The last time the British Government was forced to impose direct rule on Northern Ireland was in 2002. First Minister David Trimble hated the idea of Sinn Fein members using Stormont offices for intelligence gathering. Power-sharing came to an abrupt end.
What followed was years of significant progress and major delays towards the path of peace. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party overtook the Social Democratic and Labour Party and the Ulster Unionists as Northern Ireland’s largest nationalist and unionist parties respectively in 2003, proving the electorate resented the moderate politics of the SDLP and the UUP. The IRA finally disarmed in 2005. And a DUP-SF coalition was established with former rivals Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness becoming First Minister and Deputy First Minister respectively.
Devolved government has been a substantial success since. For almost ten years, the DUP and SF ruled Northern Ireland together peacefully. Other paramilitary groups like the UVF disarmed in 2009. The Queen met McGuinness in 2012, something many people relatively late in following Northern Irish politics, like me, thought we would never see. These events are milestones in the road to peace.
The evidence speaks for itself. Northern Ireland was on the right path to political stability prior to this year’s events. It is a pity to witness power-sharing collapse over a botched energy scheme and Brexit reinvigorate the republican movement with the unintended consequence of shackling the peace process. Regardless of one’s opinion on the sectarian voting habits of the Northern Irish people, the context of the last ten years has been a profound improvement from the days before direct rule was reimposed in 2002. Five years was too long to wait for progress during 2002-07, and direct rule is not the answer to today’s problems.
Despite the recent failures of the unionist and nationalist parties to form a fresh coalition, the cynicism that would endure from a potential failure to form a new administration is not a price worth paying for. The memories of the past are too raw for many Northern Irish citizens. The threat of terrorism may now be reduced to the Real IRA, but they still exist. The last thing both Protestant and Catholic communities in Northern Ireland want is a resurgence in IRA activity because power-sharing has failed. After reaping the rewards for embracing peace from the 2003 Assembly elections and beyond, neither SF nor the DUP want to lose swathes of support to paramilitary organisations or other parties because they failed to continue with power-sharing.
Of course, Brexit will present another obstacle to peace. The DUP support Brexit and SF do not. The consequences of Brexit for Irish unity remain unclear so far. Devolved government, however, should be about tackling the issues that have been devolved to Stormont, like education, health, social services, the police and so on. These two parties disagreed on so many ideas before Brexit, but they still made power-sharing work, until now. What they need to do is restore confidence to the political process during these uncertain times, not cause further disengagement.
Both James Brokenshire and his predecessor as Northern Ireland Secretary, Theresa Villiers, have tried to maintain years of progress. Outstanding issues like flags, parades and the past continued to plague peace during Villiers’ tenure in the post. Both the unionist and nationalist communities should engage in continued dialogue with the British and Irish governments to remove these obstacles. That is why it is crucial Northern Ireland’s largest parties form a coalition. It is the only way to prevent the past from colouring Northern Ireland’s future. And promising Stormont additional powers post-Brexit recently is a great incentive to the country’s largest parties.
So let us hope the current Northern Ireland Secretary does not restore direct rule to the country. It is clear both SF and the DUP have got too much to lose if this happens, and Northern Ireland has come too far to return to the dark days of the Troubles.