The Northern Irish Assembly: photo, Robert Paul Young.
This week's collapse of the Northern Ireland Assembly has obvious implications for Brexit. Some have even suggested that the need to consult Stormont will delay the start of the Brexit process with the invocation of Article 50. What's more certain is that parliamentary skirmishing of recent months over Brexit is building up to a real battle over Article 50, and Northern Ireland's largest party the DUP will be a key weight in the balance.
Labour has a real chance of constraining the drive towards a hard Brexit if it can find a formula that will bring on board rival forces like the Lib Dems and SNP who are much less inclined to recognise the need for an Article 50 process at all. If the opposition unites, the Conservatives may need the DUP simply to cancel out the votes of the so-called 'new bastards' on the Tory benches. The approach of the Tory whips in the skirmishes of the autumn suggests they fear defeat even with the DUP onside.
Consciousness of DUP strength at Westminster may have influenced the unilateralist approach adopted by Arlene Foster as First Minister. However, that calculation may have misjudged a key factor, the power of Westminster itself, and the impact on it of a DUP-backed Brexit.
The relationship between Stormont and Westminster is ultimately less fundamental than the one between London and Dublin, and that will change significantly after Article 50. Britain will remain a major European power, and Ireland will remain a relatively small EU member state, but the influence of smaller EU members has been consistently under-estimated by British euro-sceptics committed to the idea of the EU as a bureaucracy influenced by at most one or two big powers.
This will shape the crisis that has so far unfolded along traditional lines. In the absence of the Stormont executive, there have been calls from unionists for direct rule from London, and from nationalists for joint authority exercised by London and Dublin. Under the last Labour Government, the DUP was cajoled into power-sharing partly by the threat of 'green-tinged' direct rule, with a greater role for Dublin.
Theresa May's Conservative government may be less inclined to make such a threat. However, it also has to consider the views of the Irish government, which has been seen as one of Britain's best potential allies in the EU 27. This is largely based on shared east-west economic relationships with provide a basis of common interest independently of events in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, Ireland also has worries, voiced by European Commissioner Phil Hogan, about being too closely identified with the UK.
While Dublin's stewardship may also be complicated by rivalry between the governing parties and Sinn Fein, the Irish government has economic and political interests in the North from which it is unlikely to resile. It has stated that Northern Ireland is one of its key priorities in its approach to Brexit, and has sought to keep open the route to Irish unity provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.
Brexit already means that the EU is about to acquire a direct interest in the administration of an Irish border which is singularly ill-suited to be an immigration or customs frontier. There will now also be a negotiation on restoring the partnership government at Stormont. It is inevitable that those two negotiations will become intertwined. After the invocation of Article 50, issues about equality and parity of esteem between the two traditions in Northern Ireland will also be issues about the rights of EU citizens.
This situation is not the product of opportunism by nationalists. Both taoiseach Enda Kenny and former deputy first minister Martin McGuinness have honestly sought to avoid the current impasse. It is former first minister Arlene Foster who has opened up the prospect of Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams pursuing a new peace process on a broader European stage.
It does not, however, require any political adventurism by either Ireland or the EU to change the balance of power that led to the current breakdown. They should pursue three broadly supported goals: firstly the honouring of existing commitments such as the Good Friday Agreement and the principles underlying them; secondly, arrangements to keep open a border which can never be an effective immigration or customs frontier; thirdly, arrangements that will allow Northern Ireland to retain access to the single market, including the market in the Republic.
Successive referendums have shown that the DUP does not necessarily speak for a majority of Northern Ireland on any of these issues. It should be invited to return to government on the basis of partnership and equality as the best way to influence a debate, which its actions up to now, and its votes in coming months, will make inevitable.
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