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How no-deal Brexit makes direct rule nearly inevitable in Northern Ireland

A no-deal Brexit could spell the return of direct rule to Northern Ireland.

Boris Johnson met with DUP leader Arlene Foster during his visit to Belfast.
Boris Johnson met with DUP leader Arlene Foster during his visit to Belfast.

SINCE THE COLLAPSE of power sharing, UK politicians have been trying to avoid an explicit return to direct rule in Northern Ireland. Now, as the likelihood of a no-deal Brexit increases, it seems that their efforts might be in vain. 

The UK’s exit from the EU, set to take place on 31 October, might yet precipitate the formal suspension of the Northern Ireland assembly and the transfer of power from Belfast to Whitehall. 

Talk has turned to the prospect of direct rule after the UK government refused to rule out the possibility of introducing direct rule last week, while last month the UK think-tank the Institute of Government released a report about preparing for a no-deal Brexit that warned: “New legislation will be needed to introduce direct rule in Northern Ireland.”

In June, the House of Commons also voted to introduce same-sex marriage and abortion legislation for Northern Ireland if devolution isn’t restored by 21 October. At the time, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds said that it drove “a coach and horses through the principle of devolution”.

Limbo

In the years since the 2016 referendum, some consensus has emerged that Northern Ireland would be most vulnerable from Brexit – whether or not a deal is secured. 

The backdrop to this has been the lack of an executive and the defining parliamentary role the DUP took on since the 2017 UK general election, when it was needed to prop up the Conservative government. 

Even as far back as early 2018, then-Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Karen Bradley said that “things in Northern Ireland cannot simply remain in a state of limbo”. 

Yet that is how things have remained ever since, as Boris Johnson was reminded during his visit to Northern Ireland last week when he met with the five main political parties to discuss a potential return to power sharing. 

For the last two and a half years, civil servants have been doing the little they’re legally allowed to do to administer Northern Ireland, as the rest of the population watches and waits for Sinn Féin and the DUP to reach some kind of agreement. 

But now, with only a few months to go until Brexit and Johnson upping tensions with Ireland and the EU, the reality of no-deal is forcing the hand of politicians in London.

This has made direct rule – and all the historical and political baggage that entails – close to an inevitability. The reality, that Northern Ireland does not have the decision-making capacity to cope with the challenges of a no-deal Brexit, means that parliament is going to have to intervene.

Discussing Northern Ireland and Brexit, David Lidington, Theresa May’s de facto deputy, told a House of Commons committee last month that “decisions that might have to be taken would be of a much higher order and they would require much more explicit powers of direction”.

There would need to be either some new statute to give powers to the Secretary of State, or I think our feeling is that there would need to be something that involved Westminster, or we might need to have emergency legislation for Northern Ireland on more than one subject, depending upon the actual out-working of a no-deal exit.

Nothing so concrete has so far been admitted by Johnson or the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Julian Smith. 

The University of Liverpool’s Sean Haughey, who has studied Northern Ireland extensively, is not optimistic that direct rule can be avoided in the event of the UK crashing out of the EU. 

“What we have now is basically direct-rule lite – civil servants fixing the biggest leaks in the roof,” Haughey said. 

But once the devolved governments of the UK are forced to regulate for themselves the various areas formerly under the auspices of the EU, things will get slightly more complex. 

When it came to Northern Ireland, “it would break the civil service if they were expected to deal with these competences,” Haughey warned. 

“If it’s a no deal, direct rule becomes essential. It would be preferable to the situation we have at the present.”

Direct rule of Northern Ireland is not an alien concept – the last experience of it was in 2007, after disagreements between Sinn Féin and the DUP in 2002 produced several years of deadlock. Yet it still remains a controversial and unpopular move among nationalists in particular. 

Yet Haughey argues that, once the impact of no-deal is felt, pragmatism might trump principled opposition. “Direct rule is unpalatable, partly to nationalists, because we haven’t seen the consequences of Brexit.”

After 31 October, he predicts a “bottom-up” demand for direct rule. 

Boris Johnson visit to Northern Ireland Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald was critical of Boris Johnson during his Northern Ireland visit. Source: Liam McBurney/PA Wire/PA Images

Yet predictions are difficult, in part because “direct rule” can mean a variety of different things.

In previous incarnations of direct rule, all powers were transferred to London – but that doesn’t necessarily need to be the case. If the government wanted, it could retain some administrative power in some areas of the Northern Irish civil service, such as agriculture.

Good Friday Agreement

Even more questionable is whether a return to direct rule would undermine the Good Friday Agreement.

“Direct rule would itself be in breach of the Good Friday Agreement,” University College Dublin’s Professor Jennifer Todd warned. 

“You can’t go back to purely British rule,” Todd told TheJournal.ie, suggesting that one alternative might be a system of British-Irish management similar to the model reached under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement. 

But she warned that “relations between the governments and their very different priorities and projects don’t bode well for co-management”. 

For the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), some form of “joint authority” is the only option. 

Last week, the party’s deputy leader Nichola Mallon said: “The two traditions that share this island working together in our common interest. That cannot be served by British-only direct rule. Given the fact that the British government and Irish government are full co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, there must be an enhanced role for the Irish government.”

Yet as things stand, nothing is certain. And while neither the Irish government or the British government wanted to stand over the forced return of direct rule to Northern Ireland, they’re quickly running out of options. 

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