It has been driven off the front pages by last night’s shock result in Chesham, but across the water the Democratic Unionist Party is in the process of thoroughly beclowning itself.
Edwin Poots, who only three weeks ago orchestrated a coup against Arlene Foster, has resigned – but not before putting forward his protege, Paul Givan, to be First Minister.
As a result, the post is now held by a man who’s CV largely consists of different ways to say ‘worked for Poots’, and the only way to get rid of him is for him to resign. But Poots is gone, and the DUP are now in the process of electing yet another new leader.
Where does this leave those who felt that “splitting the role of party leader risked “demeaning the office” of first minister”? Who knows.
As I explained a couple of weeks ago, all this has consequences beyond what’s left of the DUP’s dignity. The whole fiasco seems to have put Northern Ireland’s devolved system on life support. Again.
Why? Well, Sinn Fein had been threatening to collapse the institutions (again) over Givan’s nomination as First Minister, due to his opposition to an Irish Language Act. Or rather, opposition to having to pass one. Poots was entirely quite content to constitute an executive if Westminster passed the offending legislation instead.
So Brandon Lewis stepped up and said the Government would do just that. At which point elements of the DUP pointed out, not wrongly, that this was effectively a total capitulation on the substance by Poots, in exchange for a mere face-saving measure. So they teamed up with allies of Sir Jeffrey Donaldson to bring him down.
Perhaps Sir Jeffrey will get to be leader now. Perhaps not.
How long must this cycle continue before we start to have a serious conversation about the fact that Northern Irish devolution manifestly doesn’t work? How many more times will the Secretary of State let one party or the other knock Stormont over and insist on getting bribed back into it before deciding enough is enough?
The aftermath of the Renewable Heat Incentive (RHI) scandal has exposed serious and systemic failures in now Ulster has been governed. If Lewis or his successor were prepared to grasp the nettle, even for a couple of years, they could do a lot of good: introduce delayed legislation, drive through reforms, integrate the Northern Irish Civil Service into the Home Civil Service, and much more besides. A chance to demonstrate to local voters the value of being part of the UK.
In many ways, Northern Ireland is coming to embody the problems with the ‘devo-max’ model that Luke Graham, the former head of the Union Unit, recently warned against. If a woeful devolution model is so deeply entrenched that Westminster can’t correct it, the utility of the British connection is hugely reduced. Then parties which don’t want the Province to work are free to disrupt it, holding out a ‘united Ireland’ as the only alternative.
Maybe the DUP and Sinn Fein will talk their way through this crisis. It is hard to care. We’ll surely be back here again soon enough. The cycle will continue for as long as Westminster is prepared to enable it.