Jason Walsh takes us all back down to earth with the fundamental problem assailing politics in Northern Ireland… You may not agree with every dotted i, crossed, full stop and comma, but what do you do with an administration in which the lead the Unionist party is seen to thwart every nationalist initiative that comes across its desk… And of the events of the last two days, he notes we may have simply been on a flight from reality:
Unfortunately, the one rumour that would have been actual news has proven to be untrue: Peter Robinsion did not resign his position as first minister.
Now, that may or may not prove to be a premature conclusion. We all await the Spotlight programme to see…
One major problem with that perception is that it does not account for the constitutional immaturity of Sinn Fein… Catirona Ruane’s conduct of her campaign for educational reforms deliberately bypassed the Executive (and her senior civil servants) and she tried to sell what was little more than a legacy policy left her by British direct rule ministers.
But the problem kicking underneath all of this inconclusive government is that we may be drifting back to a default ‘croppies lie down’ situation in which unionists take comfort in exerting the marginal and negative power they have to block anything of importance to the minority community.
Always excepting Pete’s reminder to us all that you can’t always get what you want, Northern Ireland’s Nationalists have to be able to get something out of this deal if they are to continue to remain engaged in the political process. That’s not tantamount to a threat to return to violence, it’s a reiteration of the basic democratic deal.
You can’t get something (at least provisional loyality to the state) for nothing. But as Jason this is not simply to do with the system, it’s also do with the political dysfunctionality of the two main parties:
The fact is, Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. This is not about Brits Out sloganeering, rather it is a simply a case of facing up to reality. The Assembly, created under the rubric of the so-called Good Friday Peace Agreement, is actually a divisive institution that, in its current incarnation at least, is utterly incapable of governing. Not only is there the perennial problem that every election is a border poll, there is also the fact that the two leading parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are both bowing under the weight of their own internal contradictions. Both are being set-upon by former members who use their own past rhetoric to undermine attempts toward peaceful accommodation.
The one thing the Robinson crisis may have done is to create a moment of empathy and civility amongst the top table players. The rumours of the last two days have had insiders in all parties not just contemplating their own navels (as has become customary on Stormont hill) but their own futures. Without Stormont, many of them don’t have one.
The outcome of the current stasis can go one of two ways: a deal to a more functional democratic future; or no deal leading to an even more uncertain passage than we’ve had in the last ten years.
That depends almost entirely on the two men in Stormont Castle (and for once Sinn Fein’s kitchen cabinet ought to butt out and let Martin get on with following his own instincts and do a deal that at least promises some results). Otherwise, in the absence of progress, Sinn Fein, will be justified (albeit imperfectly) in taking up the ball and walking off the pitch.
Seven years ago we wrote of Northern Ireland that both sides were caught in a prisoners dilemma. However tempting it may be to think there is an alternative to sharing out the meagre rations there has to be a partnership at the heart of government for any settlement to work. Whichever way it goes, and whatever reforms are necessary in the short term at least, life can only be made tolerable, not joyous, for either party.
If mandatory coalition cannot work, then a coalition of the willing might… And if not now, perhaps after a few more years in the political wilderness…
Last word to Jason:
The question of equality for Catholics has since been settled but the broader issue of nationality remains. Although peace has been welcomed by all, the actual institutions of the state itself, such as the Assembly, contribute to tensions on the ground rather than ameliorate them. Everything in the North is now viewed through the unionist-republican prism, leaving literally no ground for compromise. Ending the war was an achievement worth crowing about but replacing it with a war of words is not good enough.
Settling the question of sovereignty was never going to happen overnight but the only way forward is for the two mother countries to actually take an interest in their red-haired stepchild, otherwise the North of Ireland will remain a place apart and the future will be one of increasingly bitter fighting between two discrete groups who vote not on social or economic issues, but solely on the question of nationality. The only question will be whether it will more closely resemble Belgium or, once again, Beirut.
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty