Editorials: Elect-shuns in Northern Ireland, Justice denied, The war in Ukraine continues

Northern Ireland


It is fascinating how Northern Ireland has – and has not – moved in the period from Terence to Michelle – both O’Neills. Terence O’Neill was the second last last prime minister (not that there were many as there were then no challenges to Ulster Unionist Party hegemony) of the old Northern Ireland parliament at Stormont; he was at least slightly reforming and forced out in 1969 by hardliners. In the period since then the old unionist certainties have evaporated and while the two blocs of unionist and nationalist are now both on around 40%, there is a new kid ‘on the bloc’, the ‘ cross-community’ Alliance Party on 13.5% of the vote.

But Michelle O’Neill is the person to become First Minister as an Executive government is achieved at Stormont if and when the DUP decide that enough has been done regarding the Northern Ireland Protocol – though as yet how that can come about is unclear. There has been a lot of turbulent and polluted water under the bridge in the period from Terence to Michelle and the flood is far from done yet.

But politics in Northern Ireland remains deeply divided and the 13.5% and 17 out of the 90 seats up for grabs coming to Alliance represents some slight progress for the middle ground (but partly at the expense of others in the middle) it is not, and cannot be of itself, a breakthrough. The Alliance Party still polls relatively poorly west of the Bann. Both unionism and nationalism need to be strong enough and feeling confident enough to make the deals that will deliver any settlements – whether temporary or permanent for the North. The two larger blocs are not going to go away, you know, and while demographic changes may mean nationalism is increasingly on the up, though the nationalist vote is not necessarily increasing, there is a lot of hard talking and hard bargaining to be done in the future; however the fact that there is more of a ‘middle ground’ than there was augurs better for helping to mediate the future.

But, as always, different people can head in different directions at the same time. More unionists went with the hardline TUV which got 7.6% of the first preference vote but not being transfer-friendly remained with one MLA, the redoubtable (and intransigent) Jim Allister. The two Green Party MLAs lost their seats due to the Alliance surge and more of the ‘middle ground’ coalescing around Alliance. The SDLP and Ulster Unionist party lost slightly in terms of percentage votes and seats. Sinn Féin only gained 1.1% in first preference votes and held their own in terms of number of seats while the DUP lost 3 seats and 6.7% of the vote, mainly to the TUV.

However in terms of underlying trends, while nationalism in the shape of Sinn Féin has come in as the largest party, the total ‘nationalist’ vote has been static for decades, very slightly below the total ‘unionist’ vote, despite demographic increases in the number of Catholics to around parity with Protestants (census information in the autumn should tell us more on this). Catholics increasingly voting for Alliance may be part of an explanation here but while Alliance may proclaim itself agnostic on the question of a United Ireland/Kingdom, Alliance is probably less seen as simply a ‘liberal unionist’ party than in the past. Former MLA Anna Lo proclaiming herself in favour of a united Ireland quite some time ago did surprise but it did not open the floodgates of Alliance representatives going for an all-island solution; agnostics on the question, it may be more accurate to say that most individual supporters would favour the constitutional choice which gave them and the people of the North the best deal – and despite all the health and economic questions at this stage about a united Ireland it cannot be assumed that if it came to the crunch sometime in the medium term future a majority would stay with the status quo, or indeed depart from it.

The positive aspect of all this is that there is a ‘middle ground’ who are not beholden to a particular ideology but can make a decision based on their judgement of what will work out best. And that can no longer be automatically assumed to be staying in the UK though republicans would have to do a lot of work to show that a united Ireland is in everyone’s interests. The existence of a middle ground may also act to persuade some – but certainly not all and probably only a small number – unionists/loyalists and nationalist/republicans to be on their best behaviour in order to encourage those more in the middle to shift their direction. Yet others will ignore the centre ground and go on as before.

