New deal signals penumbra of constitutional politics…

Another critical review of the latest deal. Brendan O’Neill reckons the sectarian nature of the peace contains the seeds of it’s own ultimate dysfunction, if not distruction.

Both Paisley and Adams have been congratulated for putting their political differences to one side in the interests of the ‘greater good’: Paisley is praised for rising above his ‘Biblical not-an-inch Unionism’ and Adams for refusing to allow his Irish nationalist desires for a United Ireland to stand in the way of finding a peace deal. In reality, both the political traditions of Unionism as represented by Paisley and Irish nationalism as fronted by Adams died long ago. Paisley and Adams did not ‘put aside’ their political beliefs – they simply no longer have any. They met face-to-face less as the representatives of great opposing movements than as the ghosts of politics past, the physical remnants of long-gone traditions.

Many have wondered out loud what possessed Paisley to sign up to power-sharing with Adams, a man he has been denouncing as an IRA commander and spokesman for the past 20 years. ‘Perhaps’, ruminates one commentator, ‘somewhere within that roaring chest there is a whisper of conscience after all’; another wonders if old age (Paisley is 80) has tempered the Orange loudmouth’s mindset. Searching for explanations for Paisley’s latest move in his moral make-up or date of birth, even in his ‘roaring chest’, is typical of a British commentariat that has long loved to hate Paisley and naively holds him responsible for every injustice and stalemate in Northern Ireland. In the real world, Paisley’s sit-in with Adams confirms the end of old-style Unionism as a political force.

He believes that little about the DUP’s campaign was couched in positive terms:

the DUP vote is an expression of discontent and alienation, a feeling of marginalisation amongst Unionists in Northern Ireland. People voted for the DUP, not because it said very much that was different to the UUP, but rather because it more clearly articulated that sense of discontent and grievance. That is how Paisley arrived at the talks table with Adams – not as a result of a change of heart or the onset of senility, but as a result of massive shifts over the past 20 to 30 years. It is the emptying out of Unionism that means even a firebrand like Paisley now puts all his eggs in the power-sharing basket, and it was the collapse of the mainstream Ulster Unionist Party that allowed Paisley to win enough votes to call some of the shots in the setting up of the Assembly. Both his preparedness to talk to Adams and the strength of his mandate are the products, somewhat ironically, of the collapse of Unionism. Paisley enters the new Assembly as the shadow, rather than the voice, of Unionism.

He’s hardly more complimentary about Sinn Fein:

…though much of the response to the latest developments has focused on Paisley’s big change in position, Sinn Fein has, if anything, given up even more than the DUP. The Assembly will guarantee that Northern Ireland remains a formal part of the United Kingdom, a state of affairs that Sinn Fein and the IRA fought against for much of the period between 1969 and 1994. Sinn Fein now accepts that Northern Ireland is part of Britain until such a time that a majority in Northern Ireland decides otherwise. In short, it has abandoned its historic claim that only the people of Ireland as a whole can decide their affairs, in favour of adapting to the fatalistic ‘politics of birth rates’, whereby the people of Ireland will just have to wait until Catholics outbreed Protestants in the north before they can enjoy their democratic rights in an independent sovereign state.

Irish nationalism is also a shadow of its former self. A key shift in Sinn Fein policy over the past 15 years and more has been its redefinition of the republican movement’s goal. Instead of pursuing the objective of Irish independence, republican strategists argued for ‘parity of esteem’ with Unionists, for equal treatment and respect within the state of Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, the true heirs of the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic. Now, as amply demonstrated by Adams’ enthusiastic signing up for power-sharing with the DUP, they accept their position as just another political party playing a role in the ‘peace process’. Like Paisley, Adams enters the new Assembly denuded of his earlier political beliefs, as effectively a politics-free politician who can be called upon to manage Northern Ireland’s general affairs.

