The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this political limbo
Many MPs have been vocal in their defence of the province’s central and integral place in the United Kingdom, yet curiously uninterested in its politics or the reality for people living there, writes Tony Grew
There was little interest in two pieces of Northern Ireland related legislation last week. The bills were rushed through the Commons. One was to pass a budget for the province, the other to set the rates and try to deal with some of the problems arising from the so-called ‘ash for cash’ scandal. It is little discussed in GB but a major political issue in Northern Ireland.
The failed renewable energy incentive scheme could potentially cost close to £500 million. Overseen by DUP leader Arlene Foster, the then-Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment in the Northern Ireland executive, she has been accused of failing to introduce proper cost controls. She has said she “allowed herself to be led by officials and by evidence as to what was the best way forward”.
The fact that Northern Ireland has not had a government or an assembly for more than two years is another subject of intense debate and anger there but barely commented on here. The budget had to be set by Westminster, leaving the Northern Ireland civil service to oversee spending without any democratic accountability.
Secretary of State Karen Bradley has declined to impose direct rule, as she is optimistic that the parties will break the deadlock and form an executive. Optimism is alive and well in London, less so in Belfast. Brexit has had many effects before it has even happened, one is a hardening of positions in Sinn Fein on going back into government with the DUP.
This ugly impasse is not assisted by the results of the 2017 general election. The DUP gained seats, the SDLP lost all three of theirs. Sinn Fein’s seven seats are not taken at Westminster, meaning the DUP and Lady Hermon are the only voices from Northern Ireland heard in the chamber. Those 10 constituencies held by the DUP have become vital to the survival of Mrs May’s minority government, through the confidence and supply agreement.
Northern Ireland’s position within the UK has therefore become central to the government’s negotiating strategy with the EU. Herein lies the contradiction. Its budget is rushed through the Commons, barely noticed by the same MPs who demand it be treated as an integral part of the United Kingdom. There were none of the defenders of Ulster available the day after, when the government repeated the process in what the shadow Northern Ireland Secretary called a bill that is “in many ways an abuse of the processes of the House”.
Chair of the Northern Ireland select committee Dr Andrew Murrison tried to amend that bill, which he described as “something presented as being urgent and in need of consideration by the House in one day that could in fact easily have been considered more electively”.
How can Northern Ireland be so vital to the UK’s interests and simultaneously so ill-treated when it comes to legislation? How can it be allowed to continue with no government, with civil servants making decisions without oversight, without robust intervention in the form of direct rule?
Sinn Fein have much of the blame for the lack of an assembly and regional government, yet all the MLAs elected continue to be paid. That enrages many people in Northern Ireland, and is seemingly of no interest to people in Great Britain.
Mrs May’s government continues to grapple with the issues of backstop and border, which has been set up as the key issue in the Brexit talks. Northern Ireland could very well lead us to leaving without a deal. Many MPs have been vocal in their defence of the province’s central and integral place in the United Kingdom, yet curiously uninterested in its politics or the reality for people living there.
The effects of this limbo are stark. While people in Westminster talk about the backstop, people in West Belfast are more interested in their hospitals and schools. A small group of MPs rush through yet another deficient budget, “money for failure” as Tony Lloyd called it, with DUP support, while there is no progress at all in Belfast.
Brexit has also cast the once close relationship with the Irish government into adversity.
As Mr Lloyd noted, “if the Prime Minister is so preoccupied with Brexit that she has no time to look at devolution to Northern Ireland, that is a fundamental political mistake that we will rue in time to come. We need ambition.”
Northern Ireland, for all its problems, is a great place full of kind people, ambitious for themselves and their children. There are differences over its future, and arguments over its past, but those living now need more support, more focus. This is supposed to be the week that Brexit arguments come to a head. Let us hope those who have shown an unexpected interest in its affairs remain as committed to it once we leave.
There was dismay, to put it lightly, at reports that the government is considering cancelling Easter recess if there is a delay in Brexit. The February recess was cancelled, with the House instead considering a long series of statutory instruments followed by general debates. The thinking is that if MPs delay Brexit until June, that would leave a mere three months, and taking the 18-day break would be untenable. MPs’ plans aside, another cancelled recess would have serious knock on effects for some of the building works going on around the palace. Let’s hope Members can get Brexit sorted this week.
St Patrick’s Day, is nearly upon us, which means it is almost time for the Irish embassy’s legendary reception. Things could be a bit more strict this year, however. There are reports of some guests turning up last year with impressively and unacceptably large retinues of staff and demanding all be given access. There was associated talk of culling the list for 2019. Those in the know will have already received their invitations, and it is set to be a grand night. Highlights include Guinness, those little pork sausages everyone likes and an address from the ambassador, Mr Adrian O’Neill.
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