The expected return to Stormont following the DUP decision to come back into the fold is indeed welcome news. However there is so much to sort out in Northern Ireland that even with a fair wind at their back it will not be plain sailing for the NI Assembly and Executive. Analysts have said that dealing with the pollution problem in Lough Neagh, that is with a proper plan in place, could still take a couple of decades. Getting Northern Ireland and its public services into reasonable shape could be looking at a similar time frame, at least a decade – and that is with all going well.
Most of the details of the deal done have emerged but how it will work out in practice is another question too as there seem to be various possible incompatibilities. The extent to which it mirrors the deal Theresa May offered, keeping the UK in alignment with EU regulations, is not yet clear; it would be highly ironic to end up with that, supported by the DUP, years after the DUP helped plunge Northern Ireland and the whole UK into chaos in rejecting it. Some of the changes are window dressing and simple renaming but the fact of the matter is that there was very little room for manoeuvre given previous decisions made through the Good Friday Agreement and Brexit. However the exclusion of other parties from DUP negotiations with the British government is not a good model of democracy. Nevertheless the DUP can argue that it has got a good deal, though the extent to which it meets their much vaunted ”seven tests” is highly debatable, or indeed whether it has changed anything in the Windsor Framework.
And a huge number of problems arise. The biggest underlying problem is of course the start-stop nature of the Northern Ireland Assembly itself. If the two largest parties retain their veto power over whether the Assembly is ‘up’ or ‘down’ then the last two years are unlikely to be the last hiatus. Each ‘Fresh Start’ is not necessarily that, and another stumbling block could cause more ‘down time’. https://www.flickr.com/photos/innateireland/22924768430/in/photolist-AVMqY7 Persuading the DUP and Sinn Féin to drop their veto power and allow the Assembly to continue without one of them in the Executive is a major move and not an easy one to achieve. All the other old issues of division remain in place.
Having a Sinn Féin First Minister in Michelle O’Neill is a new departure, and although the Deputy First Minister is equally powerful, it is deeply symbolic of the demographic shift in Northern Ireland. It does also seem a good illustration of unionist commitment to cooperation and democracy at this point. However decision making in the Assembly has often been very poor and inclusive voting systems, such as those espoused by the de Borda Institute, www.deborda.org could make a big difference. Sinn Féin could also do with reining back triumphalist statements which could inflame matters; Mary Lou McDonald indicating that a united Ireland was within “touching distance” was unwise as it gives succour to loyalist opposition to a deal. Her statement was more qualified than this reference might indicate; she was speaking, she said, “in historic terms” (which could conceivably refer to time periods of centuries) and while she was talking about “a new Ireland” it is clear that this is a euphemism for ‘a united Ireland’ of some sort. https://www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/republic-of-ireland/first-sinn-fein-first-minister-shows-irish-unity-is-within-touching-distance/a147204909.html
SAD can be an acronym for Seasonal Affective Disorder, a depressive condition brought about by seasonal factors and associated by many with lack of light in winter, and the start of the year can be very dreary. SAD could also be an appropriate acronym for Sectarian Affective Disorder whereby the situation in Northern Ireland is continually held hostage by sectarian approaches to politics. By ‘sectarian’ in this context we are not meaning it in its full brutal and vindictive form but more in a sociological sense that people’s, and political parties’, approaches tend to be conditioned and imprisoned to a considerable extent by the main background of their supporters, cultural Catholic or cultural Protestant, political nationalist or political unionist. By this measurement, Northern Ireland is just as ‘SAD’ now as it was before the DUP agreed to go back into the Assembly.
We don’t want to rehash the history of Ireland, plantation, partition or Brexit here. But there are numerous problems which have proved to make thorough and lasting solutions impossible. While most unionists will now be backing Stormont, many unionists feel the nature of their British citizenship has been changed by the Northern Ireland Protocol and then the Windsor Framework. To some extent they are right. A slight economic barrier in the Irish Sea between Britain and Ireland has been erected which was not there during EU membership. The fact of easier access to the EU market from the North does not for them trump the fact that they felt ‘trapped’ by the EU regulations in still being in the ‘single market’ and thus ruled by ‘foreign laws’ (laws which are evolving but by which the whole of the UK was bound during its EU membership).
Being treated differently to the rest of the UK is considered anathema to many unionists – at least when it is not to their liking. But Ireland before partition and Northern Ireland since 1921 have usually had trade barriers or differentiations with Britain so that is actually nothing new. https://www.newsletter.co.uk/news/opinion/columnists/henry-patterson-legalistic-attempts-to-restore-article-6-of-the-act-of-union-would-be-a-disaster-4495902
Most analysts feel that the DUP, having backed a hard Brexit, were only persuaded to oppose the Northern Ireland Protocol, and subsequently the Windsor Framework, by practical politics – losing support to the harder line TUV. This is correct. But principles and practicalities can go together and there are principles involved for most unionists. However the practical result of DUP opposition to the settlement in withdrawing from Stormont meant that the ship of state in the North has been virtually rudderless for two years with very considerable effects for workers, planning, poverty, communities and so on. This was not in the interest of anyone in the North.
Nationalists also feel aggrieved in that Brexit took place when an arithmetic majority in the North supported staying in the EU. For them this may not have adversely affected their view of the constitutional situation but it certainly was detrimental, in their view, to the status quo agreed in the Good Friday Agreement where common EU membership was assumed for Britain and Ireland. Their feeling is that Brexit has been used to emphasise ‘Britishness’ and get one up on them; the DUP is perceived as having held the whole of society hostage in a situation where they do not realise the compromises which nationalists face every day in a British state.
The British approach to all this was not very helpful with Chris Heaton-Harris seeming, or even being, somewhat ineffectual in the role of Secretary of State. Holding out the prospect of the much needed money but it being dependent on a return to Stormont by the DUP was regarded as insulting by those in need, and by the DUP, for different reasons. To withhold cash from those in need is reprehensible. And the DUP regarded it as moral blackmail. The money could and should have been made available irrespective of decisions by the DUP holding the North to ransom. Whether the hard ball played by Heaton-Harris made any difference to the DUP’s decision to return is a debatable question.
The extent to which there will be defections from the DUP over the return to Stormont remains to be seen. Jeffrey Donaldson himself was a defector from the Ulster Unionist Party after the Good Friday Agreement. However a further division in unionism is not in the interest of peace and stability in the North. The TUV, while ably represented by Jim Allister, has remained a one man band because it is not transfer friendly in the PR-STV system; any defectors there from the DUP would face an uncertain future electorally, and it is difficult to see the likes of Ian Paisley jeopardising his cosy position.
Things may settle down further under a Labour government in Britain if it builds closer relations with the EU. But that is some time away.
The situation in Northern Ireland remains SAD, and while spring is just around a couple of corners, and there is lots of light at the end of this particular tunnel, there are also likely to be lots of fights at the end of the tunnel. Devolved power in Northern Ireland is a very partial success, and even when it is meeting the Assembly and Executive have not been very effective decision makers.
To change the metaphor away from tunnels, Northern Ireland may be exiting one particular cul de sac. However there is no clear direction set and the vehicle it is travelling in is liable to break down, and it is creaky at the best of times. There isn’t even a map available or an agreed destination. This is certainly not the end of history and the ride ahead will continue to be bumpy.