Monday, January 15, 2018

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Acute Medicine Needed

A good dose of Direct Rule from Westminster would create a much more efficient devolved Stormont Assembly! So maintains controversial political commentator, Dr John Coulter, in his latest Fearless Flying Column today.

Like the terrible Ozzie flu sweeping many homes in Ireland, it can be medically crippling and in most cases needs some high-powered antibiotics and plenty of bed rest before the malaise finally leaves the human system.

Sound familiar in a political sense? The Irish body politic has been suffering for just over a year from the equally crippling Stormont flu which has laid low devolution, power-sharing, the peace process and battered the once unbreakable ‘Chuckle Brothers’ co-operation mentality into an unrecognisable shape.

So what is the acute medicine which Stormont requires if the centenary of partition is to be marked with the Northern Ireland parties running their own state once again? Northern moderate nationalists along with Sinn Fein want greater Dublin government input. That makes sense from a republican perspective. It gives traditional Southern-based parties, such as Fine Gael, the chance to ‘out green’ Sinn Fein in the hope of avoiding the nightmare which the DUP faced - having to share power at Stormont with the Provisional IRA’s political wing.

For Sinn Fein, its a clever move especially if Sinn Fein’s gamble is that it can clinch enough seats in the next Dail to force either of the ‘Big Two’ traditional parties - Fine Gael or Fianna Fail - into forming a coalition government with the militant republican party in Leinster House.

That would allow Sinn Fein - as a government party - to push for either a Dublin say in running Northern Ireland, or some form of joint authority. Why would you need an Assembly for Sinn Fein when as a government partner it can run the North from the corridors of Leinster House. Unless, of course, London decides - under joint authority or an upgraded British Irish Intergovernmental Conference - to fill the Northern Ireland Office with DUP MP Ministers.

And could this be the sequence which forces Sinn Fein to finally dump abstentionism of its Westminster seats, thereby allowing the party to challenge the DUP for ministerial posts in the NIO. That would give Sinn Fein two bites at the Northern Ireland cherry - Sinn Fein TDs as part of the Southern government, and Sinn Fein MPs as part of the NIO.

So how can this Sinn Fein master plan be avoided? The solution - a good dose of Westminster Direct Rule laced with copious helpings of austerity (unless, of course, the DUP can persuade its Tory allies on the Government benches that the multi-billion pound Conservative/DUP cash package can be included in any Direct Rule scheme to ease the pain of austerity and cuts.

Already, Unionist politicians have been suggesting Direct Rule is the only way forward. This suits the DUP as Sinn Fein doesn’t take it Commons seats - yet - and the Dodds-led team at Westminster can claim the victory on any economic boost for Northern Ireland.

The UUP, although it has taken considerable batterings in recent polls at the hands of the DUP, needs to get in on the negotiations to bring back devolved government by campaigning for the terms of the Good Friday Agreement to be reinstated regarding the posts of First and deputy First Minister.

Under the Belfast Agreement of 1998, it was the largest designation - unionist or nationalist - which claimed that honour. But as a result of the 2006 St Andrews Agreement, the DUP conceded this to Sinn Fein that it was the largest party which now holds the First Minister’s post.

But this has come close to backfiring on the DUP as the snap 2017 Assembly poll saw Sinn Fein breathing down the necks of the DUP in terms of votes and seats.

If the UUP can get the ‘designation’ rule restored for any new Assembly after Direct Rule, it has a chance of surviving as a relevant party in Northern Ireland. There is the real danger that as the two communities steadily return Northern Ireland politics to a two-party system (the DUP and Sinn Fein), other parties - with the exception of Alliance which dominates the centre ground - will simply end up in the dustbin of history. Another Stormont poll where the Orange and Green voter cards are played heavily by the DUP and Sinn Fein could see both the UUP and SDLP returning to a future Assembly with less seats than Alliance.

During periods of political stability in Northern Ireland since the formation of the state, it was a two-party state: the pro-Union community had The Unionist Party; the pro-united Ireland community had The Nationalist Party, with occasional electoral flurries from the so-called centre represented by the Northern Ireland Labour Party.

To avoid this scenario, the UUP and SDLP must campaign for a return to the Good Friday Agreement ruling which saw both parties lay claim to the top posts as a result of the 1998 Assembly poll. Failing this, the UUP will have no other choice than to merge with the DUP to form one movement simply known as The Unionist Party, and the SDLP will have to merge with either of the Southern ‘Big Two’ - Fine Gael or Fianna Fail.

The other scenario is that Northern Ireland - when it does get a period of Direct Rule - finds that the state is being run by Tory ministers from Westminster. As with the previous spell of Direct Rule, this will see decisions made on health, education and roads by unelected ministers from mainland Britain. 

Perhaps the inevitable austerity unleashed by the Tories on Northern Ireland via Direct Rule would be the exact shock treatment which the Northern Ireland parties require to kick start a form of devolution, which would be even more secure than the decades of the original Stormont Parliament.

Likewise, a return to the ‘designation’ rule of 1998 could guarantee the survival of moderate nationalism in the form of a merged SDLP/Fine Gael, and a revamped ‘radical moderates’ Ulster Unionist Party. Very, Very, VERY bitter medicine it may be, but in the long term, Direct Rule may well prove to be the solution which ultimately sees the eventual return of an even more stable power-sharing Stormont Executive than experienced during both the Trimble/Mallon and ‘Chuckle Brothers’ eras.


John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 

John Coulter is also author of ‘An Sais Glas: (The Green Sash): The Road to National Republicanism’, which is available on Amazon Kindle.


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