The ‘peace process’ is built not so much on the compromise of Unionists and nationalists, as on their defeat and degradation. Few people, and certainly not I, feel any nostalgia for the passing of the old political blocs that dominated Northern Ireland for so long. The problem today is that the peace process, far from trying to give birth to anything new, makes a virtue of this death of politics, of the end of politics and debate. It institutionalises both the lack of political vision in Northern Ireland and its lingering sectarian tensions.

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  • seanzmct

    Brendan O’Neill is spot on. The Stormont set up institutionalises sectarian politics, that due to the truce, are a bit less sectarian than they used to be. It has taken stupid Republicanism and Paisleyism 30 long years to arrive at a place very like the Sunningdale they despised.

    We are supposed to rejoice in that slow learning outcome, but I guess it is asking too much for the new six counties political elite to show a little humility in the face of their ideological volte face.

    All is currently sweetness and light as the big two suppplicate themselves, begging bowl in hand, before their British benefactors and carve up the
    spoils of “high office” in the wee Ulster toy town parliament.

    But as events unfold, the inherent contradictions between these communal-based power blocs will soon emerge. They will not work in tandem for the “interests of the working class”. Rather, they will work separately on the basis of sectarian clientelism.

    If there is any concern for the disadvantaged, then it will be a case of seeking to improve the lot of “our working class” at the expense of “their working class”. And, if either side does not get its way, there will be gridlock. Then the people will be clamouring for a return to direct rule.

  • joeCanuck

    “republican strategists argued for ‘parity of esteem’ with Unionists, for equal treatment and respect within the state of Northern Ireland.”

    Mick, from my recollections growing up in a mainly “nationalist/republican ” town, that is all what most people wanted. Irish reunification wasn’t that much on the radar.

  • Aaron McDaid

    I don’t think he’s really on the ball with this.

    Sinn Fein now accepts that Northern Ireland is part of Britain until such a time that a majority in Northern Ireland decides otherwise.

    That acceptance happened in 1998, not last week. And also, Unionists also had to accept the principle of consent which may possibly in future mean accepting a United Ireland.

    … [Sinn Féin accepted a] fatalistic ‘politics of birth rates’, whereby the people of Ireland will just have to wait until Catholics outbreed Protestants in the north before they can enjoy their democratic rights in an independent sovereign state.

    Nonsense. In 20 years time NI may be entirely Protestant (or Muslim or whatever) and simultaneously entirely Republican. Religion was not a driving factor for everyone, and certainly not for many republicans. Religious headcounts are becoming less important, not more so.

    This article has interesting parts to it, but it makes the mistake of presupposing that Adams and Paisley, and their voter’s, are nothing more than mirror images of each other. There is also an oversimplistic view of how religion played into the Troubles. SF’s big decisions were on accepting things like the principle of consent and the PSNI, the DUP had to accept that everybody should have the full set of basic civil and political and religious rights and so on – different positions and different hurdles to cross.

  • páid

    Hard to argue with this essay.

    But it’s what it doesn’t say that’s important.

    The Irish are a nationalist people, due to geography. And the younger generation are every bit as nationalistic as previous ones; except they are far more capable of achieving their aims.

    Nationalism took a logical choice and stopped shooting. And got acknowledgement that NI was, and is, a sectarian state.

    And is now ready to move on with the project.

  • Roisin

    [i]Hard to argue with this essay.

    But it’s what it doesn’t say that’s important.[/i]

    That’s because it’s yet another dish from the paplum diet that’s been served up endlessly over the last few weeks.

  • Henry07

    The pessimistic outlook is over-represented in the media, in the blogosphere and on phone-in programs.

    Everywhere except at the ballot box.

    ’94 to ’07 was a loug haul but the optimists have, to quote Dylan, won the war after losing every battle.

  • dub

    brendan gets it all wrong because he like countless others believes that northern ireland is a state. it is not and never has been.. sinn fein always understood this, the sdlp and brendan and many others did not… hence their failiure and sinn fein’s success.