If there have been two issues that have brought ruin to Conservative Governments more often than any others, they would be Ireland and Europe. Theresa May has problems with both. Just days after the Prime Minister flew to Belfast to try and finalise a deal to restore devolved Government in Northern Ireland, talks have collapsed once again. The result will be a headache for Westminster and another bump on the road to Brexit.
Devolved Government in Belfast collapsed 13 months ago and neither a snap election nor months of talks between Sinn Fein and the DUP have been able to put Northern Ireland’s power sharing Government back together again. The reasons for this are varied and complex – what started with a scandal about funding for renewable energy is now an argument about the promotion of different Irish cultures and languages, while the DUP has since found itself holding the balance of power in the House of Commons. Suffice to say that, despite significant optimism, talks have once again failed and it is increasingly likely that Theresa May will have to restore “direct rule” from Whitehall.
This is obviously bad news for Northern Ireland, but it’s also a new and unwelcome headache for the Prime Minister. It’s a distraction at home. It could also have a major impact on Brexit talks. May’s next moves will be crucial.
So what comes next? In the first instance, the Northern Ireland Secretary, Karen Bradley, will likely have to introduce new legislation in the Commons to provide a budget for the region. That will eat up crucial parliamentary time that had already been set aside for Brexit-related legislation. It also means hard decisions. No changes to spending have been agreed since the Northern Ireland Executive collapsed, despite the NHS and other public services crying out for more cash. The UK Government has to be an “honest broker” in Northern Ireland but it also has to rely on the DUP for its Commons majority. Extra money has already been promised as part of the Conservative’s post-election “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Democratic Unionists. The difficulty will now be to allocate that money in a way that appeases May’s Irish allies, without losing the support of the rest of the region.
However, minority Government might also present other challenges. The Northern Ireland Executive has been reticent to follow the rest of the UK in terms of social legislation. Access to abortion remains significantly restricted and gay marriage is still illegal. Might the House of Commons choose to intervene directly? Labour MPs, with the support of rebellious Tory backbenchers, have already managed to win concessions from the Government in terms of the support provided to Northern Irish women who come to England for abortion services. If Northern Ireland returned to direct rule, the Government could face a few more tricky votes on similar issues in future –which will be unpopular with some of the politicians in Belfast, and particularly with the DUP.
The other issue is Brexit. The deal struck by David Davis and his team over a “hard border” with the Republic of Ireland at the end of phase one of talks was a fudge, but one that the Government hoped would see us through the next stage of negotiations. However, it has become clear in recent weeks that the problem hasn’t gone away and the return of direct rule will only further complicate relationships with Dublin. Irish Government figures released this week have already suggested Brexit could lead to a fall in medium term GDP growth of up to 7%. The UK’s Brexit Impact Assessments suggested Northern Ireland could take a 12% hit. The decisions taken by Ministers in London will have a direct and increasing impact on both economies at a time of particular tension. It’s worth remembering that any of the other European Governments can cause significant delays to the UK’s final Brexit deal and if Leo Varadkar, the Taoiseach, is unhappy he will say so.
Finally, there is the question of what this means for May’s personal leadership. Labour has long accused her of taking her eye of the ball in Belfast and her unsuccessful late entry into talks seems to have been a failure. Quite apart from the political and diplomatic difficulties Northern Ireland might cause, this is another blow for an embattled Prime Minister whose rivals seem to be closing in. A poorly managed intervention in Northern Irish affairs could be just enough to finally see the house of cards come crashing down.