“It will always be a battle a day between those who want maximum change and those who want to maintain the status quo”. Recognise the quote? It came from Gerry Adams’ speech calling for the IRA to permanently abandon violence in 2005.
Just a few days before the 2007 Assembly Elections that restored devolved government, Peter Robinson concurred with Adams’ assessment in a BBC Radio Ulster interview. Asked whether a government jointly led by his party and Gerry Adams’ could work in practice, Robinson continued ominously, “This cannot be a lasting and enduring form of government.”
Eight years into a power-sharing experiment that has never worked well and is now at risk of collapse, it’s worth remembering that the leaders of its two main parties were sceptical before it even began.
During The Troubles, the liberal peacenik theory of power-sharing was simple. With the central constitutional questions resolved, a government formed of moderates would slowly overcome Northern Ireland’s communal divisions, economic weaknesses and inequalities. They would marginalise the extremists, including the ‘men of violence’, the place would become a lot more prosperous, and we would all live happily ever after. The sadly too brief experience of Sunningdale was held as proof-positive that a power sharing government would work superbly.
The theory was bunk.
It would be easy for those in the political centre to blame the British and Irish governments in the early 2000s for holding out for a maximalist settlement involving Sinn Féin and the DUP.
Personal relationships between many DUP politicians and Sinn Féin are poisonous. There are a number of DUP MLAs who will still refuse even the most basic social intercourse with Sinn Féiners, not even speaking if they’re stuck in a lift together.
On the level of power politics, broken promises and pandering to the extremes are commonplace. Sinn Féin’s unagreeing to the Stormont House Agreement is the latest episode, but there have been choice examples from both parties over the years. For example, the DUP walked away from its agreement on a Parades Commission replacement in 2010 after pressure from the Loyal Orders and never looked back.
It’s easy, however, to romanticise the period of UUP-SDLP dominance between 1998 and 2003 as a golden age. Undoubtedly it was better than the years of stalemate and posturing since 2007. The Trimble-Mallon and Trimble-Durkan Executives made tough decisions and got laws through the Assembly. There was certainly a higher degree of trust, and sometimes a rather exciting sense that we were on a journey into a peaceful and better future.
Despite all that, there was never any modus vivendi, let alone meeting of minds, about what was then most difficult: decommissioning and marching. And it was those two issues that the DUP and Sinn Féin used to electorally beat their rivals into the ground. The supposed Golden Age seems to have been a conveyor belt to the current impasse, and the electorate has voted for the current balance of power at every election for 12 years. Maybe power-sharing just doesn’t work?
We have three possible short-term futures: the Stormont House Agreement is implemented; budgets are cut by a quarter or more and/or indirect taxes are raised significantly to balance the books; or the Executive collapses.
And for all the public like to moan about politicians, the last option is by far the worst. If the current arrangements collapse, then the only likely alternative is an extended period of direct rule from a reluctant Westminster government. Unlike the 1980s, when NI was spared much of Thatcherism, there are very few Wets left at the top table of the Tory Party. Few politicians in Britain know much about Northern Ireland, but among the up and coming ranks of Conservative MPs, many will quickly come to the conclusion, if forced to learn more, that a good dose of economic shock therapy is exactly what the region needs.
It’s hard to imagine a return to violence on the scale of the 1969-1994 period but then it’s always hard to imagine unpalatable things until they happen. Shock therapy will prompt an exodus of the young. Collapse of the current institutions, however flawed, is likely to condemn us to many years of gross irresponsibility as parties without power engage in grandstanding. More than that, the central idea that was always supposed to be Northern Ireland’s fix, responsible power-sharing, will have demonstrably failed.
I don’t see any Plan B isn’t just self-indulgent fantasy.
A battle a day at Stormont always risked creating a political wasteland. We might soon find we enter one.