In these increasingly dramatic, uncertain and downright bizarre political times, one suitably off-the-wall scenario is good fun to imagine: what if London and Dublin stepped in and gave the dysfunctional Stormont 12 months to reach a permanent solution to the constitution and identity debate. Otherwise – sick of policing the NI naughty step – they’d step in with final rulings of their own.
So, the parties would be warned that this post-deadline decision by the two governments would – intentionally – be extremely bad news for both Unionism and Nationalism. This means simply holding their position won’t be enough.
The question is: how would NI’s political groupings, and more, respond to being forced to provide immediate, imaginative and generous leadership?
And what does this tell us about NI right now?
Both biggest parties would immediately switch from demanding Direct Rule and greater cross-border co-operation (respectively) to condemn the governments for interfering.
An expensive hotel is picked for negotiations. Someone suggests using a charity’s venue to save money instead. This is met with awkward silence.
Talks to agree the terms of the talks and the chairperson for the talks collapse.
The London media scream support with headlines like ‘bang their heads together!’, interview other English people, confuse basic Google-searched place names and forget the Assembly isn’t currently sitting. Then go back to hilariously muddled articles about peace walls and demographics.
The DUP would occasionally put someone forward to say “it’ll never happen” in interviews. The party would disappear from social media aside from photos of Arlene having tea with friends, plus tweets about Gerry and muttering about BBC bias. They’d then look for a new leader but descend into internal feuds. Peter Robinson, meanwhile, heads to Dublin with a grin and a wave for a new Senate job.
The Tories plot their revenge on the DUP for making the Brexit talks an even bigger nightmare than they already were, while by this point Labour have descended into an Anchorman-style street brawl.
Sinn Fein look for an equality cause to join and wait for enough DUP scandals to leave them with an open goal.
The Alliance party would watch – with popcorn in hand – for the moment their online trolls realise they need Alliance votes in any border poll.
The UUP stay in shock for a while after a sudden realisation that Mike was right about the SDLP after all.
Of course, Jim Allister will say “grubby” a lot in interviews which, let’s be honest, is really entertaining and must be part of any settlement. Talking of which, Eamonn McCann would hopefully be on air much more just because we miss him and it’d be great fun.
Various MLAs would take turns to do platform pieces in the BelTel saying just how awful it would be if – you know – their side not getting their way leads to violence. A Nelson McCausland piece on the crisis blames the GAA.
Since no one could find the Secretary of State’s number, it’s assumed that she’ll turn up for the next free All-Ireland Final tickets.
Meanwhile, people across NI would get on with their lives, muttering ‘scundered for us’ as they go.
All purely flippant, yes, but does anyone in all honesty have a more optimistic version of how it would play out?
Change is Coming
A change, like the one we’ve thrown around above, can and will happen.
In the UK a recent poll has seen support for the Tories collapse among young people, meanwhile many soft Unionists and ‘neither’ liberals are closer to a United Ireland than before (thanks to the DUP’s move to the right). Scottish independence isn’t going away any time soon and, the elephant currently filling the room, we have some form of new border with the EU thrown into the mix.
So: if NI’s Union vs United Ireland tug-of-war suddenly becomes a ‘must fix’ rather than a ‘wait and see’ – through future governments stepping in to say enough is enough or by political changes (inevitably) making it so – what home-grown leadership do we have to take on the challenge?
Which leaders have the skill, instead of constantly focussing on their co-dependent foes, to take hard questions with new answers and new alliances to ALL shades of their own support?
On 23rd August 2018 Danny Morrison published an interesting tweet: “This is the time and opportunity for ‘the unionist community’ (not necessarily, homogeneous) to robustly make the case for what they require to progress and prosper with everyone else on this vulnerable island. No victors. No vanquished”.
How many MLAs or parties could answer a challenge like this? And have the skill to bring their support along with them?
We’ve seen the deep lack of interest and understanding of NI from the media and politics outside NI.
Either we find ways to lead ourselves, or some day we could – truly – be thrown to the wolves.
Change is coming, ready or not. It’ll fall to us, or to the heavy-hand and bored indifference of London and Dublin.
How many MLAs and parties do we truly have who could guide us through? And what can we do to change this?
While we still can.
Conor Johnston – @CJohnstonNI – writes about subjects including culture (especially film/ cinemas), identity and media. He also blogs at www.freerangewords.net