Should the UK Government call Sinn Fein’s bluff?

In August 2014 the British establishment was shaken when, for the first time, an opinion poll showed the Yes vote moving ahead of the No vote in Scotland’s referendum on independence.

Whilst the Better Together campaign was still confident of a win, it was decided that it was time to demonstrate to Scottish voters, the vast majority of whom supported enhanced devolution, just how and when the British government would extend the powers of the Scottish Parliament were Scotland to vote to stay in the UK. This would fly in the face of suggestions that a No vote would see the Scottish Parliament limited or curtailed.

The “Vow” as it became known was a game changer in the referendum campaign. Supported by Labour, the Liberal Democrats and the Conservatives, this document is credited with bringing thousands of wavering voters back into the No camp and helping to secure Better Together’s 10% margin of victory.

This cleverly deployed strategy is one which would surely serve the UK government well in dealing with the current impasse at Stormont. Months of talks and deadlines have now passed and the two sides seem to be moving backwards. Perhaps it’s time to take this out of their hands.

That is not to say that the time has come for direct rule from Westminster. Northern Ireland can and should govern itself even if local politicians cannot get us through this current crisis. With crises in our health and education systems and the Brexit process continuing there has never been a more important time to have local decision making. But the UK government needs to act to get Northern Ireland over this hump and that’s precisely what it should do – by calling Sinn Féin’s bluff, just as it called Yes Scotland’s.

With this in mind the UK government should immediately legislate for both a language act – along the lines of the Scottish Parliament’s language act, passed by a Scottish Labour government – and for equal marriage – using the legislation passed in England and Wales. It should also approve measures to make Stormont more transparent and establish a civic forum to allow the voters of Northern Ireland a more direct say on ongoing contentious issues including rights and the past conflict. All of this should be done in cooperation with the Labour party and in consultation with the Irish government.

Naturally this would be extremely controversial. Yet it may well be the only way to save devolution and, significantly, to allow all sides to save face. The UK government could argue that it was doing what was best for devolution, and most importantly, delivering on these issues on their own terms. Protection for the Irish language and LGBT equality, delivered by a British government – how better to show the Union delivering for everyone in Northern Ireland?

The DUP meanwhile wouldn’t have to vote in favour of any of this should Labour support the UK Government – and it could always assure its core vote that it opposed these decisions vigorously. Meanwhile two issues that have the potential to split the party will have been bypassed and the prospect of a return to government beckons.

In all this Sinn Féin would be put on the back foot. They would undoubtedly be unhappy at such heavy-handedness but having succeeded in securing so many of their objectives they would then face a choice. Would they sign up to the Northern Ireland Executive now that their demands had been met? Or would they confirm unionist suspicions that they are no longer truly interested in governing by making new demands? If nothing else, such an approach would oblige Sinn Féin to reveal whether they are truly interested in making Northern Ireland work.

This approach is clearly not ideal. It flies in the face of twenty years of devolution and rewards our local incalcitrant politicians for their obstinate behaviour. It would be better were they to resolve this crisis together without the involvement of British or Irish officials.

Yet at this late stage a UK government intervention may well be the only way to save devolution and after so much time, shouldn’t the UK government do something before reaching for the direct rule lever?

About James McMordie

James is a PhD student in the Department of International Relations at the University of St Andrews. His interests include European, British and Northern Irish politics, foreign policy and history.


Also published on Medium.