by Kevin Meagher
James Brokenshire has an unfortunate surname for a man who presides over the collapse of Northern Ireland’s power-sharing executive.
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in office for barely seven months, has not exactly covered himself in glory thus far.
Last week, he was obliged to announce fresh elections to the 90-member Northern Ireland Assembly following the collapse of the cross-community executive, triggered by Martin McGuinness’s resignation as deputy First Minister.
The row centres on Democratic Unionist First Minister Arlene Foster’s quite ridiculous refusal to step aside and make way for an investigation into the £500m Renewable Heat Incentive fiasco she was responsible for in her previous post as enterprise minister.
The ‘burn to earn’ scheme saw massive payments to encourage companies to switch to wood pellet boilers, entitling them to make vast sums for heating empty properties.
Last week, police in South Armagh raided an empty heated barn assuming it was a drug factory.
Brokenshire finds himself tasked with picking up the pieces.
Yet this crisis is the result of a classic, almost textbook slow-motion political collision.
It was clear by the middle of December that events had the potential to catch fire, (so to speak) fuelled by underlying antagonisms between Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists, who jointly wield power in Northern Ireland with all the magnetic attraction of wet cardboard.
So where was the Secretary of State?
The Northern Ireland Office’s own website lists no public utterance on the brewing scandal until Martin McGuinness’s resignation on January 9.
Only then did Brokenshire break his Trappist silence to ‘urge’ Northern Ireland’s political leaders to‘to take the necessary steps to work together to find a way forward’.
Safe to say, this sub-Churchillian formulation did not have the desired effect.
As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement settlement (along with the Irish Government), Brokenshire should not have been so hands-off. ‘Devolution’ must not mean ‘disengagement’.
If he had simply added his voice to the mix calling for Foster to do the right thing (politically as much as morally) over the Christmas period, then it could have been telling.
A judicious nudge in the right direction from the British Secretary of State just might have had enough residual cache to shame the DUP into line.
Frustratingly, Brokenshire eventually did so, telling the House of Commons following McGuinness’s resignation that he backed holding an investigation, recognising (belatedly, it seems) that the situation was ‘grave’ and that there should be a ‘comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry’.
So why not utter those words a week earlier?
To be fair, Foster’s DUP colleagues also had a duty to insist she step aside or quit entirely. After all, it was one of their number, former enterprise minister Jonathan Bell, who revealed just how badly she had implemented the scheme back in early December.
And it is their candidates who may suffer the subsequent wrath of voters over the blunder.
But if the DUP was simply too arrogant or incompetent to recognise the magnitude of the scandal, Brokenshire needed to be quicker on his feet to help avert a crisis.
Clearly, devolution means allowing local politicians to make their own mistakes, but when the entire process risks toppling over, the Secretary of State must intervene.
The price of not doing, will be that putting power-sharing back together again will be no easy task.
First, there’s the changing of the guard in Sinn Fein.
Michelle O’Neill, Martin McGuinness’s successor as ‘leader in the North’ will seek to strike a harder bargain in post-election talks.
She will push for guarantees about how power-sharing operates in future, with demands for greater equality and respect following some silly provocations by DUP ministers, like cutting grants for Irish language groups.
The DUP will be loath to be seen to give ground, but they only have themselves to blame for creating this mess. Will Arlene crawl back? Clearly she is thick-skinned enough to try, but it seems fanciful she will return.
She has already conceded the campaign will be ‘brutal’ with her unionist rivals presumably wasting no opportunity to remind voters of her failings in office.
The mood in DUP ranks is already said to be glum.
During the course of a six week campaign, further details of who benefitted from the RHI largesse will inevitably seep out, further damaging Foster’s credibility. At the very least, the other parties can argue that frontline services will be hit because of her financial bungling.
It could even see a splintering of the unionist vote as the DUP takes a hit on the doorstep trying to explain how it has frittered away so much money.
This opens up the possibility (albeit, slim) of Sinn Fein topping the poll, which would plunge Unionism into existential turmoil.
Brokenshire should have been alive to all this risk and uncertainty.
He has found himself a spectator rather than a participant, puffing and panting as he tries to catch up to events.
As the immigration minister in David Cameron’s government who completely failed to halt immigration, it is open to question whether or not Brokenshire can survive another calamitous brush with high office if he lets the Northern Ireland political process fall apart on his watch.
Kevin Meagher is a former special adviser to Labour Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward and author of ‘A United Ireland: Why Unification is Inevitable and How It Will Come About,’ published by Biteback