No P45s in Belfast

06 October 2017 - by Grainne

Speculation about the future gainful employment of cabinet members, which has increased after the Conservative Party conference, distracts us on this side of the Irish Sea for a short time at least.

The jubilant atmosphere within Labour, even with its undercurrent of dissent and bullying allegations, shows that success in politics is relative. Any observer would be forgiven for forgetting that Labour did, in fact, lose the election.

Northern Ireland politics, not known for its public displays of politeness, is looking and sounding very restrained indeed, compared to the internal divisions of both the Tories and Labour.

Our politics, well known for its unwavering support for party leaders – think Paisley and Adams – is somewhat subdued as a new generation of leaders – O’Neill, Foster, Eastwood, Swann and Long, who have all risen recently – start their leadership journeys facing individual challenges.  

The Sinn Féin leader in the north, Michelle O’Neill MLA, holds the unenviable task of following the political giant that was Martin McGuinness, without the lifelong partnership shared between him and Gerry Adams TD, who remains party president from the Irish Dáil.

Arlene Foster’s DUP may hold the balance of power at Westminster but her most recent Assembly electoral campaign, in March, displayed shades of Theresa May. For Colum Eastwood, the Derry-based leader of the SDLP, the loss of all three MPs in June represented a blow both politically and financially, and may well shape his thoughts when it comes to discussions about the return of the smaller parties to any Northern Ireland Executive, or even a possible merger with Fianna Fáil from the South.

The same applies to the UUP’s Robin Swann. The loss of Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan as MPs, alongside their accompanying Westminster allowances, may make membership of a five-party Executive more appealing.

Looking to Alliance Party leader Naomi Long, her personal appeal is significant but her challenge will be to translate that into an appetite for minority seats in a domineering government. 

With the interim Head of the Civil Service, David Sterling, and his team of permanent secretaries valiantly keeping our public services functioning for the last 10 months, with no political guidance, Secretary of State James Brokenshire MP has, in his own understated way, been doing the same.

In providing the space and time needed for the parties, Brokenshire has come in for heavy criticism by some for not issuing MLAs with their P45s and introducing direct rule. While a sense of frustration is understandable, we should be careful what we ask for. Just like the Tories and Theresa May, sometimes ‘steady as she goes’ might yet prove to be the best option in stormy waters.

This article was first published on Public Affairs Networking