Those of you who did Chemistry will remember the Periodic Table. I was always fascinated by the actinides at the bottom which were highly unstable and decayed very rapidly: usually into less interesting things like lead. The political institutions of Northern Ireland have always had a significant degree of instability about them as well and a tendency to decay. Even at its height (or depth dependent on ones analysis) the old Stormont was at times precarious. The new institutions are also on a potentially less than sure footed foundation as Brian Walker has just noted.Of course every political system in every society has those who oppose the nature of that whole political system; groups not merely committed to supplanting the incumbent government but completely disenchanted with the whole system and frequently in favour of tearing it all up and replacing it. In GB such views are largely confined to some on the hard left and the extreme right. In Northern Ireland I would submit our past and the nature of our current system of government makes the broad tent of people sufficiently content with the current system precariously small.
In all of this discussion I have used the terms left and right as short hand. I have never regarded them as applying well to Northern Irish politics but I think they make the ideas easier to put across.
Clearly there are those on the rejectionist republican wing who would like to go back to killing people and indeed are still intent on so doing: groups like Republican Sinn Fein. On the republican side there are also groups which publicly state their opposition to violence but are still committed to tearing down the current system (albeit by peaceful means) and supplanting it with a 32 county socialist republic. Groups like this, I tend to think of eirigi, are small but I would suggest due to our history may be proportionally better supported than other similar groups in GB or other western democracies and may also have considerably greater potential for growth. Moving a bit further right there are those who have left SF due to discontentment with the current nature of the process and the current compromises of the republican leadership. I would also suggest that there may be some within SF who have not left but remain unhappy with the current system.
Crossing the divide completely we have groups such as the Orange Volunteers though I would submit that these loyalist microgroups; opposed to the process as they may be and deeply nasty as they definitely are, have little in the way of political ideology and equally little political relevance. Moving left from them we have the likes of the TUV. The TUV want to tear down the current system and start again. As I have discussed on a number of occasions we are unclear on the size of that constituency and the purpose of this blog is not to explore that. Then on left we have the harder line elements of the DUP who, whilst they have not left the party, may be highly unhappy with the direction of travel of the agreement and who may not be assuaged by the end of the chuckle coalition.
All these groups together amount, I would suggest, to a significant proportion of the population. Not a majority, I would be fairly sure, but a bigger minority than that which wishes to completely change the current system of government in say GB or the RoI.
One of the many ways by which Northern Ireland differs from the rest of the UK and most other countries is, however, that there is also a large political spectrum in the middle which seems quite disaffected by the current process. The UUP has frequently complained about its marginalisation and has at times suggested going into opposition, something the dHondt system is particularly ill suited to. The SDLP also at times seems pretty disaffected by the whole system.
Another group with every right to be annoyed about the current system is of course Alliance which despite a fairly respectable percentage of the vote and a number of MLAs (around Belfast at least) has little prospect of political power, is denied a proper opposition role and does not even fit properly into the system due to its not designating itself from one community or another.
Indeed the only groups who seem anywhere near happy with the current system are the majority of the DUP and the majority of SF. That is a fairly small proportion of the political spectrum to create a stable government let alone that the DUP have frequently talked of changing the system in ways which SF would almost certainly veto and SF are in the long term interested in ending the current system in a way that the DUP are very definitely opposed to.
The government here looks at times (to use a poor but possibly useful analogy) like an enforced coalition of the left of the Labour Party and the right of the Conservative Party with a very minor part for the right of Labour and the right of the Tories, as well as a totally ignored middle. This cannot be a politically stable situation.
The glue which holds any democracy together is the support or at least acquiescence of the majority of the population. I would suggest that the proportion of the population here happy with the current system is, however, smaller than it would be in most countries. In addition the perception of incompetence, inability to make decisions and possible corruption act as a further turn off for the population with of course the larger number of groups keen to offer the disaffected an alternative (as I have mentioned above).
When the Belfast Agreement was first signed the majority for it was in part due to a support for an end to the conflict. Whilst some might argue that the vote should not really have been about that, I suspect few would argue other than that that is what many felt they were voting for. In the last Stormont elections there was still a tendency for people to vote with that mindset. However, if time goes on without a major return to violence that feeling of voting for peace may wane and the disaffection of the population with the current system may grow. Voter disaffection will probably be increased due to the relative lack of decisions and at times apparent lack of competence of our political masters. Combining those problems with the inherent instability of such odd enforced bed fellows as SF and the DUP running the country and the fact that any change to the nature of the current system is unlikely to be possible due to the mutual veto; one must question the stability of the whole process especially if people feel that collapsing the current system will not lead to a resumption of major violence.
Coming back to the actinides with which I started: they only occur in nuclear reactors and fallout etc. Our highly unpleasant recent past has been the catalyst for the creation of the current system. Violence could yet upset the whole thing; in the absence of the threat of violence, however, the incentive to support this bizarre form of government may decrease. I wonder what the half life of the current system will be? Will it survive or will it, like the actinides, decay, admittedly not into lead.