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.