Talks roundup: The DUP chooses Westminster over Stormont

At a debate in Hammersmith earlier this month, the Belfast Newsletter's Sam McBride predicted there would be no imminent deal to restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. After a bout of optimism last weekend, he has been proved right 

On Wednesday, DUP leader Arlene Foster pulled out of talks and called on the British Government to take over direct rule. 

The demise of the process put me in mind of something else that McBride said that night, about the DUP's pro-Brexit stance during the 2016 referendum.

There were people who didn’t want the party to take that clear line, very senior people around Arlene Foster. I think the truth is that even if the DUP leader herself had wanted to take a Remain line as the Ulster Unionists had done, that wouldn’t have been possible, because of the history of the DUP.  

Following this week's events, there are very clear questions over Foster's authority within her party. As RTE's Tommie Gorman reports in this video, the suggestion is that DUP negotiators reached a deal, only for hardliners including MPs to reject it.

Veteran journalist Eamonn Mallie reports:

The British and Irish governments genuinely believed a structure had been worked out by Sinn Fein and the DUP as a basis for the restoration of an Executive and Assembly.

The key DUP/Sinn Fein negotiators I am advised, had moved beyond discussion on the ‘accommodation’ and were at that stage addressing details about the restoration of an Executive and Assembly.

Former Sinn Fein assembly member Daithi McKay has questioned whether other parties can now do business with Foster. She is now only a member of a suspended assembly, which she appears to have given up on restoring. In marked contract, her parliamentary colleagues hold the balance of power at Westminster. Those MPs are long-standing DUP members, whereas Foster is a former Ulster Unionist. It is a very weak position for a leader who is also facing scrutiny at the RHI Inquiry.

One thing that may work in Foster's favour is the sheer reluctance of the British and Irish governments to contemplate alternatives to power-sharing.

The breakdown leaves Westminster with some acute problems. As The New Statesman's Stephen Bush writes:

What happens next? In all likelihood, the British government will persist with the idea that power-sharing is not dead for a while longer. Why? Because the legislative and institutional demands of Brexit already mean that the government's domestic agenda is largely non-existent. Now legislative time will have to be found to manage direct rule, putting further pressure on a stretched civil service and a majorityless government.

Another key issue is the position of the Irish Government, set out in the Dáil last November:

Mr Varadkar said he had told the prime minister, "that the Irish government could not accept a return to direct rule as it existed prior to the Good Friday Agreement".

He also said that under the Good Friday Agreement "if nothing's devolved then everything is devolved to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIGC)".

The BIGC consists of ministers from the British and Irish governments. It last met regularly during the period 2002 – 2007 when the Stormont Executive was suspended (Irish News, 22 Nov 2017).

Of course, during 2002-07, the British Government was not being propped up by the DUP. Nor was there a crunch point in British-Irish relations in the offing over Brexit, about which more in my next post.







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