People would say we need a narrative. That’s to say what we need is an explanation of what is going on that gives meaning to events.
So what story does the Stormont hiatus (which still defies all reasonable analysis) relate about Northern Ireland? The vacuum has left the traditional fall guys of the NI media (ie, the DUP) as the only winners. Even when it comes to the much anticipated (and no doubt highly embarrassing) RHI Inquiry, SF’s ongoing boycott of Stormont means that Sir Patrick Coghlin has no minister he can report to.
In the week before Christmas, I spoke to both individual senior DUP and Sinn Fein politicians. The former was at pains to refute the idea that his party would be responsible for any no Brexit outcome arguing instead that it would ultimately be UK wide decision, that could not solely rest upon the shoulders of his party.
The latter was at pains to suggest that, whilst maintaining their principled stand on refusing to take their seats Sinn Fein was highly visible at Westminster these days. That’s certainly true of the Westminster village, but as regards the public narrative in Britain Sinn Fein barely registers behind Arlene and Nigel and even the SNP’s recently appointed Commons leader Ian Blackford.
This odd state of affairs goes hand in hand with the fact the British public has barely noticed that the Assembly is not running. Northern Irish democracy may have all but crashed and burned, but (Lord help us) the DUP MPs are coming to be seen as Northern Ireland’s only legitimate democratic voice. That, for the sake of further clarity, is a very sorry state of affairs.
The demand that the DUP’s MPs should represent the anti-Brexit majority, obviates the reality that there are others much better qualified to express such views, who no longer have a platform to share it. In other words, they’re voiceless.
So how did we get here?
To state the bleedin’ obvious, relationships between the two main parties we expect to do the business through the mandatory coalition bequeathed us by the Belfast Agreement, leave much to be desired. Neither really has either a credible or a consistent story for doing business with the other. The DUP has spent most election scaring the Bejasus out its voters that no one but itself could face down SF.
It is a story that undermined its own legitimate part in the power sharing institutions of the Belfast Agreement in 1997 (later trimmed at the St Andrews Agreement in 2006). In fact the latter held out the (ultimately corrosive) promise to both Sinn Fein and the DUP that they could hold power in Northern Ireland forever, but the poor stories they were compelled to tell about the unreliability of the other in order to hold that power ultimately rendered such power useless.
As a result, the DUP has come to treat legitimate cultural aspirations (like the, IMHO, totally useless version of the Irish Language Act that SF apparently agreed to in February) as egregious, anti British propaganda victories. In fact, the language revival in Northern Ireland is an almost entirely self starting, independent movement that has won its current status despite the once cold indifference of the northern state.
Of course, few of the DUP’s sanctions on Irish culture have come without, often extreme, provocation. Over the years of the so called Peace Process™, Orange culture (as legitimate in its own right as a vital social and cultural glue as the language) has been traduced and vilified as inferior, with the burning of communal property being seen as a part of an (entirely spurious) ‘war on bigotry’.
However, the larger corollary of this culture war has been to push unionism, under the leadership of the DUP, further and further from its former liberal roots. It should go without saying that the party’s socially conservative stance has left it at odds with the liberalising opinion of a numerical majority of Northern Ireland opinion: including, almost certainly, that of the unionist section of our society.
On the nationalist side of the ledger there is very little of any substance that can be said. The collapse of Stormont and the total victory of abstentionism at Westminster has rendered political nationalism voiceless. Nearly two years after her ascension to Vice President of Sinn Fein the world barely hears from Michelle O’Neill never mind knows who she is. Truthfully, the Northern Irish electorate has been given a back seat to her party’s real ambition in the Republic.
At the second rank level, the UUP has resiled to where its residual strength is in rural and border area Northern Ireland. Robin Swann’s leadership could be at best described as unadventurous but steady. He’s offered few of the hostages to fortune that Mike Nesbitt did, but nor has he cracked any eggs to make omlettes of his own. On Brexit, he’s folded into where his rural base is, quietly hoping Mrs May will pull something out of the fire that doesn’t injure them too harshly.
Alliance, suffering too from the absence of Stormont, has struggled for mind space (as politics in general has). It has quietly drifted into backing into SF’s opportunistic demands for political change as the price of the return of Stormont. Their leader is probably the most eloquent of a lacklustre bunch and has been energetically eating into the liberal nationalist mindspace which for most of this year has been vacated by an SDLP consumed in internal discussions about its own future.
Oddly enough, for a party which has spent most of the last 20 years rooted on the political sidelines, the SDLP may be where the first real political story of 2019 [and 2018? – Ed] arises. This blogger predicts that the party’s accommodation with Fianna Fáil will emerge early in the new year putting an end to a phoney war within nationalism that’s been ongoing for almost as long as the peace process itself.
Ironically, Micheal Martin’s declaration of support for southern unity over Brexit for the whole of 2019 both clears the decks for entry into Northern Ireland and gives FF a legislative cause to rally support outwith the normal pennypinching bickering over flags, marches and symbols and focus on the urgent need to redress the loss of voice for the cross community, anti Brexit majority in Northern Ireland.
The success of Fianna Fáil in the south has largely escaped serious examination in the north, but at its simplest, it puts a premium on action within the governmental machine (even his opponents accept that Haughey for all his egregious personal faults was both a gifted and highly progressive lawmaker), and not just in casework, which has been the coping strategy for most of Northern Ireland’s legislators in response to our on/off democracy.
Whether its seed takes to our hard and begrudging northern soil will depend on whether people warm to the story of good relationships it must tell. And if, come the local elections, it can raise the numbers it needs to prove it can deliver a good deal for the beleaguered nationalist voter who has been looking for a genuine island wide perspective (and action) for their aspirations, not just another ‘we hate Arlene’ culture war trope.
However it falls, 2019 is likely to be a good deal more interesting than this year has been….
Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty