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In the political dramas of this place, NI Secretary Brandon Lewis will soon be centre stage.

The wider frame in this latest play stretches well beyond the Sea Border and the unionist trauma of this centenary year with all its frets and fears and foreboding about the Union.

A deadline – another deadline – on Irish language legislation has arrived.

Will Lewis now proceed, as promised, at Westminster, or will he hit the pause button?

Some suspect the latter.

In June, with politics here rushing towards another edge, the Secretary of State intervened.

He gave Stormont until the end of September to resolve this matter otherwise the government would take the legislation through the UK Parliament.

It would create an Office for Identity and Cultural Expression as well as Ulster Scots and Irish Language commissioners.

That moment has arrived, and already the question is being asked of Lewis.

This is just one of a number of key decisions.

With widespread opposition to a legacy ‘amnesty’, will the UK Government push on and shape a process based on information-retrieval and reconciliation – minus prosecutions and prison?

The opposition to the plan has been loud, but one source commented: “We haven’t heard an alternative” – meaning a process that would be endorsed by the five main Stormont parties.

In an interview with BBC Political Editor Enda McClafferty on Friday, Prime Minister Boris Johnson spoke again of healing and reaching an understanding of what happened – drawing lines and moving on.

His words are in that frame of reconciliation and information – and, in the background, the suggestion is the government may well “crack on” with its proposals.

It will be a big call for ministers – one of many in a political autumn fraught with danger.

Johnson said: “We don’t want to deny anybody justice” – but what does that mean?

Could it be, to borrow words from a source, “trying to find justice in a different way” – in other words through a meaningful information process.

This government – this Prime Minister – is not trusted, not believed on this issue and on others.

McClafferty reminded Johnson that his fingerprints are all over the protocol, which he says will now have to be fixed or ditched – a protocol that is part and parcel of an unthinking Brexit and that EU exit that was Johnson’s highest priority.

More important than Northern Ireland.

More important than the Union.

Can this government be believed on any agreement?

All of this plays into the latest machinations and manoeuvres at Stormont – the DUP boycott of North/South meetings and the threat to the Executive whether on this issue or the Protocol or on Irish language legislation.

If it falls, would it mean a 2021 election?

That is by no means certain. It is a call for the Secretary of State.

New measures as part of the New Decade New Approach agreement – allowing for more time to resolve differences in the event of a crisis at Stormont – are not yet in place.

Back in January 2017, when Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister, then Secretary of State James Brokenshire took just a week to announce an election date in March that year.

This time – if the Executive collapses – there is a view that Lewis would play things longer; that the “reasonable time” he has to decide on these matters could easily be stretched to the scheduled Assembly election date of May 2022.

I asked one of the DUP’s senior elected representatives if he thought there would be a 2021 election: “No, I don’t,” he replied – but he acknowledged the unpredictability of politics in the here-and-now.

Nothing is certain. There are too many moving parts.

Even if we get to May 2022, there is another question.

What if Sinn Fein becomes the largest party. Would unionists nominate a deputy First Minister?

“We’re not there yet,” one source commented.

He thought back to 2017 and the Assembly election in which unionists lost their overall majority at Stormont – and, then, thought of the Westminster election months later when the DUP won ten seats.

Might the fear of a Sinn Fein First Minister again energise the unionist vote – allowing the DUP to “move on swimmingly as largest party”?

A lot has happened in the four-plus years since the summer of 2017.

The European elections in which unionists lost their second seat.

Then, the Westminster election of 2019, viewed as a day of reckoning for the DUP over Brexit; and, of course, there is the  turmoil of this centenary year in which the party has had three leaders.

Politics here doesn’t do “swimmingly”.

If it survives 2021, it is a crisis delayed – not yet averted.

Stormont is holding on to a very thin thread.

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About Author

Brian Rowan

Brian Rowan is a journalist/author. A former BBC correspondent in Belfast, four times he has been a category winner in the Northern Ireland Press and Broadcast Awards. He is the author of several books on the peace process. His latest book (published by Merrion Press) POLITICAL PURGATORY – the battle to save Stormont and the play for a New Ireland is now available at www.merrionpress.ie


  1. That idiot in the above picture is part of the problem… another in a long, long line of English ministers who know next to nothing about the province they’re effectively overseeing and look at the place as little more than some backward coconut colony… enough already!

    Close up the NIO, bring back the office of a non-political Governor, and all the reserved matters that Westminster deals with regards to NI can be taken care of by the relevant Whitehall departments.

    Better still yet, bring back majority rule to Stormont (leaving the unicameral 90-member chamber otherwise as is), and we won’t have the continued dysfunction inherent in that mandatory coalition system. Also, transfer all aspects of the GFA, it’s subsequent agreements, and that iniquitous 2019 Executive Formation Act over to Stormont’s legislative competence.

    Just as a last note, Unionism lost it’s Stormont majority in 2017 because of RHI… that is no longer an issue, I personally think Unionism will regain that majority at the next Assembly election… especially if the so-called ‘Beattie bounce’ proves accurate and the UUP emerge with 16-18 seats, which I think is a very real possibility.

    It’ll be close between DUP and SF, but I predict the former will edge ahead when all is counted and a unionist First Minister will remain.

    As for the NIO legislating an ILA over the heads of the Assembly… if we’d had the February 2018 deal to restore Stormont signed, sealed, and delivered, an ILA would no longer be an issue, especially if Linda Ervine was the commissioner for such a body!

    Another day, another Stormont crisis… ho hum…

    • As I understand it, the Good Friday Agreement is an international treaty between two sovereign states, so is thus outside of Stormont’s remit, and no government of Great Britain or the Irish Republic would countenance handing such a hard-won agreement over to a dysfunctional Assembly to be torn apart in partisan squabbles and risk a return to the bad old days. It was probably a mistake in hindsight for Stormont to have been able to unilaterally amend the Government of Ireland Act 1920, so lessons need learned.

      I would however agree that a return to majority rule at Stormont would help solve the seemingly perpetual dysfunction of that place. The days of an unassailable Unionist majority are over, and what we have now is a more competitive – some would say equitable – situation with unionism and nationalism almost evenly split, and Alliance in the middle. Even the BelTel’s resident nationalist commentator, Malachi O’Doherty, has advocated that majority rule should be an option worth considering.

      I completely agree with the idea of closing up the Northern Ireland Office and transferring reserved matters to Whitehall, as do I agree with bringing back the office of Governor. These are all sensible measures that do not intrude on the core tenets of the Good Friday Agreement.

      I would advocate, if it were up to me, for a bicameral Northern Ireland Parliament once again; with an 80-member lower house (elected on PR as is but with different constituencies to Westminster seats) and a 26-member Senate (elected by PR across a single province-wide constituency, with half elected to a six-year term every three years) that has the power to not only amend and approve legislation passed by the lower chamber but also to veto it outright if so voted upon by members.

      Back it all up with a Bill of Rights negotiated by all parties and passed by at least a three-quarters majority of the Assembly, and I think we’re onto a winner here.

      Just my own humble thoughts and opinions, for what they’re worth.

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