Northern Ireland drifting beyond self governance?

Alex Kane in his Newsletter column on Saturday (written before the weekend’s rioting), argues that for the apparent benefits said to flow from a powersharing arrangement it has never actually been tried and tested. So the jury remains out. Paradoxically however, he notes that even if politics (or lack of them) has left space for polarisation of the two main communities to become more intense, it has also led to unprecedented levels of prosperity across the divide.

By Alex Kane

All of the big political/constitutional initiatives since the mid-1970s—Sunningdale, the Downing Street Declaration, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Frameworks Documents and the Good Friday Agreement—have been built around the notion that peace would eventually flow from social and political structures which encouraged contact and cooperation between the two main traditions. It’s an extension of the philosophy which underpins integrated education; if you school us together, then, by some mysterious process, the heritage of antagonism and mutual distrust will be replaced with group hugs and the jettisoning of old baggage.

The problem, of course, is that we have never had power-sharing, even during those few months in 1974 and the couple of years of the more recent Executive Committee. Representatives from nationalist and unionist parties may have held ministerial office, but there was clearly no genuine effort to govern together. Rather, they governed separately and sometimes even individually. And they had to do it that way because there is no common constitutional purpose between unionism and nationalism. And where there is no common constitutional purpose there can be no stable government.

Which may explain why Northern Ireland is actually more polarised today than it was in 1972. For all of the legislative safeguards wrapped around employment, housing, equality, human rights and cultural identity, do we really trust each other any more than we did? Isn’t it true that when you scratch the surface of even the supposed moderates and liberals in both communities, it doesn’t take long before the old mantras and “whataboutery” creep to the surface? Putting it bluntly, neither side expects the other to act, let alone govern, impartially.

The Good Friday Agreement didn’t resolve that psychological dilemma and nor did the DUP’s attempted re-write in December 2004. So, while it is true that we have agreement on coalitions, proportionality, mutual vetoes and promotion of cultural and historic identities, there is still no agreement on Northern Ireland’s constitutional status. Sinn Fein and the SDLP seek to use the Assembly to pursue an all-Ireland agenda, while the unionists seek to diminish, or at least dilute, the Irish dimension. Against that sort of background it will not be possible to sustain devolved government.

There was a solution to the problem. It consisted of a willingness of the British government to both state and underwrite the constitutional guarantee; namely, that Northern Ireland would remain a part of the United Kingdom for so long as a majority wished it. But that has not been the case. It is bad enough that successive British administrations have chosen to be, at best, ambiguous on the matter of the Union. Worse still was the fact that they so often sided with the pan-nationalist front. They have given the impression that London is lukewarm on the Union, and that impression has encouraged nationalism to believe that it doesn’t have to reach an honest accommodation with unionism.

To be pessimistically honest I’m not sure that there is a democratic solution available. What we are experiencing now, on the interfaces, with the Parades Commission, at Harryville and elsewhere across the Province, and even with the launch of the Love Ulster Campaign, doesn’t bode well for a lasting, let alone a temporary settlement. The paradox of the peace process is that in some ways, mostly economic, Northern Ireland is a measurably better place than it was ten years ago. But in terms of naked sectarianism, racism and cross-community relationships, it is an immeasurably worse place.

In a recent column I posed the question of whether there was a bottom line to nationalist demands, whether, in fact, anything short of a united Ireland would be enough? Nationalism wants an agreed Ireland, but it doesn’t want an agreed Northern Ireland. Unionists, both the UUP and DUP, have demonstrated a willingness to form a government with Sinn Fein; but not of a form which begins with their assumption that Northern Ireland is a constitutional granny flat on the periphery of the UK and ends with a de facto annexation. Unionism has nothing left to offer and nationalism is unwillingly to agree to a form of government which governs Northern Ireland as though it really were a part of the UK.

The Ulster Unionist Party was right to take huge political risks between 1997 and 2003, if only to put republicanism to the test, and prove to the world that unionism was a valid political philosophy. My own conclusion, though, is that the experiment has failed. Even if the decommissioning issue is resolved, along with the status of the IRA (and I have grave doubts), I don’t believe that a settlement based on the Good Friday Agreement can now deliver sustainable, democratic or Union-friendly government.

If Tony Blair believes that the IRA is serious about peace, and Sinn Fein equally serious about democracy, then he has to pull back from a strategy which appeases and accommodates their agenda and their agenda alone. By taking sides he has undermined unionism and in so doing he is creating an environment which encourages and nurtures those who believe that violence is the only way of having your voice heard and your concerns heeded.

