Who governs the ungovernable?

02 March 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

Now that the unexpected Assembly election nears its close, let us explore the possible next steps by the key players.

Assuming a near status quo result, perhaps with a slightly more than proportionate dip in DUP representation than the reduction to five seats per constituency would require, all eyes will be on the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, James Brokenshire MP. It is his job to convene talks, probably from Monday 6 March, probably in Stormont House, but possibly in Hillsborough Castle for reasons of status and taking the process away from Stormont estate.

Then the DUP and Sinn Féin leaderships will come in with their pre-conditions (‘everything is a negotiation’, remember); Sinn Féin will challenge the Secretary of State as a neutral facilitator and demand a ‘respected international figure’. Sinn Féin has also spoken of DUP leader Arlene Foster as an unacceptable nominee for First Minister.

Meanwhile, DUP representatives will play up the need for an early return, to save the economy and provide stability for business. The Irish government, however, distracted by its own internal Fine Gael (and wider coalition) turmoil, will stake a claim, as will the other Northern Ireland parties, keen for visibility and a slice of the negotiating action. The Americans? Probably not.

Some eyes will be on the sensitive Department of Justice portfolio, especially if independent incumbent Claire Sugden fails to win re-election.

Beyond these considerations, civil society will be noisy with intense pressure on the politicians to ‘Make It Work’ again, to bring a return to devolution and set a budget, to unblock funding streams and reactivate the visionary Programme for Government.

We all know the first deadline comes after a week, when an Assembly Speaker must be elected by the House (itself no mean feat in light of the controversy over Robin Newton’s tenure), followed by two weeks in which ministers and a Programme for Government must be agreed. This could prove a tall order indeed, given the trust and respect issues that caused the election, leaving aside the arguments over the Chair of the Talks and the DUP’s leadership choices. During all this, remember, too, that the parties will be nursing the bruises of a ‘brutal’ election, the unexpected but inevitable electoral loss of former colleagues, and the shock of their grassroots at the unfolding dramas.

A fork in the road is reached if no deal is done by the time that the Alliance Party happens to convene its annual conference on 25th March. Will Mr Brokenshire call a second election, as the rules require? Or will he bow to the pressure for stability, moving to reintroduce suspension and direct rule legislation, despite the same having been repealed as part of the outworkings of the St Andrews Agreement?

There is a credible argument to allow the law to run its course and to move to a further election. Voter outrage may deliver a different result. In spite of party and candidate horror at the thought of a further round of Easter door knocking and expensive posters and leaflets, that is the democratic route to follow, some will argue. Better to vote than to control from afar?

Alternatively, the fiscal pressures will be at boiling point – the Regional Rate has not been set, so no rates bills can be issued or collected; and without an Assembly Budget, the Finance Permanent Secretary can only spend 75 per cent, without any direction or prioritisation.

There will be secondary-service redundancies across the voluntary and community sector, and in private suppliers of services for education, health, roads, agriculture and so on. The country will grind to a form of halting austerity never experienced before. Who wins from this?