'Steady as she goes': key points in the current situation

02 November 2017 - by Quintin Oliver

Where are we now in the wake of James Brokenshire's latest statement?

The Secretary of State's Statement to the House of Commons sums up the Westminster and No 10 strategy perfectly:

-Steady as she goes; no dramatic u-turns or changes of direction;

-We really want power-sharing and devolution to work for Northern Ireland; and will stand aside if and when it does;

-In the meantime, we have to set a budget to allow 'technocratic' governance to continue.

Beneath the disappointment, however, of ten months of on-off deadline-busting and ultimately failed negotiations, lie certain unspoken truths.

First, Westminster has its own different Brexit priorities; the 'dreary steeples' of Fermanagh and Tyrone carry little weight in London, except where the ten DUP MP votes count – and these are well sealed by the 'Confidence and Supply' arrangement of June.

Second, there is little appetite to reintroduce direct rule. Indeed, some now think the assertive varieties deployed by Labour ministers in the long suspension of 2002-2007 may have perpetuated their tenure.

Third, the challenges remain on this side of the water: between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and their respective support bases, with the other parties and their voters as bit players.

So, what will happen now?

A status quo budget will restore the 95 per cent back to 100 per cent funding, aimed at implementing 2016 policies. That does not bode well, since so much, not least from Brexit planning, has changed. It also enshrines the pre-existing 2 per cent, and then 3 per cent, cuts in revenue spending  not good news for health, education, police and transport.

MLAs can expect a pay cut, maybe 30 per cent; in return they may be expected to undertake some scrutiny functions, as a kind of Assembly 'Grand Committee', like the Prior Assembly of 82-86, or the Northern Ireland Forum of 1996-98, as the Good Friday negotiations ran elsewhere. Expect Sinn Féin to boycott what they may dub a paper tiger with no teeth.

Meanwhile, community and voluntary sector groups will feel the pinch, construction will squeal, investors may take cold feet and citizens will continue to rail against the failure of politics.

The alternatives? Muscular and unpopular direct rule is one  remember Peter Hain? Joint authority with more Irish input another  remember Peter Barry? A third outing to the polls this year remains the legally sanctioned route.

Maybe this glide path, with a soft-ish landing, represents the least worst cushion on which to land.

An edited version of this article was first published in today's Daily Mirror.