But the DUP says no to the operation of the Assembly until the Northern Ireland Protocol is ‘fixed’ to its liking or at least changed enough to allow it to claim ‘victory’. Both the DUP and the British government have sought to hide their role in the current crisis. The DUP, in supporting and pushing for a hard Brexit, were instrumental in defeating Theresa May’s compromise proposal of the whole area of the UK staying in alignment with the EU. The DUP backed Boris Johnson, an inveterate liar, helping him to become prime minister. An arithmetic majority in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU.

The DUP only changed to out and out opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol when they saw support slipping away to the TUV; the DUP were not too careful in what they had wished for. They are now demanding their mandate be listened to before allowing business to proceed whereas previously various leadership figures have supported voluntary coalition. The majority of MLAs elected in the Stormont election in May back reform of the Protocol by negotiation but also forming an Executive government straight away to deal with the various crises affecting the North.

In addition, it is clear that while there are problems with some imports to Northern Ireland and the associated red rope (which is rather larger than red tape), business is generally happy to have easy access to the EU market as well as the UK. Originally Tories and DUP trumpeted this – somewhat ironically as the whole Brexit project was about leaving the EU. And if it leads to greater prosperity in Northern Ireland – which is, without British transfers, poorer than the Republic – that may mean that people would be less likely to want to rock the boat and join a united Ireland in which case the North would automatically become part of the EU. So once again it looks like unionists are going with a gut political reaction which is adverse to their longer term interests in securing the continuation of the union with Britain.

However the DUP is entitled, by current regulations, to take the stand it has and to oppose the Protocol. It has a very substantial vote and that needs listened to. The British government’s negotiating tactics are appalling; instead of showing good faith and willingness to implement an agreement they signed, while pushing hard for change and positively exploring how those changes could give the EU what it requires, even as a tactic it is absurd to suggest it can alter an international treaty unilaterally.

But what should unionism be doing with regard to its own interests? Unionism needs to be trying to kill a united Ireland with kindness (cf ‘killing Home rule by kindness’) so it should be accepting Irish language legislation, promoting a Northern Ireland human rights bill (also in its own interests as it ceases to be a majority in the North) and generally thinking of the needs of Catholics and nationalists. This also requires a recognition that, while they may feel or indeed be as British as anyone on the island of Britain, ‘Northern Ireland’ is different and always has been, and unionists are not, and never have been, ‘Northern Ireland’.

What should nationalism be doing with regard to its own interests? It should be exploring in a realistic manner what a United Ireland might entail and building in to its proposals as many safeguards as possible for the Protestant and unionist population. Patience is also required, not pushing for a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland at the first available opportunity that might give a ‘yes’ to a united Ireland but looking to see what would be the most constructive way to move, and when. In particular, in relation to any transition, this should also be seen as an inclusive process and not something to be done in a rush. In the mean time they should be doing the best for the entity that is Northern Ireland.

Reforming Stormont so that no one party can crash the structure is an immediate step to progress and dealing with the many crises which face the North. The easiest way is simply that the two largest parties have the right to form the OFMDFM (Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister) but if they decline to do so then other parties can step in. In a consociational system how the middle ground of Alliance can be fairly treated also requires action seeing as how they designate as neither unionist nor nationalist and therefore don’t ‘count’. But the (lack of) availability of cash from the British Exchequer under the Tory regime also militates against dealing with the major crises such as the health service, education, poverty and specifically the crisis in the cost of energy and food.

Justice denied

Justice delayed is justice denied’ is an old truism. Justice has certainly been denied in this manner for many victims in Northern Ireland. But British government moves on dealing with the past, and effectively wiping out the possibility of prosecution for Troubles crimes, however remote at this stage, is a stab in the back for victims and a deliberate closing down of possibilities, undertaken for English nationalist reasons to protect British soldiers – and the British state. The possibility of families getting information about the death of their loved ones will also suffer.

