London, UK – Speculation is mounting that the British government could impose a “direct rule” in Northern Ireland as the clock ticks towards a potential “no-deal” Brexit on October 31.
The move would suspend the troubled self-government that the region has exercised in fits and starts since a peace process resulted in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, ending violent communal strife.
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It would be a move that would likely be attacked by “nationalist” republicans who oppose British rule in the province, and will complicate the United Kingdom‘s already-strained relations with Dublin as it prepares to exit the European Union, which will damage Ireland’s economy.
What is a direct rule?
The direct rule means the UK government takes over responsibility for making key decisions in Northern Ireland which, under the peace process, is meant to be run by a devolved government with power shared by the opposing communities.
The power-sharing executive collapsed in 2017 over political disagreements and since then – for nearly 1,000 days – local civil servants have run the province.
Jess Sargeant, a researcher at the Institute for Government, said if a direct rule from London was imposed it is not clear exactly what powers UK ministers would assume.
“We don’t know what approach the UK government will take – they are certainly very conscious of perceptions of the government, and that is why they were reluctant to impose direct rule before now and have waited so long,” she told Al Jazeera.
“I suspect they will take a light touch but, nonetheless, devolution will be suspended.”
Is direct rule related to Brexit?
The direct rule has gained added importance because Northern Ireland is at the heart of the political problems faced by the UK government in achieving an EU withdrawal deal that is acceptable to the ruling Conservative Party.
Conservative MPs rejected a central plank of an exit deal negotiated by former Prime Minister Theresa May to create a “backstop”, keeping the UK in a customs union with the EU that would avoid creating the checkpoints on Northern Ireland’s border that would risk peace.
However, Northern Ireland’s small Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – which had been propping up the fragile Conservative government – has had a de facto veto over the backstop.
The likely problems created by a no-deal Brexit – which critics of Prime Minister Boris Johnson say he is engineering – make direct rule probable.
Sargeant said: “The government has made various statements that suggest they recognise that in the event of no-deal some powers will be needed in Northern Ireland; it is really within the context of no-deal that there is widespread agreement that this will be necessary.”
David Phinnemore, a professor of European Politics at Queen’s University Belfast, said although power-sharing collapsed in Northern Ireland for local reasons, the republican Sinn Fein party would tie direct rule to Brexit to make political capital.
“For Sinn Fein, the longer the difficulties continue with the Brexit process, the more difficult it becomes for the British government, and the increased support they are going to get towards their ultimate goal of a united Ireland.”
How long would direct rule last?
Given the cocktail of problems expected from a no-deal Brexit and the long-standing failure of the DUP and Sinn Fein to restore power-sharing between themselves, there are reasons to believe direct rule could be lengthy – a previous period of direct UK control lasted from 2002 to 2007.
However, Sargeant said while the lack of a power-sharing executive reflects “the breakdown of trust” and of “parity of esteem” between the parties, there are no alternatives.
“There is a huge desire for devolution in Northern Ireland. It is difficult to see what the alternatives are – so we should not give up on devolution just yet,” she said.
Phinnemore noted aside from Brexit authorities in Northern Ireland faced “tough decisions” around budgeting – making it less likely they would hurry to seek devolved powers.
“In some respects, it works to their benefit if London takes some of these tricky decisions,” he said.
Political implications of direct rule?
The lack of a Northern Ireland executive works to the advantage of both sides of the divide.
Phinnemore said: “All parties say they want restoration of the executive and of the assembly, but in a number of respects it serves them well for responsibility to be with the British government.”
Nonetheless, he maintained, Sinn Fein and the DUP would exploit any imposition of direct rule for political gain.
“It will be portrayed [by Sinn Fein] as a failure of commitment on behalf of the British government to get the assembly and executive back up and running,” he said.
“But equally, unionists will then put a strong argument to the nationalists that ‘you have not made concessions in the negotiations to bring back the assembly so that Northern Ireland can have an effective engagement with the Brexit process’.”
Could this lead to violence?
The direct rule itself is unlikely to lead to violence, but it does raise the stakes of a no-deal Brexit that has increased fears that paramilitaries would target any border infrastructure that may be created.
Sargeant said: “We need to be careful not to overplay those issues – but there is a feeling within Northern Ireland that peace feels a bit more fragile than it did before, and there is the potential for tension between communities to flare up.”
Phinnemore pointed to polarisation, by which nationalist republicans increasingly look to Dublin for their approach to Brexit – while unionists look to London.
“There is enormous nervousness in Northern Ireland about what no deal would actually mean,” he said.
“People are concerned about the prospect of border controls coming back and aware that various dissidents, according to the press and police, are likely to be mobilising against any new infrastructure.”
However, these tensions could reinforce pressure on the UK government to restore power-sharing.
“The vast majority of people in Northern Ireland really want the peace process to work,” Phinnemore concluded. “And I think you will see pressure on the politicians to engage.”