The following is a special edition of The Irish Political Review on the present crisis in ‘Northern Ireland’:
The general historical context of the current crisis in the Northern Ireland institu- tions is that Ireland was Partitioned by the British Parliament and part of it retained within the UK under the most extraordinary conditions. The Six counties were made into “Northern Ireland”. A devolved govern- ment was imposed on them. And they were excluded from the political life of the state.
In 1998, after 28 years of war, a local devolved administration, based on a division of power between the two hostile communities in the region, was set up. The nationalist party that proved to be capable of operating this system is Sinn Fein, and the competent unionist party is the Democratic Unionist Party. Operating the system required a spirit of compromise. The Unionists were less willing for this than Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein made allowance for Unionist resent- ment and possibly, under severe pressure, made too many compromises in more recent times for the liking of its support base. Then it was unexpectedly presented with an opportunity to step out of the arrangement advantageously.
Never look a gift horse in the mouth! Sinn Fein was presented with the sorry-looking nag of the Renewable Heating Initiative debacle in December and it did look it over, contemplating rejection of the gift. But then, reluctantly, it accepted it. It resigned from the Power-Sharing Executive. That was the right thing to do. Power-Sharing in Northern Ireland was never more than a transitional arrangement. Nation- alists understood that. Unionists denied it was the case—though fearing that it might be so.
The gift horse related to problems over how to handle a crisis in public confidence relating to a Renewable Heating Initiative, which set a public subsidy for using wooden pellets at a price which in due course allowed profits to be made by burning pellets at public expense. The scheme was introduced under the auspices of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment when it was presided over by the present First Minister, Arlene Foster of the Democratic Unionist Party.
Ian Paisley told his party that it must inveigle Sinn Fein into the business of administering Northern Ireland—implicate it in the detail and let it feel ownership. That was done to a very limited extent under his guidance. He was, however, pushed aside by the fundamentalists and the lesson set aside. Thus, when the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal made remedial action necessary, rather than consult Northern Ireland’s first Minister for Finance Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, the Democratic Unionist Party Economy Minister drew up a scheme and then gave it to Ó Muilleoir—only to with- draw it one hour later The way the Irish language has been treated epitomised what happened: petty things but indicative. A publicly-owned boat had its Gaelic name painted over, Irish-language schools were stymied from development and, finally, a £50,000 Annual Bursary giving small grants on a means-tested basis to students of Irish was ended by Communities Minister Paul Givan. That, as Finance Minister Máirtín Ó Muilleoir said, was the straw that broke the camel’s back. After Martin McGuinness’s resignation as second First Minister, the Grant was restored. That is reminiscent of the piecemeal concessions given by Terence O’Neill to a rising people. Always too little, too late.
Charles Haughey said Northern Ireland was a failed entity. What did he mean? It is inhabited by two communities with conflicting ideals. It is not a State—a State is a security apparatus above all, but it also has to oversee the economic and social well- being of its inhabitants. If Northern Ireland were a State, it would have to reach an accommodation of sorts in order to provide a framework for existence, taking communal divisions into account. There are such multi-national, multi-ethnic or multi-lingual states. Belgium and Lebanon spring to mind. But Northern Ireland is not a State: its security apparatus, economy and substance of social affairs are directed from London.
As Northern Ireland is not a State, and as it is a divided society—or even two societies — with an ever-growing minority society which has aspirations to be Irish, the arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement could never be more than transitional. But that transition could have lasted for many decades.
Dr. Paisley’s approach did catch with a section of the republican community, epitom- ised by Martin McGuinness, whose heart has literally been broken by the frustrations of trying to run government with a Unionist community which could not leave its majori- tarianism aside—which could not warm to the scheme of luring the Catholic community into embracing the status quo with cultural concessions. Unionists have relentlessly pursued one-nation politics—the Ulster British nation—as far as their position allowed.
