Could Direct Rule be the Answer to North's Problems?

This comment piece appeared in The Irish Times on Thursday 4 February. It was intended as an attempt to start a discussion about what needs to be done to move Northern Ireland forward. In it, I advocate a possible temporary return to direct rule as it existed during Stormont suspensions over the last decade. But it certainly got a few folks hackles up, judging by the vitriol in my inbox….

Politicians are often traduced for being out of touch with reality, but rarely has the charge rung so true as in Northern Ireland today.

Early last month, the North’s finance minister, Sammy Wilson, announced cuts in government spending totalling £367 million (€420 million) in the coming fiscal year. Since then the putative leaders of the Stormont Executive have spent the best part of a week and a half locked in discussions about policing and justice, parading and the Irish language. Not exactly core economic issues.

Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionists, the main protagonists in the protracted farce at Hillsborough, are playing gesture politics at a time when what is required is a bellyful of bread and butter.

But then again, in the three years since devolution was restored, neither party has proved particularly adroit at quotidian politics. In education, Sinn Féin’s Caitríona Ruane dedicated significant amounts of time and money to abolishing the controversial 11-plus exam. The move was highly divisive, bitterly opposed by unionists and ultimately futile: the transfer test for children from primary to secondary schools has been retained by a growing number of rebel grammar schools.

Ruane – or whoever inherits her portfolio if the current talks break down – is unlikely to be in a position to indulge such whims again. The education budget for next year has been slashed by more than £73.3 million. Over in Michael McGimpsey’s health department, the situation is even bleaker. Northern Ireland’s already understaffed health service is being asked to achieve spending reductions in the region of £113 million.

There is a relatively straightforward solution to the hole in the Executive’s budget – water charges. Unlike the rest of the United Kingdom, residents in Northern Ireland pay regional rates instead of council tax. At present, these rates are, on average, 50 per cent lower than in England. The introduction of water charges, which have been deferred for next year, would add an estimated £210 million to the treasury’s purse. Doubtless such a move would be met with resistance among sections of the electorate, but in times of crisis elected governments need to act collectively and decisively – two qualities absent among the squabbling Northern Executive.

There is, however, a large breach in Northern Irish society that cash alone will not solve and which neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have shown any willingness to address. Sectarianism remains a serious problem in many working-class communities: since the peace process started in 1994 the number of peace walls in Greater Belfast has trebled.

Remarkably, Northern Ireland currently has no anti-sectarian policy. It did – A Shared Future, which was launched by then direct rule minister, Des Browne MP in 2005 – but on reaching office in 2007 both Sinn Féin and the DUP decided to abandon the policy. Instead, a draft of a new strategy, Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, was circulated – and almost as quickly forgotten.

On leaving office last September, Hugh Orde, the outgoing chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, criticised both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness for their “lack of a coherent and credible strategy” for tackling sectarianism. Ruffled, Sinn Féin quickly published what was effectively a retitled, cut-and-paste version of Cohesion, Sharing and Integration, while the DUP responded by simply reissuing the original strategy.

One document, no matter how well intentioned, will not eradicate generations of sectarian division, but the coalition partners’ inability to even agree on a policy is indicative of the stasis that has gripped Stormont.

Of course, the current crisis is hardly unique in the intermittent history of the North’s devolved administration. In 2007, when Sinn Féin and the DUP argued over the various sections of the St Andrews Agreement in advance of Assembly elections, then secretary of state for Northern Ireland Peter Hain issued both parties with an ultimatum – reach agreement or face a return to direct rule.

Direct rule has long been used as a stick to threaten the North’s unruly devolved assembly, but perhaps the time has come to seriously consider it as an option.

Since devolution was restored in 2007, Northern Ireland has either stood still or gone backward in many areas. The bickering and brinkmanship that have characterised Stormont’s current incarnation have fuelled a growing apathy, especially in civil society. The North is not going back to the dark days of the Troubles, but neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have been able to articulate any coherent vision for the future.

Under direct rule, career politicians appointed from Westminster overseeing (reasonably) impartial civil servants would replace the present ineffective, bipartisan administration. The benefits of the switch are manifold: policies would be produced and actually enacted; water charges could be implemented, going some way to solving the North’s budget crisis; and, probably most importantly, Northern Ireland would finally be in a situation where decision-makers are no longer hamstrung by a divided Executive.

As the arguments continue to rage at Hillsborough, a return to direct rule – at least temporarily – might be the reality check that the North’s political classes need, and its general public deserve.