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Return to direct rule in Northern Ireland 'inevitable', says DUP's Sammy Wilson

The senior DUP MP hits out at Sinn Fein - and says his party will not allow Arlene Foster to stand down.

A return to direct rule in Northern Ireland is “inevitable” and there is “no chance” that negotiations between the DUP and Sinn Fein will produce a functioning executive within the three week deadline set by ministers, according to the senior DUP MP Sammy Wilson.

In an interview with the New Statesman, Wilson accused Sinn Fein – who won just one seat fewer than the DUP in last month’s snap assembly election – of being uncommitted to Northern Ireland’s devolution settlement, arguing the republicans’ red lines indicate they have no intention of forming a new executive.

Sinn Fein cut short power-sharing talks last week, having criticised Northern Ireland secretary James Brokenshire’s approach as “waffle, waffle, and more waffle”. Further cross-party talks reportedly collapsed moments before they were slated to resume on Tuesday night.

Wilson’s admission that talks at Stormont look destined for failure come days after Brokenshire threatened parties with the prospect of a third election in the space of twelve months should talks end in deadlock. Though Brokenshire maintains he is “not contemplating anything other than a return to devolved government”, East Antrim MP Wilson said Sinn Fein’s insistence that DUP leader Arlene Foster step aside made a deal between the two parties virtually impossible. 

“There is no chance of a settlement in three weeks,” he said. “The government has then got to make a decision: do they extend the talks period for a while or do they simply accept the inevitable and impose direct rule? I don’t think they can afford to extend the talks period for too long.”

While Sinn Fein have stipulated that they will not return to government while the scandal-hit Foster is still in post, Wilson said his party would “not allow” the former first minister to resign – and went on to claim Sinn Fein’s insistence that she did so revealed it was angling for a return to direct rule. “That kind of attitude is symptomatic where they are about devolution,” he said. “I don’t believe they’re serious about making devolution work again.

“They’re never going to say they want direct rule publicly, but the conditions they’ve laid down are an indication that they’re trying to ensure that they can blame any recriminations from their electorate on Arlene Foster.”

He added: “The one thing I am absolutely sure of is that no party is going to allow another party – and especially not a party which has sought to demonise their leader – to decide who their leader and ministers are going to be. Politicians should never accede to a demand from their opponents to rule someone out for a certain position and we will not do that.”

Wilson, a former Stormont finance minister, went on to say that Sinn Fein’s insistence on setting what were in his view unworkable red lines ahead of negotiations – chief among them Foster’s departure, an Irish language act and a new, independent body for dealing with outstanding Troubles cases – meant that the second election mooted by Brokenshire would exacerbate rather than resolve the impasse.

“I see no reason why Arlene would or should stand aside, and indeed I think it would be wrong for her to stand aside. But say she does: you’re still left with all of Sinn Fein’s other red lines,” he said. “The Irish language act, issues around the security forces and the past – all toxic in of themselves. Arlene stepping down would embolden them to push those issues as well. So it’ll be just as difficult – and perhaps even harder – to form an executive after a second election, especially if Sinn Fein’s vote goes down.”

With Sinn Fein running second in some polls in the Irish Republic - ahead of governing party Fine Gael - Wilson argued that a return to government in the North would undermine its anti-austerity platform. “I have no doubt that, since the elections in the Republic are in two years’ time, and because they’re riding quite high in the polls, they’re painting this picture of a promised land where you don’t have to make hard choices or have austerity. It’s convenient for them not to have to take decisions in Northern Ireland lest parties in the south point out they’re shutting hospitals, putting through a tough budget and compromising on Brexit – otherwise they’ll be branded hypocrites when they claim they’re against austerity in the republic and Gerry Adams would see his poll ratings slide very, very quickly." 

Wilson also predicted that in the event of a second election unionist parties would regain their overall majority at Stormont, which was lost for the first time in almost 100 years at last month’s election. Though the DUP’s election campaign has been much criticised in the press and by senior party figures including Ian Paisley Jr for its negative focus and relentless attacks on Sinn Fein, Wilson said the republicans’ approach to negotiations had vindicated his party’s decision and denied it had ran a “scare campaign", and accused the Northern Irish media of "hyping up" and "scandalising" the £500 million Renewable Heat Incentive scandal that brought the last executive down. 

“I don’t think the tactics were wrong,” he said. “We’d said that this was an election that was designed to bring Gerry Adams back onto the scene and that Sinn Fein had replaced Martin McGuinness with a puppet leader in the form of Michelle O’Neill – Gerry Adams was looking for someone who he could dominate. And that’s what’s happened subsequently, of course! Plenty of people have said that at press conferences she stands there like a nodding dog and he does all the talking, and the same is true of negotiations – he’s the one that’s taken the lead there.”

Wilson added he was yet to detect any open or private dissent against the DUP’s embattled leader, who on Saturday said her party was "not quite there yet" on whether it would nominate her for first minister. “Even if there were people who wanted that, I think they know that in the hothouse political climate in which we live at present that would cut your throat politically anyway,” he said. “If anything, people have been so incensed by the way that Arlene has been treated throughout the election and the unfair way that she and our position has been portrayed. We are even more determined to ensure she doesn’t step down.”

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

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.