Alf Dubs: Downing Street and Dublin must come together to break Stormont’s political deadlock

Posted On: 
18th March 2019

Northern Ireland’s dangerous power vacuum would only be further aggravated by the reintroduction of Direct Rule. A jointly appointed ‘facilitator’ by the British and Irish governments may help overcome this impasse, writes Alf Dubs 

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I was in the Castle Buildings in Belfast when the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was reached. I never imagined then that we’d be in a position, two decades later, where its very future would be under threat.

The fact that there has been no assembly or executive for over two years is a crisis – a crisis that comes at a particularly serious time for the future of the people of Northern Ireland. 

As I write, the outcome of key Brexit votes in the Commons is uncertain. 

What is certain is that half the population of Northern Ireland has been locked out of the Brexit negotiations for the last two years. And whatever the outcome, the people of Northern Ireland will need an executive and assembly to deal with the consequences. Whether in relation to a second referendum, the backstop, or further negotiations, the people of Northern Ireland will surely need a voice. 

Time is running out for Brexit, for politicians and potentially for peace”

Beyond Brexit, the political vacuum left in Northern Ireland means that day-to-day politics is grinding to a halt. It is understandable that without political backing officials are going to be reluctant and feel constrained from initiating new policies. This is having unfortunate consequences for government in Northern Ireland because officials may feel vulnerable and exposed. It also means that there is no way of challenging decisions, except by Judicial Review, which is expensive and cumbersome. For example the British government has said that in the absence of a functioning executive and ministers, Northern Ireland cannot take child refugees even when there is a local willingness to do so. It also means that other important political decisions, from major planning issues to resources for and operations of the NHS, are simply not being made. 

Another example of this can be found in the gold reserves in County Tyrone. The company wishing to extract the gold needs planning permission to do so. Without an executive and an assembly it seems that planning permission cannot be granted. An operation without an income cannot last for long. 

The political vacuum also has implications for terrorism. There are some who believe that in the absence of local political leadership the danger is now greater, as evidenced by the recent bomb in Derry / Londonderry and the several letter bombs sent to various travel hubs in the UK.

Perhaps equally important is the damage this political vacuum is doing to confidence in politicians and political institutions, at a time when their reputation is already badly tarnished. For Northern Ireland to function properly it needs institutions that belong to the people and are respected by them.

It would be a very dangerous step for the British government to reintroduce Direct Rule but if the present impasse continues the government may feel it has run out of options. To avoid that, I believe the Prime Minister and the Northern Ireland Secretary must commit to an urgent push to get agreement in Stormont. The British government is not well-placed to bring the two parties in Northern Ireland together because of its dependence on the DUP for its majority in the House of Commons. So I believe it is essential that, in cooperation with the Irish government, the UK government should appoint a chair or facilitator in Belfast, similar to the role played by Senator George Mitchell in securing the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement. 

Bluntly, we need someone who can knock heads together. Time is running out for Brexit, for politicians and potentially for peace. Urgent action is needed now. The people of Northern Ireland deserve no less.

Alf Dubs is a Labour peer