Why isn't David Cameron telling unionists to get back to work?

Northern Ireland is in crisis. The Prime Minister needs to knock some heads together, says Kevin Meagher. 

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Let’s just recap what’s happened in Northern Ireland over the past month. The entire political system has been plunged into chaos after a senior ex-IRA figure, Kevin McGuigan, was shot dead. The Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton, suggested that former members of the IRA probably killed him in a long-running feud (after McGuigan was himself suspected of killing another former Provisional commander, “Jock” Davison, earlier in the year).

Yet, the chief constable was clear: this did not mean the organisation was operational or indeed sanctioned the killing (an important caveat). Indeed, no-one believes the Provisional IRA is now much more than an old pals’ association and this explanation had seemed good enough for Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers.

Then, spotting an opportunity to surf a wave of synthetic outrage, the Ulster Unionist Party withdrew its representative from the cross-community Northern Ireland Executive a fortnight ago, claiming it would not work with Sinn Fein if the IRA was still active. Had they understood the Chief Constable’s important distinction? It appears not.

Intra-unionist party rivalries being what they are, this move put the frighteners on the ruling Democratic Unionists who at first indicated that they would not bow to unsubstantiated allegations about who killed McGuigan, but yesterday did just that.

Their change of heart came after three leading republicans, including Sinn Fein’s ‘six county party chair’ Bobby Storey and two other men were arrested in connection with McGuigan’s killing earlier this week. Then, last night, the entire basis of the unionist walk-out itself walked out of an Antrim police station. All three men were released without charge or condition. Indeed, Storey’s lawyer is now threatening to sue the PSNI for wrongful arrest.

So, it’s all sorted then and everyone can get back to work? This would be the logical conclusion to an increasingly bizarre episode: A crisis, founded on unproven allegations, resting on a tawdry factional row between the two main unionist parties, hedging for political advantage ahead of next May’s assembly elections. But having marched their troops to the top of the moral high ground, unionists now don’t want to come down.

But David Cameron can’t allow them to camp up there. The days of the “unionist veto” stymieing political progress in Northern Ireland should be long gone. Sinn Fein sits in the executive on the basis of its electoral mandate and this deserves to be upheld. More practically, pandering to Peter Robinson’s theatrics leads nowhere.

By all means, return to the issue if members of Sinn Fein are arrested, prosecuted and convicted. But all the party can be expected to do right now is denounce the killers of Davison and McGuigan and suggest anyone with information contacts the police. Precisely what it’s Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has done.  

Despite accepting the IRA is not an issue any longer, Theresa Villiers has shown she can’t shape the game either at Stormont or in Whitehall. This means Cameron, who prefers to distance himself from Northern Ireland’s goings on, will need to sort out this mess himself, or get someone to do it for him.

Perhaps Iain Duncan-Smith can get Atos to carry out a return to work assessment on Peter Robinson?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.