Perhaps the problem with our politics is that our politicians haven’t figured out what politics is yet? Among other things that bizarre outburst in Belfast City Council by a former Lord Mayor shows an ignorance of the fact it was the theatre that begat genuine democracy, not elections.
As a result, most media ran end-of-year highlights for 2018 that were either universally threadbare or purely trivial. Despite Justice Coghlin’s herculean efforts, in two years the Ulster Fry’s take on the essential nature of the RHI scandal from January 2017 has yet to be beaten.
We seem strung out between not having a war to worry about, and no government about which we can complain. Thus the resort to the political pornography of Brexit (someone else’s fault) and chattering idly about border polls (and dreaming about dealing with imaginary civil unrest).
From time to time, southern politicians and commentators wring their hands about the absence of Stormont during Brexit’s existential threat to Ireland, but as Brian Feeney observed during the week, “nobody notices the assembly isn’t working, nor is there any public demand for its return”.
Whether staged or accidental, this has been a very peculiar withdrawal from adult politics (swapping multimillion pound health budgets for a half million for bonfire diversion payoffs). One, no doubt, that will have its own capricious and self-limiting dynamics which we’ve yet to see or fully understand.
But one thing is for sure, Northern Irish politics has never, in my adult lifetime at least, been so small.
Feeney notes there’s “even less money available to instigate meaningful improvement in health and education” than 2017. True but only if you cannot make the tough decisions every other public authority on these islands has had to endure over the last ten years.
Everything communicates, including sitting down, taking your wages and doing nothing.
One of the small items from the latter part of the last year is the fitful speculation that there was going to be some kind of arrangement (be it a two-party accommodation or merger) between the SDLP and Fianna Fáil.
No one in any decision making role within either party has been publicly (and in the case of FF, not even privately) be drawn on the matter. But reading strictly between the lines, Pat Leahy’s piece in the Irish Times doesn’t hold much hope for any immediate developments:
While the two parties are, as Gerry Moriarty reported over Christmas, on the cusp of announcing an active partnership and a series of shared policy priorities designed to set a new political agenda for Northern Ireland, I don’t think this will constitute a merger, and nor do I think that it will lead to one in the foreseeable future.
There will be no Fianna Fáil candidates running in the local elections in the North this May. The SDLP will have to stand on its own two feet for a bit longer. [emphasis added]
That will be disappointing news for those within the SDLP who have consistently assumed that there was no downside to Fianna Fáil coming north and had planned accordingly. But in fact, the analysis in Dublin and that of northern advocates for merger differ quite dramatically.
Denis Bradley in an Irish Times op-ed last week argued that:
For the foreseeable future all politics will be obsessed and dominated by the economic and constitutional consequences of Brexit. The Irish border is already a central cog in the debate about when and how Brexit will manifest itself on the ground.
The issue of a border poll, how and when it should be triggered, will keep imposing itself. The changing demographics in Northern Ireland, nationalism and unionism moving out of minority and majority status to face each other on an equal numerical basis, will create its own dynamics and opportunities.
Whilst a fair reflection of where nationalism has drifted under the leadership of Sinn Féin, this is also at substantial variance with the oft-repeated (on Slugger at least) pluralist position of Micheál Martin and his stress on the need for honest and open engagement with unionists.
In fact, Brexit and its associated discontents are as much a reason for Fianna Fáil not to pursue a march northwards. With unionist anxiety heightened – just as it was by the Good Friday Agreement and the Anglo-Irish Agreement before that – a Fianna Fáil takeover of the SDLP would likely be viewed by many unionists as a further threat to the constitutional position.
Sinn Féin has sought to use Brexit to advance the united Ireland agenda, and Fianna Fáil has fiercely criticised Mary Lou McDonald for doing so. Opening shop in the North would look like doing much the same thing.
In an excoriating analysis of the party’s past mistakes in the Irish News on Saturday, Patrick Murphy argued that the SDLP’s choice to…
…tackle sectarianism [by] institutionalis[ing] it is when its wheels began to come off. London would look after the Protestants and Dublin would care for the Catholics.
That was perhaps the biggest blunder in modern Irish history, on a par with Hugh O’Neill surrendering to Elizabeth I, six days after she had died in 1603.
It was a Catholic rather than a nationalist analysis, which perfectly matched the IRA’s classification of Irish Protestants as British.
The SDLP’s two-nations approach gave the IRA’s campaign a retrospective political relevance, placing Sinn Féin at the centre of the sectarian stage.
From then on, the sectarian elite would rise to the top and, to the SDLP’s credit, it was never going to be one of our most sectarian parties.
It’s such a commonplace now, that few in Northern Ireland choose to question it anymore. But the divide between one and two nationism is marked by the latter’s pursuit of an identity politics that looks primarily towards sectarian demography for its future opportunities/battles.
Sixteen years after the DUP and Sinn Féin edged past their respective moderate rivals, two nation politics has led us not towards change, but to playground threats to boycott the one local layer of government still left us (out of fear of what a cartoonist might ‘say’ about ‘us’).
The point of democracy is not to create (or underwrite) a comfort zone for elected politicians. Lack of a genuine (“kick the bums out”) opposition has created a political market for lemons where bad politics is not punished it invariably drives out the good.
As Murphy rightly notes, it was only when we got an opposition that the whole edifice collapsed. That’s not (necessarily) a disaster. The people are wise. Whilst they are given no alternative, they also know they’re missing little of value in the Hitler/Stalin pact politics of the DUP/SF coalition.
Meanwhile, a whole raft of opportunities from marriage equality to stopping primary health, social care and education systems collapsing through the floor go begging. Whether it is a united Ireland or a happy union you’re after it’s past time to “stand up and fight” for what actually unites us.
This requires bridge builders, not wreckers. If we needed a consensual basis on which to start the peace, what Northern Ireland now needs is to allow the political market forces that can help drive out the lemons (US slang for a car you discover is a dud only after you bought it).
Then Northern Ireland can look forward to being a very different place ten years hence
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