The dry stone wall of Northern Irish politics…

VETERAN observer of NI politics Arthur Aughey (pictured) weighs up the outcomes of the peace process for devolution in an extract from Breaking Up Britain (blogged on Open Democracy). Rather than see the Agreement as “a foundational event from which a radically new society emerges”, Aughey paints devolution here as part of a messy continuum. He conjures up the image of a dry stone wall to suggest the continuity of our history, composed, not of bricks, but unpredictable, interlocking rocks. And anyone who has travelled through our countryside will know there are plenty of spaces in these stone walls, spaces “for events which appear to challenge much of what went before”.

Aughey writes:

[T]he Agreement is not a new beginning or a re-foundation but a modification of circumstances in Northern Ireland, an adjustment of how practices stand in relation to one another. Some things come on to the agenda but some things also fall off it. Some things come up for debate but yet others are settled, at least for now. Some things may improve but others may get worse. The dry stone wall of Northern Irish history changes shape, as does the perspective on the relations between its parts, with each addition to it. The eccentricities, irregularities, inconsistencies and some might think, absurdities, are not defects or irrationalities but constitutive characteristics of its politics.

Aughey continues:

To talk, then, of a new dispensation or a new era of good relations is to put words into the mouth of history. The devolved Assembly has had only a fitful existence and was suspended from 2002-2007. The power-sharing Executive did not meet for most of 2008 because of a Sinn Fein boycott. Some, with good reason, have argued that the institutional inadequacies of the 1998 Agreement were only added to by the modifications at St Andrews, confirming the lack of policy cohesion, mutual sectarian vetoes, absence of collective responsibility and legislative vacuity. That criticism rests on two observations.

First, the peace process represents a ‘Faustian pact with sectarianism’ and so rests on precisely ‘the division it is supposed to solve’. Second, there is an absence of an overarching allegiance to the shared polity which can counteract sectarian instincts. Those points are well made and essential since nationalist and unionist parties, while not necessarily enamoured of the condition of ?enforced coalition’, have little incentive to change things if only because they directly profit by them.

The dry stone wall image implies, of course, that there is no administrative solution to the division, only a modification of circumstances in which it is possible for those divisions to become political and constructive rather than murderous and destructive.