To unite all parties in Northern Ireland requires some doing – but the British government has achieved this in relation to its legacy proposals with universal opposition. Of course different parties come at this from different angles but the British Conservative line that there is no alternative to their proposals beggars belief. The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 was not perfect but it had a panoply of structures to cover different aspects of dealing with the recent past, including independent information retrieval, and it was accepted almost across the board; it has been the most recognisable compromise agreement between unionists and nationalists in dealing with the past. The fact that it was not implemented has been a major failure of government and governance, and all the while the possibility of justice was being further delayed. How well it would have succeeded in its aims may be debatable but not to have tried is reprehensible.

For the British government to go it alone at this late stage, and not even to have consulted the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, is absolutely astounding and shows them acting in an arrogant, and dare we say it, colonial style manner. While they are now tacking on a condition about amnesty it is generally considered that the threshold for this is very low and therefore this proviso has no teeth and would have no effect; their proposals are in fact still an almost unconditional amnesty.

As referred to in the news section of this issue, experts question whether the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill introduced into the London House of Commons is compatible with the Good Friday Agreement in relation to the European Convention on Human Rights. But the greatest wrong is to act in opposition to the views of victims across the board, on all sides, effectively ignoring their standpoint. Victims and survivors live on hope; hope for recognition, hope for justice, hope for a better future, for themselves and everyone. The British government is taking away much of that hope and show themselves to be totally hope-less.

Heaping further injustice on victims is beyond cruel.

The Russian war on Ukraine continues

The ‘logic’ of war is becoming somewhat strained after a few months of the fighting between Russia and Ukraine.

Whether Vladimir Putin will settle for conquering the east of Ukraine or whether he will again look to take part of the North, or even Kyiv, who knows, and he may not know himself. Having backed himself into a military fight of a kind he certainly did not expect, he will look to whatever he feels he can salvage from the deadly and atrocious mess which is what the war has become. It is likely to continue for months, and Russia is slowly gaining ground in the east using its trademark tactic of obliteration by artillery.

Russia may get its propaganda retaliation in by holding trials for some of the captured Ukrainian soldiers from Mariupol, some of whom are indeed far right or even fascist. However trying to justify the invasion on the pretext of the ‘denazification’ of Ukraine was, is, an atrocious lie; Ukraine was not in any way perfect – and nor is Zelensky who has had some dodgy financial dealings – but it was certainly not a ‘nazi’ state, and has been much freer than Russia for citizens. With Putin, as an authoritarian ruler himself who has destroyed civil society and free speech in Russia, it is a case of the pot calling the kettle black.

Ukrainian identity and opposition to possible Russian control necessitated staunch resistance to Russian invasion. But the cost of that being military resistance is a massive death toll on both sides, some seven million external refugees and several times that displaced. The trauma of this war will be felt for many decades. Rebuilding Ukraine will also take many decades, even with large scale western financial help when the war ends – that may be forthcoming initially but whether it will last is another question.

Meanwhile we have a proxy war between NATO and Russia, and the former will fight until the last drop of Ukrainian blood. That is why we say the logic of war is becoming strained. NATO and its members are ‘good’ at starting wars and these have not proved any easier to get out of and end.

There was another option and there still is; nonviolent civilian defence and resistance. No, it will/would have a different timescale and way of working but Ukrainians would be able to live to work for freedom another day, and live and plan to overthrow Russian rule without the same death and trauma, though undoubtedly not without struggle and hardship. And, as Stephan and Chenoweth have shown, nonviolent campaigns are much more successful than violent in persuading those on the opposing side to switch support; in other words it would make it easier for both ordinary people and elites in Russia to come out against the war, and in support of Ukrainian resistance and against Putin’s murderous policy and designs on Ukraine.

That many people who should know better do not consider this to have been, or be, a possibility, betrays a fatal lack of imagination. Military resistance seemed to them ‘the obvious’ choice to combat Russian invasion. But wars are easy to start and difficult to end – and meanwhile the victims pile up higher. The human cost grows daily.