Between a rock and a hard place

Once again the Prime Minister is facing another conundrum trying to keep her majority in place whilst placating members of her own Party and minimising negative publicity. It seems to be an ongoing challenge for May, who appears to spend more time mediating domestic squabbles rather than developing policy and running the country.

The latest one is over abortion law in Northern Ireland. With the historic referendum result in the Republic of Ireland a couple of weeks ago, the Prime Minister has come under pressure for all sides of the political spectrum to intervene in the Province and overturn the ban on abortions. Stella Creasy led a debate in Parliament yesterday, and powerful testimony was heard from all benches both for and against a change in the law.

The question arises because, even though Northern Ireland has its own Parliament at Stormont, they have not sat for in excess of a year after the power-sharing deal with the DUP and Sinn Fein collapsed. It does seem quite ridiculous that politicians have not managed to bring this saga to a conclusion with several rounds of talks between the parties getting nowhere. The political stalemate in Northern Ireland has resulted in a piecemeal approach to policy making, with Ministers in place but not really doing much and the Northern Ireland Office in Westminster taking over responsibility for key decisions such as budgets. It is impractical for this to continue ad infinitum, one might think, so why does Karen Bradley and before her James Brokenshire not simply place a firm deadline for direct rule to be re-imposed. This would bring certainty to Northern Ireland and prevent sticky situations such as the current debate over abortion.

Put simply – no government of any political persuasion wants to return to direct rule. Power sharing on the whole worked well – there was a rapprochement between two former political enemies that once would never have been seen in the same room as each other let along work in Government together. And as an added bonus, it removed troublesome political decisions from Westminster.

But particular to Theresa May, a return to direct rule would bring about a collapse in her majority. The DUP are still the largest party in Northern Ireland and with the current arrangement they still have a possibility of returning to Government with Arlene Foster duly installed as First Minister. And on top of that, the DUP would never support a Government who looked to repeal the 1861 Offences Against the Person Act. So once again the Prime Minister is caught between a rock and a hard place although the decision on this occasion is simple – this is not worth risking the wrath of the DUP and hastening the collapse of her Government. The stalemate in Northern Ireland works to her advantage and therefore will remain in situ for some time to come.

The only hope for Northern Ireland is that at some point the DUP and Sinn Fein will want to return to Government and will compromise sufficiently to find a way forward. Not much hope of that at the moment – perhaps the stick rather than the carrot might prove to be more fruitful.