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.