An ally to the Unionists in this endeavour has been a declining SDLP—the Redmondite party. It is a conundrum. Redmondites are anti-Unionist on a communal basis, while being British in orientation. Thus, on the one hand, we had the SDLP making trouble over grants designed to keep Loyalist paramilitaries quiet, and other communal projects favouring Unionists, and on the other making a voting alliance with the Ulster Unionist Party, a party appealing to the constituency which is hostile to the Good Friday Agreement on a majoritarian basis.
It has to be said that the SDLP/UUP voting alliance is more aspirational than real. With Proportional Representation, in multi-member constituencies, tactical voting can be used to assert negative power: in other words, in particular situations SDLP voters can use their votes to favour the Democratic Unionist Party or UUP, and Unionist voters can reciprocate by favouring Sinn Fein or the SDLP. In real life, the voting alliance will only work in marginal instances, where a candidate of the ‘right’ community has little hope of election.
The continued existence of second-level Unionist and Nationalist parties has been a factor weakening Power-sharing.
This weakness was accentuated by the concession made in the Fresh Start Agree- ment of Autumn 2016 to allow for an Official Opposition, an amendment to the Good Fri- day Agreement (GFA) sought by the second- level Unionist Party, the Ulster Unionist Party.
Power-sharing is a delicate, unnatural plant, which required to be nurtured by implicating all the major political forces of the society in the administration of such power as was devolved by Westminster.
Creating an Official Opposition meant that a political segment of the society was not implicated in the administration. Real weaknesses could be exploited by the Opposition to create instability.
In fact that grouping rejected the Agreement, which was designed to include in government all substantial political forces. By boycotting government, the SDLP sought to exploit as political weakness things that were done by the parties in Government in the spirit of the Agreement. For example, ex-SDLP leader Margaret Ritchie M.P., who currently represents South Down in Westminster, accused Sinn Fein of appeasing the Democratic Unionist Party because it had worked the Agreement with it (RTE Radio 13.1.17). ‘Appeasement’ is unprincipled concession to a hostile force. And Sinn Fein had undoubt- edly given cover to the DUP in keeping militant elements of the Loyalist community happy. But, if a party was to avoid comprom- ising itself in that way, it should never have signed the Agreement. Until the SDLP turned against the GFA in a desperate attempt to retrieve its electoral fortunes, it too worked the Agreement by ‘Appeasing’ Unionists. And, indeed, Unionist opposition to Power-Sharing would likewise regard the DUP as appeasing Republicans.
To be consistent, instead of misrepresenting the Agreement opportunistically in this way by criticising its workings from the viewpoint of ‘normal’ politics, the SDLP—which after all was an architect of the Agreement—should reject it in a principled manner as having been a mistake.
When the SDLP joined the UUP in opposition, there was the semblance of an alternative Government in the wings, one representing both the Unionist and Nation- alist communities. But this was apparent, rather than real. Unionist and nationalist they were, but neither with a hope of becoming the majority party in their community.
The essentially unionist Alliance Party also, irresponsibly, went into opposition— hoping to spark the collapse of the Executive. Having failed to win Ministerial representation in its own right in 2016, it still had the role of providing personnel for the sensitive job of Minister of Justice, which neither Sinn Fein or the Democratic Unionist Party could allow to be filled by the other. This Ministerial role does not carry a lot of power, as the real security functions remain under direct Whitehall control, but nevertheless it is of symbolic importance. It was a big gain for Sinn Fein when the Democratic Unionist Party allowed the function to be devolved to the Executive some years after the Power-sharing Executive had been formed. In the event, Sinn Fein showed considerable flexibility by accepting an Independent Unionist MLA, the young Claire Sugden, to do the job. It has to be said that, if the Democratic Unionist Party had shown an ounce of the integrity and political flexibility of this young lady, Sinn Fein would not have been presented with this gift horse.
