Sinn Fein's ability to play hardball in the power-sharing talks of recent months – which notionally resume tomorrow – has depended on their ability to cast Arlene Foster as the sole author of the executive’s collapse and the stalemate that followed. This arrangement will allow them to do so. 

The republicans are playing a high stakes game: they know the mandate they won in March’s snap assembly election, which saw the unionist parties lose their overall majority for the first time ever, was as much a mandate to reject Stormont as it was to salvage it.

But Foster, whose refusal to resign over her role in the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal and reputation for truculence on issues such as equal marriage and legal recognition for the Irish language, is no longer an electoral millstone around her party’s neck. The DUP’s commanding general election performance proves that much. Having made two gains and increased its number of MPs to ten, it now holds a majority of Northern Irish MPs. Its rehabilitated leader has charted an emollient tack in recent months and now strikes conciliatory poses: first attending Martin McGuinness’ funeral (Foster’s father was shot by the IRA), then visiting an Irish-medium school.

These were not empty gestures, nor can they have been easy ones to make. But they were astute politically. Sinn Fein, which has claimed the DUP’s lack of “respect” makes reforming the executive near-impossible, risked looking like they were preventing the restoration of devolved government for the sake of empty grievances.

It has plenty of legitimate grievances now. Though Michelle O’Neill stressed earlier today that her party’s focus “remains on entering talks to re-establish an Executive that delivers for all on the basis of equality, respect and integrity”, the DUP-Tory pact will inevitably allow Sinn Fein to argue that goal is unachievable.

They are already emboldened: the party has called for Brokenshire to recuse himself from the coming talks in favour of an independent mediator, preferably from abroad. This is anathema to unionists – who resent the implication that Northern Ireland is anything other than an integral part of the UK – and Sinn Fein knows it. Legitimate though concerns over Brokenshire’s partiality are, Gerry Adams might as well ask for talks to be convened in Las Vegas.

Existing disagreements look set to be exacerbated too. A new settlement for dealing with unsolved Troubles cases remains an area of bitter, near-insoluble contention. On this issue Brokenshire has moved in lockstep with the DUP, who believe that existing investigations focus disproportionately on police and forces veterans.

Brokenshire has promised to make good on promises for a “victim-centred approach” to legacy issues but the influence of the DUP means the definition of victim is unlikely to be acceptable to Sinn Fein. So too the Tory manifesto, whose section on Northern Ireland promised “new bodies for addressing the legacy of the past in fair, balanced and proportionate ways which do not unfairly focus on former members of the Armed Forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary”.

Should the new government make this a priority – and there is every reason to believe it will – then there is little chance of Sinn Fein agreeing to serve in an executive. In February, Brokenshire told the Commons that he believed “that with hard work on all sides the outstanding areas of disagreement [on legacy issues] are bridgeable”. A situation whereby the government relies on the DUP to survive gives neither they nor Sinn Fein – the two sides that ultimately matter – much incentive to work very hard at all.

Yawning gaps on equal marriage, the Irish language, and the special post-Brexit status to which the DUP are opposed remain. For Sinn Fein to yoke itself to the facilitators of Tory government would look very bad indeed – especially with the prospect of a snap election in the Irish republic still very much alive. These are not new issues, but the Tories have injected them with renewed potency.

Now, as negotiations whose deadline has been extended four times already begin again, neither side has much incentive to make good on their promises to restore devolved government. And with James Brokenshire running out of options, Ulster's electors might yet face their fifth national election in a little over a year. Save for Sinn Fein and DUP gains at the expense of their smaller rivals - after Thursday all but wiped out at Westminster level - there are unlikely to be many winners.

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

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Hopes of an anti-Brexit party are illusory, but Remainers have a new plan to stay in the EU

Stopping Brexit may prove an impossible task. Remainers are looking to the "Article 49 strategy": reapplying for EU membership. 

The Remain campaign lost in the country, but it won by a landslide in parliament. On 23 June 2016, more than two-thirds of MPs voted for EU membership. Ever since the referendum, the possibility that parliament could thwart withdrawal, or at least soften it, has loomed.

