Northern Ireland Assembly Election of March 2017 and the Limitations of Pragmatism

In a deeply divided society such as Northern Ireland political developments tend to be filtered through a number of lenses and experienced at a number of levels – arguably to an even greater degree than is the case in other, less fractious countries.

Brexit has no doubt played a major role in mobilizing Northern nationalism, which has swung from one of its worst electoral results to one of its best in less than a year.

Of course, perceptions of the DUP’s governmental arrogance, as framed by Sinn Fein, and its purported unbound idiocy in supporting Brexit are related and perhaps analytically distinct causes.

But of course, correlation doesn’t equal causation and at the risk of indulging in provincialism, it may be helpful to look at the political landscape from the Northern Irish end of the lens.

This may allow us to see that Nicola Sturgeon’s push for a second independence referendum isn’t simply a product of anger and felt-betrayal at the May administration. It might also be seen as a typical separationist reflex.

The history of ‘constitutional’ nationalism in Northern Ireland, for instance, has been one of repeated attempts to destabilize settlement processes to its own advantage.

John Hume, for instance, left Brian Faulkner high and dry in his efforts at reforming Stormont in 1971 (over the shooting of two Catholics by the British army over which Faulkner had no power, and prior to the introduction of internment).

He and Garret FitzGerald pushed an ‘Irish dimension’ that unnerved not only Unionists but also his SDLP colleagues a few years later in the Sunningdale period and he turned away from talking with Unionists to cultivate a relationship with Gerry Adams and Provisional republicanism after the Anglo-Irish Agreement – again, to the dismay of his senior colleagues.

So, far from pursuing a vision of ‘harmony’ and ‘unity between people’ as one columnist has recently averred, the Humean approach was determinedly one-sided and, arguably, even myopic in its vision.

This is important for the current impasse at Stormont because the power-sharing institutions were largely modelled on Hume’s rhetoric and the push towards some kind of internal settlement – originated from Northern nationalism (albeit with the intention of transcending any agreement).

The consociational apparatus that transpired – in which power was actually divided and policed through a system of ethnic vetoes – in the 1998 Agreement has seemingly ground to a halt for some of the reasons outlined above.

But, again, to view events through a kind of Northern Irish lens rather than the framings of our political classes might suggest a certain inevitable fragility based on the limitations of pragmatism.

I understand pragmatism to refer to a way of dealing with problems with a degree of sensitivity, sensibility and realism. Perhaps more specifically or to use less contestable language: to approach issues in a practical fashion in preference to theoretical considerations.

It might be clearer still to suggest that pragmatism involves a desire to leave aside oppositional or incommensurable ideological differences to try to find areas of fluidity and understanding.

In some ways, this is what the 1998 institutions required: a regulation of relationships based on the awareness of difference and the displacement of (ideological) division (see, for instance, paragraph 2 of the declaration of support).

But what happens if that understanding itself loses its compulsion; what happens if politicians lose faith in the governing narrative of compromise?

From this, Northern Irish perspective, we might suggest that the paradox of consociationalism seems to be that institutions can regulate and/or manage conflict as long as they guarantee enough compromises.

Furthermore, the paradox might be that the division of power separates responsibility; and that this paradox reproduces itself until the deferral of responsibility outweighs the benefits – and deficits – of compromise.

Once the optics of compromise and the faith in displacement are lost, the understanding on which institutions are built becomes unsustainable. In other words, when the compromisers no longer believe in sustaining compromises the then fundamental power separation pulls apart.

As far as I can see, there are no alternatives being promoted. Perhaps none exist: And perhaps this is the ultimate (Northern Irish) lesson of Brexit – namely, that compromise, concession and belonging are ultimately transactional; and, especially, when it comes to separationist movements like Northern Irish and Scottish nationalism, they take precedence over any kind of kinship or historic affiliation or attachment.

The reason that no alternatives exist, however, may also be related to the possibility that, for both the DUP and the Tory government, pragmatism isn’t enough: emotion and even magical thinking are seemingly uppermost factors in political considerations.

But these too are, unsurprisingly, insufficient. As Linda Colley pointed out in her recent history of the various unions that make up the UK, the repeated failure of government to articulate a broad, ‘well thought-out and steady commitment to the whole – and a vision of what that is – as well as a recognition of and concessions to the component parts’ has meant that the UK has proceeded at various speeds since (at least) 1945.

When a feeling of alienation from that trajectory is coupled with separationist tendencies to try to continuously revise institutional settlements to tilt the playing field then everything is to play for and the rules of the game can be usefully ignored.

In other words, this, then, is the end of pragmatism, what follows is another matter.