Brexit And Northern Ireland

Editorial, Irish Political Review, March 18

The strange British device called Northern Ireland was based on an antagonism of two stable populations with fixed ideas, which we described fifty years ago as two nations. One of those populations ruled the other in local Six County affairs then, while the basic services of state were laid on by the Westminster Government, in which neither of them was ever represented.

That arrangement led to a war, and it had to be scrapped as a means of ending the War. It was replaced by a local system of government in which there was no central body of the kind that is usually meant by the word Government. Departments of government were shared out between the two populations to be conducted independently. They were not Departments of a general Government conducted by a Prime Minister. Each population had its own Prime Minister, called a First Minister. There were two First Minister—formally a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister, but the Deputy was in fact a Second First Minister, and was in no way subordinate to the First First Minister.

That 1998 Agreement abolished the pretence that there was a general Six County body politic on which a general Six County Government could be based.

We supported it in 1998 as a means by which the antagonism of the two stable populations could be transferred from war to peace. What we supported was the letter of the Agreement. There were others who supported it for what they said was its spirit, which was a spirit of reconciliation.

Twenty years later it is being said that the Agreement failed because it clearly has not reconciled. If there was anything in the letter of the Agreement that could be reasonably understood as having the purpose of reconciling, it might be said that it has failed But there isn’t.

The Agreement worked because its actual arrangements were based on acceptance of the fact of irreconcilable antagonism. Devolution got a second innings on that basis. It failed when a couple of parties to it became discontented with its successful operation in accordance with its letter and opposed it on the ground that it was not achieving what was not achievable.

The devolved system has now been out of operation for a year. The BBC story is that Sinn Fein brought it down. In fact it was the SDLP that brought it down.

The DUP leader, Arlene Foster, had mismanaged her Department very badly in an administrative matter, some years earlier.

The Second First Minister, Martin McGuinness, did not want to make a great issue of this. He wanted to fudge a way through it—which could be said to be in the spirit of the Agreement. It was the SDLP that made a great issue of it. The SDLP had lost out to Sinn Fein in the Nationalist sector of the electorate because John Hume’s successor, Seamus Mallon, did not seem to know just what the Agreement was that John Hume had played a large part in negotiating. He lost his way in a private republican fantasy of his own. Sinn Fein, whose military wing was the main force that compelled changes to be made, then displaced the SDLP as the major Nationalist Party and it made a working arrangement in accordance with the letter of the Agreement with Paisley’s DUP.

The SDLP, relegated to secondary status in the Nationalist electorate under the Agreement, rejected the letter of the Agreement by forming itself into an Opposition within the Agreement system. The Ulster Unionist Party, which had similarly lost out to the DUP, did likewise. The two losing parties then combined against the Agreement system as an Opposition and refused to take up the Departments under it which their vote entitled them to and which the spirit of the Agreement required them to do. And the tiny Alliance party followed suit.

The implication of the SDLP stance was that the Agreement should be scrapped and replaced with a voluntary Coalition under a general system of Government. It therefore made a great constitutional issue of Arlene Foster’s mishandling of the wood-burning affair, making it inadvisable to Sinn Fein to fudge a way through the crisis.

The SDLP knew fine well that, if the Foster/McGuinness co-operation was brought down, setting up a replacement after an election would be problematical. So it was. And so it is. And the SDLP itself has not profited at all from what it did.

An Irish Language Act is now the issue. The London and Dublin Governments thought that, by coming to Belfast, they could overawe the locals and hustle them into agreement. They had not learned from half a century of experience that hustling just doesn’t work in the Six Counties.

It seem to have just clicked with Unionists that the Irish language issue is not a piece of nonsense on a par with Ulster Scots.

Forty years ago we were conducting a vigorous campaign to bring the Six Counties within the democracy of the state of which they are a part. What that meant in practice was getting the parties that govern the state to organise and contest elections in the Six County region of the state. One meeting at which this was discussed was attended by Ken Maginnis, the personification of bluff Fermanagh Unionism. He said that if he agreed to this project he just could not return to Fermanagh and face his Catholic constituents after he blighted their hopes.

He was not the only one who took it that, if the democratic politics of the state came to the Six County region of it, that would kill off Nationalism. We couldn’t see that at all. But it was enlightening to hear from a solid Ulster Unionist that he was concerned that the Catholic population in the North should continue in the rut established for it in 1921.

Dublin Governments were intended to provide back-ups for the Nationalist community under the Agreement, while the Government of the Union state reassured the Unionist community.

But Dublin refused to play its part. The basic reason for this that it refused to admit to a special relationship with the Nationalist community and insisted that its concern was with the entire population of the North. This was its official stance, even though everyone knew that the Unionist community refused any association with Dublin.

Until 1998 the Southern Constitution asserted that there was a single national community in the whole of Ireland, and it could be said that Dublin Governments were therefore prohibited from being guarantors of one of the national communities in the North against the other. But in 1998 that provision of the Constitution was repealed. Its repeal was a condition of the Agreement. That left Dublin free to take up what was in fact its natural alignment in the internal affairs of the North.

Its failure to do so was connected with the rise of Sinn Fein as an effective political party in the South as well as the North, and Sinn Fein was a painful reminder to both Fine Gael and Fianna Fail of where they had come from. In 1998 they had both been working on a denial of their origins for about a quarter of a century. That was their way of coping with the War in the North. They were in denial about social realities in the North. And they could not admit that what led to the War in the North was the communal structure of subordinate government outside the democracy of the state, that the British Parliament imposed in 1921.

Shrinking minds could not bear the weight of the thought that Britain itself, the Mother of Parliaments, was responsible for the War in its Irish region. Britain had to be excused, except perhaps of some secondary negligence. So what was the cause? History was the cause. And history was the movement for national independence. History had to be re-written, and the North kept out of mind as far as possible.

The concern about the North that has sprouted up during the past year is spurious. It is only displacement activity connected with Brexit.

NB: The brief Haughey period is an exception to what is said above.


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