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28 August 2018

In a Northern Ireland without a government, things can only get worse

As Northern Ireland breaks Belgium’s record for time without a government, there is little new to say. 

By Patrick Maguire

What is left to say about the absence of a government in Northern Ireland? The impasse at Stormont, now into its 589th day, has equalled the record for time without a government set by Belgium in 2010. 

As the province takes up the mantle, there will be no official recognition: Guinness World Records have refused to accept its claim to the record on the grounds that Westminster’s power to legislate remains unchanged (if treated as a burden by ministers). 

The lack of a gong, or any formality, is appropriate. Northern Ireland’s slide into administrative inertia has been similarly marked by a lack of ceremony. To say Martin McGuinness set this in train when he resigned as deputy first minister and collapsed the power-sharing institutions last January would be to imply at least some degree of movement. 

The 19 long months that have passed since have instead been marked by a lack of it. Yes, Sinn Fein and the DUP continue to engage in juvenile clucking, blaming one another. The smaller parties are mere hurlers on the ditch, whining incontinently without access to a route to power or any ability to themselves create one. But with this sectarian zero-sum game having refused to enter an end phase for months, it is the British government who have assumed culpability. 

The British government is unwilling to codify the new normal as the record books are. It continues to derelict its duty to provide good government, instead indulging the fiction that devolution is coming back and playing legislative lender of last resort with visible reluctance. Civil servants run things after a nod and a wink, and then a shrug, from Westminster. Karen Bradley, the Northern Ireland Secretary, speaks as though her hands are tied, theatrically refusing to intervene in devolved matters regardless of the increasingly dire consequences. But she has bound them herself, and could untie them whenever she likes. 

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Not doing so is a conscious decision. And the long list of consequences for people in Northern Ireland is by now wearyingly familiar: the major strategic decisions untaken on infrastructure, health and education, the survivors of institutional abuse left without compensation, the lack of a voice on Brexit. Contrary to popular opinion, the Tories are not in the pocket of the DUP when it comes to governing Northern Ireland but at this point, a little craven servility to their demands for direct rule might actually help.

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Let’s be honest: none will be forthcoming. Bradley said last month that she will do only “what needs to be done”. Civil servants will keep staggering on the ever-narrowing path that the law allows them to, with the occasional intervention from Westminster. DUP MPs call it “a la carte direct rule”, which accords the process a bit too much dignity. It also ignores the fact that the government picks the same item from the menu every time: defer and damn the consequences, even as the backlog of intractable issues and cross-community distrust grows.

In 1990, one of Bradley’s predecessors, Peter Brooke, said Britain had “no selfish strategic or economic interest” in Northern Ireland. On current evidence, we can revise that to plain old “no interest”. Meanwhile, the selfish strategic interest of Sinn Fein and the DUP does not lie in restoring devolution. Should it come back, the past 589 days have merely laid the ground for yet more rank dysfunctionality. Things can only get worse.