First published in the Newsletter on Saturday 10th September 2005.

  • Tom Griffin

    What evidence is there that the British Government has undermined the constitutional guarantee?

  • spirit-level

    What Alex has written is realistic and accurate, but gloomy. This is my analysis:

    Two large bridges to cross:

    1) IRA violence, criminality and decomissioning.

    Signs suggest there is progress here, and it is gathering momentum. “Action not Words” is happening. More can be expected, and maybe SF will even go for policing!
    A bottom line of “concessions” will be reached, because the British and Irish Govt’s are nursing SF along, in a carrot and stick manner, towards a fully functioning exclusively democratic party. Caterpillar becomes butterfly.
    This is in everyone’s interest. Top Marks for making politics begin to work for SF, Aherne and Blair.

    2) On the Unionist side, there is the genuine mistrust. The roses planted by SF will take time to root and spring forth. Let’s be optimistic. However the main unionist bridge to be crossed is their refusal to negotiate face to face with SF. This they should do. The simple reason is that this is what is expected of them. Their best interests are also realised in doing so.

    The successful out-come of these two bridges being crossed is that SF and DUP can agree to sit down and share power; whilst robustly defending their respective positions.
    This is the benefit.
    SF want to persuade of the benefits of a united ireland and the DUP want to persuade of the benefits of remaing within the union.

    Let us, the people hear this conversation.

    The two divided peoples can then debate properly in a dignified manner, in a dignified debate at Stormont. Dare I say it, maybe become friends, out of a mutual respect for their far differing goals.
    When people aren’t threatening each other, then they can speak to each other.
    And we can “begin to begin”, as the song goes.
    Dave Lee

  • aquifer

    Not a very constructive piece.

    Its nihilism could easily have been the philosophical underpinning for those cannibalistic riots.

    Unionism’s anti-intellectualism leaves it without tools to imagine its future. Aping victimhood Provo-style is uncongenial to former bosses, and trying to trump colleagues with ultra right wing or sectarian posturing detaches them from the British mainstream. Now Unionism cannot even advocate a security crackdown without offending its paramilitary brethren, who can distribute retribution down the same local channels as the drugs they sell.

    Parts of the GFA are working though. The PSNI are taking shape and the Parades Commission will cap sectarian provocation.

    The failure has been in the featherbedding of exclusive and opposing identities within the institutions rather than the incentivising of co-operation, fault lines built into the institutions by civil servants and ministers terrified to offend our tetchy tribal chiefs.

    Ministers who know their failure in Ireland will always be excused in Britain, where an oscillating elective dictatorship excludes the majority most of the time, but where the disputed core is socio-economic ideas, not the territory of the state.

  • T.Ruth

    The Unionist political parties need to give effective leadership to their communities.

    In the absence of a clear vision of the short medium and long term future and a methodology to transmit the aims and objectives of Unionism more effectively-continued violence will be the likely outcome with the iniative resting with the thugs and criminals on both sides of the divide.

    The DUP in particular ,as the effective voice of the Unionist community should set out for the government and the people of Northern Ireland its requirements for considering involvement in responsibility sharing government.

    There should be a clear outline from the MLA responsible for each area of government spelling out policy and intentions in each situation.(Education,Health,Water Services,economic Development)

    They should demand that the government makes clear to the Unionist community that its time for concessions has come and the terrorists on both sides will be faced down by the government.

    However the government must understand that if “former” terrorists are not welcome in PSNI they can not be permitted to enter an Executive.

    The government must announce an end to the D’Hondt system which institutionalises sectarianism and declare that future involvement at the executive level of government is restricted to those parties which are genuinely democratic.

    The Makro,Gallahers.and Northern Bank robberies,the McCartney murders,the deliberate policy of generating violence at interface areas has disqualified Sinn Fein from involvement in any future executive until there is very clear evidence that it has separated itself from the IRA and criminal connections.

    Future power sharing by the DUP with Sinn Fein is a non starter while the IRA continues to exist as a private fascist,sectarian army. army.

    The Unionist community must be reassured by government that its majority will be respected and that for the foreseeable future the constitutional issue will be left aside in the knowledge that we must solve all our problems within the context of a Northern Ireland which is an integral part of the Uk.

    We must not let the IRA snatch political victory from the jaws of defeat and the Unionist community must not be frightened into destroying its own areas in a show of petulance and defiance of government policies of appeasement.

    It is also time for Hain and Blair to treat terrorism here as it is treating it elsewhere.
    the IRA is a dangerous well equipped and organised international terror machine and it must be eliminated from the political and military equation.