The collapse of 13-month-long talks overnight Wednesday to restore a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland might force the British government to seek emergency powers and rule the province directly from London for the first time since 2007, acknowledge British officials.
The move, which Protestant politicians in Northern Ireland are urging, would risk clouding relations between Britain and Ireland and complicate already fraught Brexit negotiations between London and Dublin.
Direct rule also would upend the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which ended three decades of sectarian conflict that left 3,600 people dead, risking a violent backlash from die-hard Irish Republican Army militiamen. Both Britain and the Irish Republic are guarantors of the peace agreement.
Talks between Northern Ireland’s two main parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and the IRA's political wing, Sinn Fein, fell apart only hours after Prime Minister Theresa May visited Belfast. During her mid-week trip to Northern Ireland, May said she was confident there would be a breakthrough in the negotiations between the mainly Catholic Sinn Fein, which is in favor of a united Ireland, and the mainly pro-British Protestant DUP.
The fact that the talks fell apart so soon after May’s visit is being seen widely as a blow to her authority.
Britain’s Northern Ireland minister, Karen Bradley, said London now had “uncomfortable decisions” to make. The British government’s only immediate legal option is to call for new elections in Northern Ireland, but it is coming under pressure from the DUP not to do so and to opt instead for direct rule.
Theresa May’s minority Conservative government in London relies on a handful of DUP lawmakers in the Westminster parliament to survive. May also needs to avoid angering the Irish Republic, however, in order to smooth out differences with Dublin connected to Brexit, Britain’s planned exit from the European Union.
Dublin has questioned publicly the impartiality of the British government in the political stalemate in Northern Ireland because of its need for DUP support in the House of Commons in London.
Northern Ireland’s parties clashed Thursday over who was to blame for the failure to reach a deal to restore a power-sharing administration to govern the province. The British province has been without a devolved administration — a key part of the 1998 peace deal — for more than a year since the Irish nationalist Sinn Fein withdrew from the power-sharing government with the DUP after a dispute erupted over an energy scheme amid allegations of fraud.
The latest round of talks between the archrivals fell apart over a sharp disagreement on additional rights for Irish-language speakers and legal protections for the use of Gaelic. Sinn Fein accuses the DUP of sabotaging the talks, a charge rejected by their adversaries, who blame them for making too many demands and refusing to compromise.
Irish Republic officials are warning London that they are opposed to the re-imposition of direct London rule of Northern Ireland. But British involvement in Northern Ireland's governance is now “inevitable,” says a former British Cabinet minister. Theresa Villiers, who was Britain’s Northern Ireland secretary between 2012 and 2016, said “time has run out” and London will have to “pass legislation to set a budget and sort out various other key issues.”
Brexit complicates matters
Relations between London and Dublin are already severely strained over Brexit and the possibility of a reintroduction of a so-called "hard border" involving tariffs and security checks between the south and north of the island of Ireland following Britain’s departure from the EU.
As news broke of the collapse of the talks, the Irish Republic’s Taoiseach (prime minister) Leo Varadkar, maintained that “power-sharing and working together are the only way forward for Northern Ireland.”
He dismissed a call by DUP leader Arlene Foster for London to resort to some form of direct rule. For the British government to do that, it would have to pass legislation giving it emergency powers to take over the running of the province.
In her statement, Foster said it was incumbent on London to intervene “to set a budget and start making policy decisions about our schools, hospitals and infrastructure.”
Ireland’s foreign affairs minister, Simon Coveney, said the collapse of the talks “was not expected” and was “hugely disappointing.” He told Irish broadcaster RTÉ he believed there was “no appetite to move toward direct rule.”
British and Irish officials were scrambling Thursday to try to salvage something from the mess and get the province’s politicians back to the negotiating table, but DUP leader Foster said there is “no current prospect” of renewed discussions leading to the re-establishment of Northern Ireland's government. And the angry recriminations flying between the parties suggest she’s likely right.
Direct rule would undermine the delicate balance between Northern Ireland’s nationalists and Unionists at a time there already are fears that sectarian conflict could be reignited because of Brexit. Northern Ireland’s most senior police officer warned recently the re-introduction of a 'hard border' complete with frontier checks and security installations would be seen as “fair game” for attack by die-hard Irish republicans.
George Hamilton, the chief constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, said last week that a hard border would have to be patrolled 24 hours a day and would put his officers’ lives in greater danger from hard-core paramilitary groups who have never approved of the Good Friday Agreement. He described as “severe” the threat from the New IRA and other dissident groups opposed to the peace settlement in Northern Ireland.
“The last thing we would want is any infrastructure around the border because there is something symbolic about it and it becomes a target for violent dissident republicans,” he said. Last year, there were five serious attacks by dissident republicans on Northern Ireland police officers, one in Belfast that left two policemen wounded.