The object of the UUP in establishing an Opposition was not to provide good govern- ment by holding the administration to account. The aim was to weaken the Good Friday Agreement arrangements by exploiting political fault-lines in an opportunist way in order to bring an end to the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) and its communal division of power. Instead it wants ‘normal’ politics— majority rule politics, with Unionists in control —the position which was lost as a result of the war fought by republicans for 28 years. As a result of that war, Unionists are now prepared to accept junior partners in their majority rule administration: a position which Colm Eastwood’s SDLP now aspires to.
Republicans, however, are not about to give up the hard-fought-for peace deal,which divides power on a communal basis in favour of a majoritarian system, which gives the ascendancy to the majority party. It must not be forgotten that, after the Republican military campaign ended, it took many years to make the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) work in practice. If anyone doubts the frustrations of this process, they should read Pat Walsh’s Resurgence.
If an Official Opposition had not been grafted onto the delicate Good Friday Agreement (GFA) plant, it is unlikely we would be facing into an election in March of this year.
When that election is held, there will be one seat less in each constituency—a cost- cutting feature provided for in the Fresh Start Agreement. It is said that this will hit the minority parties, and in particular the UUP and the SDLP .
Mike Nesbitt told the last UUP Conference that a vote for Colm Eastwood’s SDLP was a vote for himself. Eastwood addressed that Unionist Conference and reciprocated. Of course, if the voting pact of these two minor Opposition Parties kicks into play,
they might avoid relegation. But will it? Over the years the Catholic community has gradually withdrawn support from the SDLP. How is it likely to respond to the way it has embraced a Pact which would return the province to majority-rule politics, albeit with a qualified majority: Sunningdale For Slow Learners?
The Fresh Start Agreement providing for an Opposition was negotiated by Dr. Paisley’s lieutenant of old, Peter Robinson. Though he displaced Paisley at the head of a group which thought Power-Sharing could be operated in a way that was more restrictive of Catholics, Robinson learned in the course of a number of crises that this was not so. Were embarrassing incidents in the Robinsons’ personal affairs (such as his wife’s youthful lover and other matters) brought into the public domain by the security services acting on instruction from the London authorities, in order to exert behind-the-scenes pressure on Robinson to work Power-Sharing properly? There is no way of knowing. All that can be said is that the Labour Governments of Blair and Brown maintained a stabilising involvement with the delicate Northern Ireland arrangements, while the two subsequent Conservative Governments did not. (It might be added that Martin McGuinness helped Robinson through these difficulties as a friend.)
Having negotiated a change which weakened the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) structures, Peter Robinson retired from politics. His replacement, Arlene Foster, a solicitor who left Ulster Unionist Party for the DUP for ‘ultra’ reasons, clearly has little grasp of politics. So far she has shown herself an energetic and competent communal representative. But she has little empathy with the minority community, and there must be a question- mark over her administrative competence.
A word should be said about the scheme which triggered the crisis, the Renewable Heating Initiative. Switching from imported fuel to home-grown wood chips is obviously a good idea. When the scheme was introduced in Northern Ireland, wood-chips were expensive, so the subsidy was that: a partial recompense of additional expenditure by the consumer. However, the Northern Ireland version of this British scheme failed to incorporate a cap on subsidies operated in Britain, nor did it allow for contractual amendments in pricing.
Though some of the preliminary administrative work was outsourced to consultants and free-standing bodies, Arlene Foster, as Minister for Enterprise, had responsibility for the scheme. When the flaws emerged, she blamed her civil servants.
Whatever about that, when the deficiencies became apparent, before the matter
became public, neither she nor her Democratic Unionist Party colleagues in the rele- vant financial Departments took remedial action. This left the issue as a gift for the new-born Opposition to exploit.
Sinn Fein very reasonably asked Arlene Foster to stand aside (not stand down) from her role as First Minister while an independent investigation was conducted. It was argued that, as head of the administration, there was a conflict of interest for Arlene Foster, in that the enquiry would come under the auspices of her Executive.
Claire Sugden, the Independent Unionist Minister for Justice, did not back the Sinn Fein demand, taking the view that one is innocent till proved guilty—an honourable, if somewhat unpolitical approach in the circumstances.
