As we get closer to family holidays, it gets harder to find anything coherent to write about when it comes to Northern Irish politics.[Columnists have to write to earn a dollar, you don’t! – Ed] Some are taking a quiet Twelfth as a good sign for the autumn.
But as Steven Agnew pointed out at the John Hewitt Summer School, all urgency is draining from a set of talks with the ever expandable deadlines. That could make a restart unlikely.
However we’ve had these silent periods before, and they’re not reliable indicators of anything much. And a summer when politicians don’t say much is generally taken to be a good one.
As Brian notes, the world in which we live is being reshaped around us, without much influence or participation from the people who live in Northern Ireland. It’s indicative of another point made at the John Hewitt: ie that political structures without politics are useless.
Judging by Brian Feeney’s latest column, Sinn Fein’s strategy is to hope that Brexit screws up in some way so they get to blame the DUP for helping to land the big Brexit fish (a competition they themselves failed to show up for).
But NI at peace (or even at war, if you consider the ‘Needham doctrine’ under Thatcher) remains a very cheap date for the rest of the UK. The private sector barely figures in the present economy, and only within agriculture and agrifoods is North South trading significant.
That northern nationalist opinion barely perceives how Brexit creates serious vulnerabilities and threats to the Republic, compounds the problem facing a political leadership which is making capital with southern voters who have little affinity to the national question.
This, along with that extraordinary admission by Adams of just how little Sinn Fein has achieved with its overwhelming mandates over the last ten years, makes it hard to anticipate where any of this is going.
It’s as though the party is running out of stories and just grabbed something from the cupboard. On one level it’s been gifted a pantomime villain in the shape of the DUP, but as we’ve seen in the last year, that also has a serious downside.
Far from weakening the DUP, in crashing the Assembly, Sinn Fein has strengthened political unionism to the point where it now has the only political team being seen to do any actual work on the part of the people of Northern Ireland.
The hope that liberals will be grateful to them for their support over matters like marriage equality by backing them in a border poll misses the point that any hope of a victory in such a poll needs to hold out the possibility of a material advance in circumstance.
That’s very hard for any political movement to achieve when it appears to be making a habit of political absenteeism, first in Westminster and now Stormont. Taking any track that poses the least risk to its own political capital may look clever in the short term,
Taking any track that poses the least risk to its own political capital may look clever in the short term, but looked at the rear view mirror as a series of failures (the import of Adams’ January speech) the lack of any threaded reasoning or story (other than ‘themuns’) is striking.
One of my favourite blog pieces of recent (if also one of my lesser read ones) posits the idea that story is incredibly important in politics. With the playwright Bryan Delaney emphasising powerfully why it’s important to pick carefully the stories we tell about ourselves.
In practical terms, what is Sinn Fein’s reasonable price for returning to the jobs they were voted to do at Stormont? Certainly, a Bill of Human Rights is something they both tried to work on together and failed. So what are its ideas for avoiding that failure this time?
Such ideas are only in evidence via their own too tangible absence.
There’s more general absence of creative ideas about how to bring the two parts of the island together again. When pushed it always comes back to the same old Border Poll or blue sky conferences that never seem to have any impact on offerings to the electorate.
It’s easy to lecture Sinn Fein about such things. And with some justification. They have after all been at the forefront of nationalist politics in Northern Ireland since before the final retirement of John Hume.
But they’re not the only ones failing the test of relevancy in the context of a Long Peace. We’re at what I would call a corridor moment (when nothing may happen for quite a long time). It could be the right time to start asking (and trying to answer) some difficult questions.
Like, for instance, what false or outdated assumptions are nationalists and Republicans operating under? Such questions might help identify what’s currently sabotaging the political process and/or preventing the launch of genuinely new initiatives.
Above all, space needs to be cleared for the production of new stories capable of taking Republicanism on a meaningful and fulfilling journey by means that are consonant with the historic and popular all islands agreements of 1998 (and the 19th amendment).
After ten years of a power-sharing arrangement that nationalism demanded and (some) unionists resisted, it is odd that it was nationalism that has spurned the opportunity (limited as they may be) to influence present choices in partnership.
It’s as though having been delivered the means to influence, the courage to imagine has deserted them. Those are two vital ingredients. In the last chapter of Ireland in 2050, Stephen Kinsella quotes Daniel Taylor…
The power of an imagined end, and it literally can only be imagined, lies in its ability to influence present choices.