If devolution is suspended what then for Stormont and regional government?

If the Stormont executive is not restored options on how to govern the region will have to be considered. Picture by Mal McCann

There are a number of ways Northern Ireland could be governed in the event of the Stormont executive being indefinitely mothballed. John Manley looks at the potential scenarios.

In many people's eyes Sinn Féin's rapid rejection of the DUP's proposals to break the Stormont deadlock means the possibility of an executive in the near or medium term is highly unlikely.

No doubt, there will be another final push to secure agreement but significant compromise is required on both sides to achieve a successful outcome and so far we've seen little indication that the two main protangonists will move far enough to make devolution a reality once again.

So if the next round of talks fail and the institutions as we know them are mothballed indefinitely, what are the potential scenarios for governing the region?

In the first instance, it's possible that we may get another election and perhaps another round of talks will follow, though the assumption in most quarters is that we'd simply be back to where we are now, only with even more suspicion and greater recrimination from both sides.

Whatever route is taken as an alternative to an executive it will require fresh legislation in Westminster.

Here's some of the options:

:: Direct rule – A 'direct rule max' scenario like the one that was in place during institutions' five-year suspension from 2002 would be the most straightforward route. It saw a handful of Labour ministers take the lead in Stormont departments. However, with a Conservative government in Westminster propped up by the DUP, it can easily be assumed that this would prove very unpopular with nationalists.

:: Joint authority – Rather than direct rule, nationalists would much prefer joint authority with the Dublin government taking an active role in decision making north of the border. Such a scenario was floated during the previous suspension though many suspect it was a tactic to coax the DUP into government rather than a serious proposition. With the DUP wielding unprecedented power in Westminster, it seems unlikely that the Tories would countenance such as thing.

:: Voluntary coalition – This would signal the end of the mandatory coalition experiment and see the introduction of what is ostensibly a more normal form of government. It would require checks, balances and controls to ensure power wasn't abused by the majority party and in all likelihood these would have to be agreed beforehand through negotiations – the sort of negotiations that have been going on since March. Voluntary coalition is a worthy aspiration for Stormont but most would agree that regional politics would need to grow up significantly before it becomes a reality.

:: Supra council model – This would be akin to how the Welsh assembly operated between 1998-2006 when it had no powers to initiate primary legislation, which remained with Westminster. However, the Stormont assembly would have the ability to discuss, debate, advise and seek to amend legislation. It would also ensure MLAs were still paid. Ministers would not be accountable to the assembly but at least there would be a regional voice, albeit a comparatively weak one.

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