Theresa May called an early general election in the hope of securing a majority large enough to neutralise revanchist Remainers. When she was denied a mandate, many proclaimed that “hard Brexit” had been defeated. Yet two months after the Conservatives’ electoral humbling, it appears, as May once remarked, that “nothing has changed”. The government remains committed not merely to leaving the EU but to leaving the single market and the customs union. Even a promise to mimic the arrangements of the customs union during a transition period is consistent with May’s pre-election Lancaster House speech.

EU supporters once drew consolation from the disunity of their opponents. While Leavers have united around several defining aims, however, the Remainers are split. Those who campaigned reluctantly for EU membership, such as May and Jeremy Corbyn, have become de facto Brexiteers. Others are demanding a “soft Brexit” – defined as continued single market membership – or at least a soft transition.

Still more propose a second referendum, perhaps championed by a new centrist party (“the Democrats” is the name suggested by James Chapman, an energetic former aide to George Osborne and the Brexit Secretary, David Davis). Others predict that an economic cataclysm will force the government to rethink.

Faced with this increasingly bewildering menu of options, the average voter still chooses Brexit as their main course. Though Leave’s referendum victory was narrow (52-48), its support base has since widened. Polling has consistently shown that around two-thirds of voters believe that the UK has a duty to leave the EU, regardless of their original preference.

A majority of Remain supporters, as a recent London School of Economics study confirmed, favour greater controls over EU immigration. The opposition of a significant number of Labour and Tory MPs to “soft Brexit” largely rests on this.

Remainers usually retort – as the Chancellor, Philip Hammond, put it – “No one voted to become poorer.” Polls show that, as well as immigration control, voters want to retain the economic benefits of EU membership. The problem is not merely that some politicians wish to have their cake and eat it, but that most of the public does, too.

For Remainers, the imperative now is to avoid an economic catastrophe. This begins by preventing a “cliff-edge” Brexit, under which the UK crashes out on 29 March 2019 without a deal. Though the Leave vote did not trigger a swift recession, a reversion to World Trade Organisation trading terms almost certainly would. Although David Davis publicly maintains that a new EU trade deal could swiftly be agreed, he is said to have privately forecast a time span of five years (the 2016 EU-Canada agreement took seven). A transition period of three years – concluded in time for the 2022 general election – would leave the UK with two further years in the wilderness without a deal.

A coalition of Labour MPs who dislike free movement and those who dislike free markets has prevented the party endorsing “soft Brexit”. Yet the Remainers in the party, backed by 80 per cent of grass-roots members, are encouraged by a recent shift in the leadership’s position. Although Corbyn, a Bennite Eurosceptic, vowed that the UK would leave the single market, the shadow Brexit secretary, Keir Starmer, and the shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have refused to rule out continued membership.

A group of Remainers from all parties met in the Labour MP Chuka Umunna’s office before recess, and they are hopeful that parliament will force the government to commit to a meaningful transition period, including single market membership. But they have no intention of dissolving tribal loyalties and uniting under one banner. A year after George Osborne first pitched the idea of a new party to Labour MPs, it has gained little traction. “All it would do is weaken Labour,” the former cabinet minister Andrew Adonis, a past Social Democratic Party member, told me. “The only way we can defeat hard Brexit is to have a strong Labour Party.”

In this febrile era, few Remainers dismiss the possibility of a second referendum. Yet most are wary of running ahead of public opinion. “It would simply be too risky,” a senior Labour MP told me, citing one definition of insanity: doing the same thing and expecting a different result.

Thoughtful Remainers, however, are discussing an alternative strategy. Rather than staging a premature referendum in 2018-19, they advocate waiting until the UK has concluded a trade deal with the EU. At this point, voters would be offered a choice between the new agreement and re-entry under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty. By the mid-2020s, Remainers calculate, the risks of Brexit will be clearer and the original referendum will be history. The proviso is that the EU would have to allow the UK re-entry on its existing membership terms, rather than the standard ones (ending its opt-outs from the euro and the border-free Schengen Area). Some MPs suggest agreeing a ten-year “grace period” in which Britain can achieve this deal – a formidable challenge, but not an impossible one.

First, though, the Remainers must secure a soft transition. If the UK rips itself from the EU’s institutions in 2019, there will be no life raft back to safe territory. The initial aim is one of damage limitation. But like the Leavers before them, the wise Remainers are playing a long game.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear