Is this the beginning of the end for devolution in Northern Ireland?

To reconvene the moribund British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference after 11 years shows the government knows it’s in the last chance saloon.

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Throughout the 16-month stalemate at Stormont, the Irish government has been adamant that it won’t accept direct rule of Northern Ireland from Westminster. 

Leo Varadkar, the taoiseach, has said that Dublin expects “real and meaningful involvement” should devolution fail to be restored. Northern nationalists advocate some form of joint authority. 

Neither expectation is going to be met by the British government when – and it is increasingly looking like a when, not an if – it has to introduce some form of direct rule. But whatever emerges must been seen to have some Irish dimension. 

Last month I asked a senior official in the Irish foreign ministry what might be acceptable. The very least, they said, would be the revival of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, a moribund bilateral body set up under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

The conference last met in the months before Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness entered government together in 2007. Though it gives Dublin consultative input into non-devolved matters affecting Northern Ireland, it has been dismissed as a talking shop by the DUP and, privately at least, some British officials can sometimes be heard agreeing with them. 

Why, then, has Karen Bradley decided to reconvene it after 11 years? Last night Simon Coveney, the Irish foreign minister, confirmed it would meet in London next month. 

The government has long resisted calls from Dublin and nationalists to do so. That it has now reflects that it is in the last chance saloon as far as restoring devolution goes. The ugly deficiencies of its current strategy – maintaining the fiction that Stormont is returning and leaving civil servants to run things without any ministerial direction – are becoming clearer. 

Last week Northern Ireland lost the right to hold the 2021 Commonwealth Youth Games in the absence of ministers to sign off funding. In a bizarre inversion of the normal processes of government, Bradley urged parties in Northern Ireland to lobby the head of its civil service to release funding. It is a sign of things to come. This will only happen more, and on more important issues such as health and education, if the government continues to neglect its duty to take strategic decisions. 

Where does it all go from here? There are two options: direct rule, or another round of talks aimed at restoring the executive. Arlene Foster’s recent efforts at detoxifying her public image – a gaelic football game here, an LGBT reception there – have stirred some optimism. But Sinn Fein is still sceptical: the headlines are not yet accompanied by a substantive change in position on the issues preventing the return of devolution, namely an Irish language act. 

Even if devolution is making its slow way back, ministerial decisions need to be taken now. In the event of direct rule both the British and Irish governments would need cover: the former for introducing it, the latter for it being introduced without the “real and meaningful” input from Dublin they demand. Should Sinn Fein return to the negotiating table, they will need cover too.

In these respects, the Intergovermental Conference is an ideal fig leaf. Exactly what it will cover is still unclear. The timing is nonetheless striking. The day before Coveney’s announcement, Theresa May told the Commons that she would visit Northern Ireland “in the next few weeks” – around the same timeframe as the conference is expected. Last time she visited Belfast, she did so with the aim of announcing the restoration of devolution. This time, it could be to start burying it.

Patrick Maguire is the New Statesman's political correspondent.