12 Jan

The Week in Northern Ireland – Disruption and Discord

Managing Director Will Chambré wrote a piece summing up the last week in NI politics…

This week has seen a flurry of political news in Northern Ireland. But there was still little sign of progress towards restoring devolution, as the rancour between the DUP and Sinn Féin deepened.

New Secretary of State Karen Bradley must be rueing her appointment. She’s surely starting to realise the scale of the task she faces, in getting the feuding parties to sit down and talk away from the cameras.

As so often, social media provided further cause for division, due to a video posted by Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff.

To an outsider the video, in which Mr McElduff talked to camera with a loaf of bread balanced on his head, might have seemed ridiculous, but innocuous. But the brand of the bread was Kingsmill – and the video was posted on the 42nd anniversary of the sectarian killing of ten Protestant workmen in Kingsmill, County Armagh.

Mr McElduff claimed he had never intended the Kingsmill connection. Sinn Féin suspended him for three months amid a storm of protest across the community.

Former Sinn Féin education minister John O’Dowd attempted to cool the situation – describing the murders as “shameful”. But the discourse is still too heated for anyone to envisage compromises any time soon.

All this makes Mrs Bradley’s task more challenging. And, with another of our infamous deadlines looming, there’s a real chance NI’s problems will be brought to Westminster’s doorstep soon.

This time, the time-critical issue concerns the Stormont coffers.

The Department of Finance has taken the unusual step of publishing a briefing paper on the budgetary outlook for the government in Northern Ireland. The document outlined various scenarios including ongoing cuts, raising money through a variety of measures and how the money ‘gifted’ as part of the Tory/DUP arrangement might be spent.

The Department, careful not to describe this as a consultation exercise, has asked for comments on the paper by 26 January. Thereafter, the Secretary of State is faced with the same quandary as her predecessor, James Brokenshire.

She must set a budget in the absence of a Stormont Executive. To do so requires legislation in Parliament. Unless of course a miracle happens and the local parties agree to go back into government together.

This is a sort of direct rule ‘light’ approach. Any further move towards full direct rule, with NIO ministers running the Stormont departments, will invoke the ire of the Irish government at a time when Brexit talks are becoming increasingly sensitive.

As she moves ahead on the budget, the best ally Mrs Bradley has is time. She can only hope that time will help the cooler heads in the parties to prevail – and pave the way for talks to progress.

Against this backdrop there have been many other intriguing developments…

Almost exactly a year ago, the botched Renewable Heat Incentive scheme contributed to the collapse of our Executive. Now, the inquiry into the scheme is a constant source of new disclosures.

This week it was revealed that civil servants hired a law firm to draft the RHI legislation. They then redrafted it – removing the legislative safeguards that would have prevented this monumental cock-up.

As if that wasn’t enough, far right Britain First deputy leader, Jayda Fransen, appeared in a video sitting on Belfast’s Lord Mayor’s ceremonial chair. Ms Fransen, who had just learned she was to stand trial for alleged hate speech made here in 2017, was adorned in council robes.

All in all, a bit of a depressing week…

This article was first published in PubAffairsNetworking.com on 12/01/18.

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