There can be few stranger sights than seeing the Prime Minister citing her concern for the Union to justify reaching out to a Labour leader she previously denounced for his historical relationship with violent republicanism.
But in the aftermath of the ‘pivot to Corbyn’ this is precisely what has happened, with Theresa May’s allies telling the press that it was dire warnings about the need to introduce ‘direct rule’ in Northern Ireland which finally led our ardently unionist leader to abandon plans for a no-deal exit.
According to ministers, defining issue was that if there was a no-deal Brexit “we’d have to go to direct rule in Northern Ireland” says one. “Disaster. Huge risk. Of all legacies, the break-up of the Union [of the UK], the worst for a PM. She’ll never do no deal now”. And…
— Robert Peston (@Peston) April 2, 2019
Given that May has evinced genuine unionist instincts in the past, it is difficult to tell at this point whether this is simply shameless praying-in-aid of the Union or if she is acting on abysmal advice from the Northern Irish Office. Quite possibly both.
Suffice to say, there is no compelling evidence that a formal move to direct rule, of all things, would be particularly controversial. Ulster has been governed by the civil service for over two years now, with necessary legislation passed at Westminster. Acknowledging this reality would simply reintroduce a level of political and democratic accountability to decision-making in the Province.
(It might make it harder for Karen Bradley to bypass parliamentary scrutiny, though.)
Even if that weren’t the case, why on earth should the Prime Minister only be hearing about this now? Her public position has countenanced a ‘No Deal’ exit from the beginning. If this threat is real, what has the NIO been doing with itself that it hasn’t been able to bring it up before this week’s crunch Cabinet meeting? It certainly hasn’t been overseeing talks to restore devolution or administering Northern Ireland directly.
But if this is simply a ploy, it is a ploy which will have real-world consequences. Just as ruling out ‘No Deal’ has severely reduced any incentive Remain-minded MPs have to back her Withdrawal Agreement, so too making it contingent on the restoration of a functioning Assembly creates a powerful motive for Sinn Fein (or indeed other anti-Brexit parties) to ensure that there isn’t one – a fact only compounded by simultaneously ruling out direct rule.
In all, it is increasingly difficult to take May’s warm words about Ulster at face value. Her Government has put no energy either into attempts to revive Stormont or to devise alternative measures for ensuring accountable government in the Province. She has allowed itself to be comprehensively outmanoeuvred by Dublin in the Brexit negotiations, and used the NIO as a means of keeping lacklustre loyalists in her Cabinet.
These are not the hallmarks of someone who takes Northern Ireland seriously. That she might have buried any prospect of getting the Assembly back on its feet just to win a news cycle would, alas, be entirely in keeping with that record.