There was undoubtedly an element of ‘sin-bin’ in the Stand Aside demand. But it was the minimum required to assuage public anger in the Catholic community, a frustration with one-sided Unionist Ministerial decisions which had built up over many years. The perception was that Catholic Ministers made some attempt to allow for Protestant community interests in the administration of their own Ministries, whilst Unionist Ministers were seen as pursuing community interests in a one-sided manner. Also, it has to be said that Unionist Ministers, for whatever reasons, seemed content to implement London ‘Austerity’ policies, while their nationalist counterparts were not. All this Catholic discontent reached tipping point in the current crisis.
Sinn Fein did not have a good election eight months ago. (Neither did the SDLP, but that is another story.) It had turned the other cheek to multiple Unionist ‘strokes’—including Peter Robinson’s abrogation of a formally- agreed deal on the establishment of a heritage centre on the site of the former Maze Prison, a project of symbolic and sentimental importance to Catholics.
It had endured various cultural slights. And, worst of all, Sinn Fein had been forced to implement the London Government’s Austerity measures in aspects of social welfare provisions which had been devolved to Stormont—a matter on which Unionists refused to make common cause.
Thus Sinn Fein was outflanked on the left in the last Election by People Before Profit, Anti-Austerity Alliance, losing two seats to that all-Ireland party which rejects ‘nationalist’ politics.
One of the columnists on the Irish News, Patrick Murphy, argues for Power-Sharing to be ended in favour of majority rule politics on a Left/Right basis. He does not explain how such politics are to come into existence when the decisions on social policy are made in London by a Government which gets no votes in Northern Ireland. There is also a younger generation which has grown up since the Troubles, which has had other concerns and has not participated in politics.
Added to this the Sinn Fein voting base has been diminished by the loss of support from a section of Republicans who are discontented with its participation in Stor- mont, people who are angered at the compro- mises made on the long road to Irish unity.
However, this issue of RHI extravagance —in the face of Austerity on Welfare and Irish culture—has fired up the Catholic community. An election held now could put Sinn Fein in a much stronger position as the representative party of the Catholic community.
Sinn Fein is also enjoying a unique degree of support for its stance from official Ireland, even from the Irish Independent, though RTE Northern Editor Tommy O’Gorman accused Sinn Fein of causing the crisis by being too proud to carry on playing second fiddle and Micheál Martin continues to knock the party. It is recognised that, to promote reconciliation with Unionism, Martin Mc Guinness has ‘sullied’ the republican ideal by meeting Royalty in a gracious way, commemorating Britain’s Imperialist ‘Great War; and in lesser Northern Ireland matters. (This can be contrasted with the sniping at Sinn Fein by all the Southern parties when Sinn Fein had to implement London’s ‘Austerity’ policies—to save Power-Sharing—in contradiction to its own programme aspirations.)
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, another ultra who switched to the Democratic Unionist Party from David Trimble’s Ulster Unionist Party, has said that, if there is an election, Power-Sharing will not be re-established any time soon.
There is likely to be a concerted attempt to get Sinn Fein to give up this gift-horse of an election that has strayed into its stable. Concessions will be offered. It will not be surprising if some of these are really attractive —extra money for welfare; even the Maze Heritage Centre and an ‘Irish Language Act’ (already agreed, but withheld by Unionism).
However, this gift horse is too valuable to Sinn Fein to be given up. It needs this new election to satisfy Catholic anger and put it into a commanding political position.
And, after the Election, it should take a leaf from Sir Jeffrey’s book: Power-Sharing should not be re-established too hastily. It should be conditional on a worthwhile Unionist undertaking at the very least to implement those things which were agreed in the past but were reneged on. And the Dublin Establishment must be made to understand that, if it wants Devolution to exist—and it seems to want it badly now that it no longer exists—it must try to understand what Northern Ireland really is, and must stop trying to subvert Sinn Fein in the North for reasons related to domestic politics in the Republic.
