Stormont limbo hands away power

Stormont limbo hands away power

The House of Commons voted overwhelmingly on Tuesday to legislate for marriage equality and abortion in Northern Ireland, unless the government at Stormont is up and running again by October 21.

That has infuriated Democratic Unionist Party MP Jeffrey Donaldson who said matters such as marriage and abortion are a matter for the Northern Ireland Assembly.

Marriage equality and abortion are “sensitive issues” and should have been a matter for the people of Northern Ireland to decide “through their elected representatives” he told RTÉ radio.

He also argues that the vote undermines and damages the whole process of devolution.

Mr Donaldson is right on both counts but wrong in pointing the blame solely at his colleagues in the House of Commons.

The real blame lies closer to home because what undermines devolution the most is the failure of politicians in Northern Ireland – principally the DUP and Sinn Féin – to reach an agreement on re-activating the assembly.

Some commentators view the Commons vote on both issues as no more than a tactic to bring the main Northern Ireland parties back around the negotiating table with a view to re-instating the Northern Assembly.

Naomi Long, the leader of the Alliance Party, has suggested that they could unlock the talks but that is no more than wishful thinking. In fact, they could have the opposite effect.

During the Commons debate, Northern Ireland minister John Penrose indicated that if and when the Northern Ireland executive is restored, one or both of the amendments could either be approved or repealed by Stormont. However, the longer the new laws are put into practice, the less likely it is that they will ever be repealed.

That gives Sinn Féin, which supports same-sex marriage and liberal abortion laws on both sides of the Border, an incentive to delay further the restoration of devolved government in order to let the amendments bed in and take effect.

The prospect, therefore, is of a return to direct rule from Westminster, which was the case between 1972 - when the Northern Ireland Parliament was prorogued - and 1999 when the power-sharing assembly was established.

Direct rule was brought back again on a number of occasions when power-sharing broke down, but has so far not been reintroduced during the current impasse, although Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley has been accused of presiding over "direct rule in all but name."

That accusation is not without merit as she has passed two budget bills for the North through the Commons, and has taken appointment powers usually reserved for Stormont ministers including that of Attorney General.

What the Commons votes also reveal is that, despite its supply and confidence agreement with the Conservative Party, set up in June 2017 when Theresa May called a snap election but ended up losing her majority, the DUP is in a weaker position than it might have thought.

While it can still pressurise the minority Tory government, it is easily outnumbered in the Westminster parliament.

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