Direct or indirect rule?

10 July 2019 - by Anna Mercer

On Tuesday 9 July, the House of Commons voted to legalise same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland and to liberalise abortion laws through legislation that was initially introduced to extend the timeframe the Secretary of State has to call an election.

Whilst much attention has been focused (and rightly so) on the significance of these issues, this move has political implications for governance more generally here.

Here are our three key observations from yesterday’s developments:

  1.        Whilst the UK Government has resisted, for the most part, calls to get involved in devolved issues, the House of Commons has potentially forced a change in approach

In the two and a half years Northern Ireland has been without a government, the NIO has refused to legislate on devolved matters with the exception of a few areas which include rates, RHI and MLA salaries, despite coming under increasing pressure from local politicians and lobby groups. Issues such as calls for the implementation of recommendations on Historical Institutional Abuse and same-sex marriage are two examples of highly visible and vocal campaigns which have been directed at the Secretary of State, but which were caught in political limbo as a result of no Executive and no alternative to this.

However, although yesterday's amendments to the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill were intended to serve an administrative process, a parliamentary majority of MPs have essentially undermined the NIOs approach to devolved matters by pulling the rug from under their feet in forcing policy and legislative change.

  1.        Local parties are willing to let Westminster legislate – on some issues

One of the interesting political observations on the amendments to the Bill is the fact that parties that are opposed to Direct Rule have not only acceded to the Westminster ruling but have welcomed it. Despite their abstentionist policy, Sinn Féin has publicly called on the UK Government to legislate on same-sex marriage and Historical Institutional Abuse, two issues that are devolved.

The DUP on the other hand, whilst opposed to the introduction to same-sex marriage and abortion, has called for the introduction of Direct Rule, and whilst this doesn’t suggest they would change their position on these matters, this move would likely see parliamentary majorities in favour of liberalising these laws anyway, which was confirmed in the vote yesterday.

 And there is precedent for passing issues which fall into the “too difficult” in-tray, with welfare reform legislated for in Westminster at the request of the two main parties in 2015.  

Therefore, one might suggest that parties can draw down support from their colleagues across the Irish Sea to deal with deadlocked issues, and so with one of the so-called “red lines” in the current talks process (same-sex marriage) potentially resolved by proxy, might other outstanding issues such as the Irish Language Act be sent to London?

  1.        Opportunities for organisations to look to London

With commitments to legislate on devolved issues, subject to no Assembly being in place by October 21st, yesterday’s precedent will call into question why other important issues, such as major challenges for our health, housing and education systems, are not being dealt with, given the pressure building on these vital public services. Many other lobby groups will see an opportunity to look to London to legislate on other issues that remain outstanding, potentially bypassing the NIO and considering what clever parliamentary devices could help them secure changes they need. Indeed our own recent merger with Westminster-based Connect is a vehicle which will help clients extend their reach to consider MPs and parties who could prove key in delivering change-making legislation.

So whilst the policy objective of the recent legislation is to delay an election to October, or possibly January, this extended deadline may well create more headaches for the NIO's position on devolved matters that are urgent and can’t wait any longer, whilst creating opportunities for others who can seize the chance to make other pressing changes to our laws.