It’s refreshing to see the Irish Times give some space to the not inconsiderable political intelligence of Stephen Collins to think about the phoney production which may be grinding its way back to a curiously inconclusive end. He points to a Seanad order of business debate in which Northern Ireland comes up. It’s a reflection of how denuded that chamber has become from Northern Irish affairs that the only non platitudinal remarks came from the former PD TD Fionna O’Malley:
Every time there is a crisis, the British and Irish Governments and the Taoiseach and Prime Minister go there to try and sort it out. How are people ever going to face up to their own responsibilities as elected representatives if this continues to happen?
It exposes the inherent problems in the system of governance in the North of Ireland, the DHondt system, in that it rewards people from the extremes and does not reward people who bring together communities and serve all of the people within their communities. While we continue to prop up a dysfunctional system, frankly it will never work and there will be crisis after crisis.
That is the nub of the problem. The Belfast Agreement enshrined a dysfunctional societys sectarian divisions into governmental institutions. To be fair, there wasnt any obvious alternative around at the time and the hope was that normal political activity would gradually evolve as the political representatives of unionism and nationalism shared power and developed some basis of trust in each other.
Instead, however, the opposite happened as suspicions grew and festered in the years after 1998. For that, Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair must take a large share of the blame. Having put an enormous amount of work into constructing the hugely complex agreement, they then proceeded to abandon the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists to appease their more extreme rivals.
Although, I think, this account exaggerates the importance of the switch in external patronage to the misfortunes of the two centre parties (they were eaten by other more internal contradictions, not least in the case of the SDLP its possibly erroneous sense of ownership of the Belfast Agreement), the addiction to it is clear enough from the way this dumb show (all picture and no sound) farce at Hillsborough played out.
As I pointed out in the Comment is Free piece yesterday, this is a piece of business OFMdFM were given extra resources to deal with. Having consumed those resources to zero effect (rent seeking behaviour par excellence), the two have drawn in Gordon Brown and the Taoiseach who has more pressing matters of national interest to attend to, after Sinn Fein insisted on externalising their domestic problems.
Judging by the lack of content in the briefings being given to the mainstream media, this has been less a matter of formal rounds of negotiation with their attendant paper trails (which at least create some cohesive sense on what has been achieved and what has not), and more in the nature of relationship management, with the main purpose of the rounds being more allowing tempers to cool rather than creating space for progress.
Collins makes this observation:
In the years after 1998, Sinn Féin perfected the art of spinning out the process time after time in order to get what it wanted, while marginalising the SDLP. It succeeded magnificently in those two objectives but the tinkering with the process became an end in itself. The party has not been nearly as successful in exercising power as it was in art of peace-processing. A byproduct of its interminable negotiating strategy was that the electorate in the Republic simply lost interest in its activities.
Another unintended consequence of its strategy has been that the DUP learned the lessons only too well and proceeded to copy the Sinn Féin tactic of putting process before real politics. Each party has got what it deserved in the other but the people who live in Northern Ireland have to put up with the consequences.
Collins, rather too darkly IHMO, concludes that cutting the whole system off might give the politicians pause for thought, and give the British and Irish governments moment to to listen to the Northern Irish people. But no democratic institution can afford to drift this far from the concerns of its people…
At some point, there may be a need to rip it up and start again…