Thursday 18 July 2019

Martina Devlin: 'It's crystal clear that for the Tories, the DUP and the Brexit Party, the real battle is being fought against objective reality'

All that unvalued loyalty from unionism will be paraded out in sashes on the 12th next Friday. But the union is precious in name only. Stock photo: Yui Mok/PA
All that unvalued loyalty from unionism will be paraded out in sashes on the 12th next Friday. But the union is precious in name only. Stock photo: Yui Mok/PA
Martina Devlin

Martina Devlin

Remember the 'Father Ted' line, "That would be an ecumenical matter"? It was a catch-all evasion memorised by Fr Jack to cover questions he couldn't answer. Now meet its cousin, "That would be a devolved matter," as spouted - without the grace even to blush - by Karen Bradley, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt.

It's their fudge of choice when anomalies between laws in Britain and Northern Ireland are raised. Two such examples are marriage equality and abortion rights, both legal in Britain but not in that six-county Finchley over the Irish Sea.

Citing devolution to avoid action scores 10 on the shameless barometer because it's been two and a half years since there was an Assembly. And because increasingly there is talk of direct rule in the event of a hard Brexit.

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Civil servants in the North are muddling along as best they can but decisions on health, education and infrastructure have been left untaken since Stormont's collapse. Are ministers in Theresa May's government bothered? Not so you'd notice. All that misplaced devotion and unvalued loyalty from unionism will be paraded out in sashes on the 12th next Friday. But the union is precious in name only.

So why is "That would be a devolved matter" tripping from Tory mouths currently? On Monday, the May government is attempting to bump through legislation that would avoid the legal requirement for Assembly elections to be held in August.

Now, some would say postponing election dates is doing the Northern electorate a favour. Others might take the view that people should go to the polls once a month every month until they vote in politicians who'll form a government.

Ms Bradley is in her curtain-call phase as Secretary of State, certain to be replaced when Mr Johnson gets his hands on casting. Yet she's holding the party line. Proposed legislation approving government expenditure in Northern Ireland and pushing back a Stormont election to two possibilities - October or January - is a "sensible contingency plan". This implies talks between the parties are not going well. It also suggests there may not be an Assembly until next January, with October certain to be a hectic month.

Is Ms Bradley - at Mrs May's bidding - being kind to the DUP which isn't ready to cut a deal yet with Sinn Féin? Or unkind to Mrs May's successor who will have to cope with the Stormont question in the autumn? Or pragmatic because delays can lead to changed circumstances and might deliver different outcomes?

Let's take a closer look at some repercussions from the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. The British government is treating this as emergency legislation, which limits debate and the capacity for amendments. Its plan is to hustle it through the Commons in a single day. But there are a number of hot-button topics, including abortion rights, marriage equality and historical institutional abuse - at least some of which MPs are determined to ventilate.

Among those insisting on parliamentary discussion is Co Armagh-born Conor McGinn, Labour MP for a Merseyside constituency, who accuses Mrs May's government of a "transparent attempt to stifle debate".

Northern Ireland is the only part of the UK or Ireland where same-sex marriage is illegal. Mr McGinn says the government is on the wrong side of history and people have been denied their rights for too long.

He intends to table an amendment to Monday's bill, acting as part of a parliamentary cross-party coalition for marriage equality. If passed, the amendment would make same-sex marriage automatically lawful in Northern Ireland should devolution not be restored within three months. That's October (again). On the other hand, if mountains move and Stormont is back in business by then, it would be up to the Assembly to act.

And the likelihood is that MLAs would change the marriage laws. Firstly, because Stormont won't be reconstituted without reform to the petition of concern, a legislative veto abused by the DUP to block same-sex marriage. Secondly, because a majority of MLAs backed marriage equality in November 2015 and support continues to rise. Polling indicates that most of the electorate favours marriage equality. A Sky News poll in April 2018 showed three in four people in the North agree with it.

Arguably, Mr McGinn's amendment could save the DUP's face. (We didn't vote for this dreadful measure - it was forced upon us.) The party knows change is in the wind, and some movement is visible already; its first openly gay member was elected a councillor in May.

Mr McGinn and his comrades are showing leadership, in marked contrast to the wannabes. At a hustings event in Belfast earlier this week, both contenders to replace Mrs May said they supported the idea of equal marriage in Northern Ireland but it should be left to the devolved government. Mr McGinn believes patience is wearing thin: "There is currently no devolved Assembly. There has been no Executive in place since January 2017. How much longer are LGBT people in Northern Ireland supposed to wait?"

Speaking of waiting, Labour isn't entering the UK government any time soon. A YouGov poll for the 'Times of London' shows Labour trailing in fourth place on 18pc of the vote, behind the Conservatives on 24pc, the Brexit Party hot on their heels at 23pc and the Liberal Democrats on 20pc. Jeremy Corbyn must take responsibility. As an Irish Cabinet minister observed to me several days ago, Corbyn's Labour is a rum sort of opposition.

Meanwhile, veteran Tory Ann Widdecombe sprinkled hyperbole on her Weetabix before making her maiden speech as a member of the Brexit Party in the EU parliament, comparing Brexiteers to a colonised people rising up to demand freedom. Here's what she said, irony-free, and with no apparent knowledge of British imperial history - even as much as could be gleaned from watching a couple of Merchant Ivory films. "There is a pattern, consistent throughout history, of oppressed people turning on the oppressors, slaves against their owners and the peasantry against the feudal barons, colonies against their empires, and that is why Britain is leaving."

Little Red Riding Hood shrieking at the top of her lungs couldn't put it any more passionately. But if you cry wolf at that pitch, eventually you'll get eaten.

For Brexiteers, the battle is with reality rather than an overbearing EU. And how little reality there is to be found as the Tory leadership race continues.

Take Mr Johnson's bizarre support for giving Belfast free port status as a Singapore-style tax-free zone, an idea backed by Arlene Foster and Sammy Wilson. The opportunities for illegal moneymaking in free port areas are limitless - such an initiative would be a godsend to the paramilitaries. Counterproductive, no?

A conspiracy theorist might suggest hard Brexiteers are cooking up these wheezes to make it impossible for Britain ever to rejoin the EU. Just a thought.

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Irish Independent

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