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Strike When Iron Is Hot

Staff the Northern Ireland Office with Northern Ireland Westminster MPs with East Derry MP Gregory Campbell as Secretary of State, and Sinn Fein has to take its Commons seats to get Ministerial posts in the new-look NIO. That’s the hard-hitting proposals from controversial commentator, Dr John Coulter, in his latest Fearless Flying Column.

The ghosts of the late Ulster Unionist Party leader Jim Molyneaux and former South Down MP Enoch Powell must be laughing at the goings-on in Westminster after current Tory Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire introduced his cash bill to keep the money flowing into Ulster’s coffers.

Molyneaux and Powell were committed integrationists, meaning they wanted Northern Ireland-elected Westminster MPs to hold the various ministerial posts in the Northern Ireland Office, rather than see a return of some botched Sunningdale-type power-sharing devolution arrangement.

You can spin Brokenshire’s bill whatever way you like, but Direct Rule is now back in force in Northern Ireland and for the meantime, the experiment known as the Northern Ireland Assembly has been politically mothballed.

The DUP has many more concessions it can squeeze out of Theresa May’s Conservative administration. The DUP possesses two huge ace cards. Firstly, it is the majority Unionist party with 10 MPs; something the election-battered rival Ulster Unionist Party used to laud over the DUP.

In numbers terms, it has the MPs to fully staff a Direct Rule administration in Northern Ireland, in the same way as the Tories and Labour staffed the NIO with mainland MPs following the axing of the original Stormont Parliament in 1972 until the restoration of devolved government in the UUP’s David Trimble era.

The second ace card possessed by the DUP is Sinn Fein’s dogmatic adhering to its traditional policy of abstentionism at Westminster in the form of taking Commons expenses, but not allowing MPs to take their seats in the actual Chamber.

This is in stark contrast to Sinn Fein’s policies in other parliaments and chambers, such as local government, the Dail, Northern Ireland Assembly and the European Parliament. As the Provisional IRA’s Army Council wields increasingly less power over Sinn Fein policy and more ‘draft dodgers’ appear in the ranks of Sinn Fein elected representatives (that is, Sinn Fein elected representatives who have not served an apprenticeship in the IRA or who have not been jailed), the importance of abstentionism as a traditional stance becomes less viable. 

The Scottish and Welsh nationalist movements as well as republicans within the Labour Party have all advanced their respective causes by taking their Commons seats.

This automatically sparks the debate within the republican movement – under what circumstances and conditions could Sinn Fein be persuaded to take its Commons seats? After all, such debates allowed Sinn Fein to take its seats in the Dail in the 1980s and Stormont in the 1990s?

Indeed, it can also be pointed out that the late Martin McGuinness – once a senior IRA commander in Londonderry – eventually entered a power-sharing Stormont Executive with the DUP’s Rev Ian Paisley, holding the position of Deputy First Minister. 

Sinn Fein currently has seven Commons MPs, so what is essentially the problem of the DUP and Sinn Fein staffing a new-look NIO until these two main parties could agree a deal on devolution? At least Northern Ireland budgets would be administered by accountable MPs who had been elected by the Province’s voters, not run by unelected MPs from mainland constituencies.

While this may work on paper, there is still the problem of meeting the price of persuading Sinn Fein MPs to take their Commons seats. It does seem very politically hypocritical for Sinn Fein ministers to have operated a partitionist parliament at Stormont, yet potentially refuse to participate in a system which could see Sinn Fein MPs carry out those same roles in health, education and roads as NIO ministers!

The DUP should strike now while the Westminster iron is hot and campaign for the NIO to be staffed by its Northern Ireland MPs, with perhaps East Derry MP Gregory Campbell becoming Secretary of State; East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson as Education Minister, and Ian Paisley Junior from North Antrim becoming Economy Minister, allowing North Down Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon – widow of the former RUC Chief Constable Sir John – becoming Security Minister.

Of course, Sinn Fein will then scream that this is Unionist majority rule – not Direct Rule – by the back door. But the republican movement has only itself to blame if this scenario arises and Sinn Fein is wrong-footed politically by the DUP.

It may well take the diplomatic skills of Labour supremo Jeremy Corbyn to tempt Sinn Fein into ditching abstentionism. In the meantime, the DUP is boasting about how many millions of pounds its deal with the Tories is netting for Northern Ireland, and like the two Irish teams after the recent football qualifiers, the Ulster Unionists and SDLP can only watch from the sidelines.

With the Tories rapidly descending into party civil war over Brexit, another Westminster General Election could be on the cards in 2018. Even with Corbyn’s popularity rising, Labour may not be able to win enough seats back from the Scottish nationalists to hand Comrade Jeremy the keys to 10 Downing Street. Like Theresa May, Corbyn may need to look to Northern Ireland MPs to form a coalition government.

It would be a supreme political irony if Corbyn – always viewed as having a close working relationship and admiration for Sinn Fein – needed the votes of seven Sinn Fein MPs to become Prime Minister, but because of outdated abstentionism, he had to deal with seven DUP MPs to get his Commons majority!

Perhaps the political impasse is all down to accountability. In spite of what looks like a fairly positive Brokenshire budget on paper, and with the DUP crowing about its looming millions, 2018 will see the reality of a period of severe austerity in Northern Ireland. No Northern Ireland-based politician wants to be the one to announce that Ulster workers are losing their jobs.

It makes you wonder if the DUP/Sinn Fein-dominated Stormont Executive fully realised what was coming down the tracks in terms of future austerity and decided that rather than face the wrath of voters, they would rather indulge in a blame game and sacrifice the Assembly?

But Sinn Fein needs to be careful it does not over-egg the abstentionist pudding. For years, the SDLP was able to taunt Sinn Fein at the amount of influence its MPs could wield at Westminster because the moderate nationalist party took its Commons seats even though the SDLP was not organised on an all-Ireland basis like Sinn Fein.

Sinn Fein may dominate the republican family map for the time being – just as the SDLP and Nationalist Party did in the past. But with Fianna Fail planning to contest Northern elections, could a situation arise post Brexit that Fianna Fail MPs elected in Northern Ireland take their Westminster seats and push Sinn Fein into the sidelines? 

John Coulter is a unionist political commentator and former Blanket columnist. 
Follow John Coulter on Twitter  @JohnAHCoulter

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Anthony McIntyre

Free Speech advocate, writer, historian, humanist, and researcher

1 comment to ''Strike When Iron Is Hot"

  1. "...East Derry MP Gregory Campbell becoming Secretary of State; East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson as Education Minister, and Ian Paisley Junior from North Antrim becoming Economy Minister, allowing North Down Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon – widow of the former RUC Chief Constable Sir John – becoming Security Minister..."

    Never mind the Shinners screaming majority rule, putting a bunch of halfwits, bigots and crooks in charge isn't exactly a step forward "Dr J"!

    But then again, this is NI in 2017 and if the shoe fits...


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