Sinn Fein is one of the necessary parties in the North. The SDLP, which frittered away its substance and is playing at Opposition, is only a deserter from the obligation which it undertook by negotiating the 1998 Agreement.
Northern Ireland is the’ hook’ in the Irish body politic, left by Britain to draw the Irish breac (trout) back into British waters.
With the communal division as an excuse, Northern Ireland was cut out of the ‘Kingdom of Ireland region of the UK. Britain, appalled at the prospect of a minority Unionist community in an all-Ireland administration, made the nationalist community a (larger) minority in an undemocratic Unionist- controlled area of its own state.
The ‘hook’ for Ireland over the subsequent century has been that, if it wants to vindicate the territorial integrity of the historic kingdom and the the rights of nationalists in Northern Ireland, it can easily do this by going ‘home’ to Britain. And every move to vindicate the Irish historical destiny in the area freed from British rule encountered the criticism that unity was being made more problematical. The more ‘Irish’ the Irish became, the harder it would be to inveigle Unionists to Irish unity. The idea was promoted that the more like Britain that Ireland became, the more likely the Unionists would be to accept Irish unity.
Down the years various grounds for Unionist objections to unity with Ireland have fallen by the wayside‚in particular the idea that Ireland was too Catholic or too poor. Only the cultural difference now remains.
The 1970 war in Northern Ireland was fought in the first instance for Irish unity. When Republicans came to understand that the majority community in Northern Ireland was too intransigent in defending their identity and too strong to accept an all-Ireland state, they settled for an interim arrangement.
This made sense. It is unlikely that Protestants will ever vote en masse for a United Ireland; they are too independent and too wedded to their heritage to transfer their allegiance to Ireland: a country with which they have little cultural affinity.
However, a prolonged period of Power-Sharing could accustom Protestants to living with Catholics who exercised political power.
A united Ireland will never be a love match for the Protestants, but in due course, with an ever-increasing Catholic population soon to become a majority, it could be an arranged marriage which brings satisfaction to both sides.
This was the prospect opened up by Power-Sharing under the GFA. It was a project which tended to circumvent the ‘hook’ of Partition. That route to accommodation has been blocked off by the British vote to leave the European Union. There will be no escaping a ‘hard Border’ between Britain and Europe, to be established in April 2019. Will that Hard Border run between Britain and the island of Ireland or along the present dividing line between Northern and Southern Ireland?
Here is the ‘hook’ of Northern Ireland back to catch the Irish trout.
Taoiseach Enda Kenny’s inclination— seconded by his Foreign Minister Charles Flanagan—is to keep Ireland as a whole as close as possible to Britain. He knows it is not practical politics, yet, for the Republic to follow Britain out of Europe—but that is the way Blueshirt sympathisers would favour.
Part of the Fine Gael game plan has been to argue to European leaders that Northern Ireland, and particularly keeping the peace in Northern Ireland—the hard-won Republican Peace Process—require dilution of European rules to allow some kind of constitutional ambiguity over the position of Northern Ireland, so that it can remain both European and British in constitutional terms. The European part of that equation would be mediated by Ireland— ergo a United Ireland would be brought another step closer. That has been the thinking behind the Kenny strategy since the Brexit vote.
The trouble with that approach is that it keeps Ireland under British tutelage. Europe will have no option but to separate itself quite firmly from Britain after Brexit. Britain has never been European in the way other semi-connected appendages are, countries such as Norway and Switzerland. It is not linked by geography, history or sentiment.
If Northern Ireland is made some kind of constitutional No Man’s Land between Ireland (acting as European surrogate) and Britain, Ireland remains tied into he British sphere, caught by the Northern Ireland hook. It will be constrained from acting freely in its own interests, which now require it to embrace European development.
This Irish game plan has suffered a blow from the threatened collapse of Power Sharing institutions in the North. If no Unionist/ Republican deal is forthcoming, a period of Direct Rule from London threatens. Where will that leave the ‘cunning scheme’ for an incremental increase in Irish authority in the North, as the representative of its continued participation in the EU?
