Conservative Diary

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Northern Ireland is going to be a time-consuming issue for the current Prime Minister - and his likely successor - in the coming months

UK map with union jack flag Years of writing about Northern Ireland during the mid to late 1990s taught me an indispensable lesson: it can't be fully covered from the mainland.

I'll therefore side-step the weekend's stories about the devolution of policing impasse; Sinn Fein's ultimatums to the DUP; the DUP's own existential crisis as the fall-out from the Robinson scandal continues; and the developing tale of the Adams family child abuse saga.

I'll also avoid, for the time being, the swirl of rumour about possible DUP-UUP co-operation; the DUP's internal divisions; the position of the rejectionist party Traditional Unionist Voice; and the prospects for the UUP-Conservative "New Force" alliance.

Any of these topics is worth an essay in itself.  Owen Paterson's immense toil - no English Opposition politician can ever have spent more time in the Province - also deserves mention and credit.

But given the limitation of writing from England - which also deters me from speculating about the capacity and intentions of "dissident Republicans", I'll make only a few points:

  • The Northern Ireland Executive may collapse soon, as Sinn Fein seek an immediate Assembly election which would see them snatch up the lion's share of the republican and nationalist vote, and most likely leave the Unionist vote demoralised and divided.
  • Opaque though Northern Ireland is to read, it's apparent even from this side of the Irish Sea that the Robinson affair and its consequences have helped propel Northern Ireland from uneasy repose to deceptive drama - the two extremes of its political cycle.
  • Even if the Executive doesn't collapse and elections don't happen, the resuming Northern Ireland turmoil will consume a large part of Gordon Brown's time, energy and focus - during an election run-up and with his Chilcot appearance looming.
  • Unless a policing settlement glides suddenly and harmoniously into place, the file marked "Northern Ireland" looks certain to land with a resounding thump near the top of his successor's in-tray (assuming we win). 

In such circumstances, David Cameron would have more even than an election campaign to grapple with - forming a Government, tackling a borrowing crisis, managing a host of new MPs, helping to frame an emergency budget, and tackling Afghanistan.

The last thing he'd need would be a Double Union crisis - in one part of it, Alex Salmond claiming that the new Government has no authority in Scotland; in another, consuming events of the kind that sometimes came close to exhausting his predecessor-but-one.  Today, such a prospect looks possible - even probable.

Paul Goodman

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