The Irish Government consequently regards the threatened breakdown of Power Sharing with horror.
What the Irish Government fails to appreciate is that no gradualism, no enticement of EU participation—no wooing—will ever turn Unionists into Nationalists. The two Species are distinct and incremental changes within each will not turn one into the other.
Until Nationalist Ireland understands and accepts that fact, the British hook in the Irish body politic will remain operative.
Does this mean that Northern Ireland is destined to ever remain a constitutional No Man’s Land, with no politics relating to social issues but divided on community lines?
Definitely not. Unionists took the principle of Democracy as its justification when refusing to be part of a Home Rule Ireland a century ago. The sphere of that democratic polity that Unionists chose was the area of Six Counties in the NE of Ireland: not Four Counties or anything else. That was the area chosen as their sphere of electoral politics.
A United Ireland can and must come about when those who vote Unionist cease to be preponderant within the electoral arena that Unionists themselves chose.
Up to now, Catholic disinclination to change has made the prospect of a United Ireland less likely, even when the Protestants lost their electoral majority.
With Brexit looming, that looked set to change—but even so there was no dramatic change in nationalist attitudes visible north of the Border. If the Irish Government looked to Catholic anger—a dissatisfaction threatening a resumption of war at the idea of a Hard Border being re-imposed within the island to second its plea for an ambiguous status for Northern Ireland after Brexit—it was not coming.
But could the prospect of Brexit underlie the surprising explosion of Catholic anger at the Renewable Heating Initiative scandal—a row which has crystallised feelings about other cultural slights over a long period of years?
The suspicion has to be that there is a gradual realisation that the era of Power- Sharing is in its end-game. That expedient has played its role, in giving some degree of political power and respect to the Catholic community. This has been equally enfranchised locally and dis-enfranchised nationally for a decade. That is to say, both communities have been equally able to exercise administrative functions (according to their size) with both being disenfranchised by having no say at the real Cabinet table where decisions are made.
There is no way that the Catholic community can forgo real politics indefinitely. That is to say, at some point the Catholic community will want to be able to vote for a party that sits at the Cabinet Table that makes real decisions. Inevitably, that Cabinet Table will be in Dublin.
It may be that Power-Sharing has run its course. It might be that there is a period of Direct Rule from London. It might even be that Northern Ireland is taken out of the EU by the London Government, despite the fact that a majority of its citizens hold European passports.
It may be that only when these things have happened that a majority in the North take up the option of the GFA which provides for the area to shift from Britain to Ireland.
That will undoubtedly occur sooner or later. At that point it will be neither here nor there whether that majority is Protestant or Catholic in nature. The Unionist slogan down the years has been majority rule, and they can hardly switch to other principles when they are no longer a majority.
What should happen in the event of a vote to shift to the Irish Republic? Should some form of Power Sharing devolution be retained within Northern Ireland?
The answer has to be No! It is up to the Irish governing parties to organise in Northern Ireland. It may be expected that the Irish Labour Party could be rejuvenated by organising in unionist working class areas. But Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will also find their adherents. Fine Gael has long been the party which has attracted most Protestant voters in Irish Border areas and elsewhere. But Fianna Fail will also undoubtedly find a support base.
But what about the special interests of the Protestant community?
A couple of years ago an elaborate system of 11 Super Councils replaced the old form of multiple Local Government Authorities. It made no sense as a scheme in which there is a devolved administration. However, viewed in the context of rule from Dublin, the Super Councils make absolute sense. It would make sense to continue, and perhaps enhance, the area of public administration devolved to the Super Councils. This would enable Unionists to exercise a degree of direct power in the areas in which they predominate—but under the legislative competence of a real Government—one which they will have a voice in electing: by contrast to the present position where Unionists—indeed no one in Northern Ireland—have no voice in electing the Central Government.