The revival of dynamic British- Irish solidarity is essential for rescuing the politics of Northern Ireland

Perhaps the murder of a model for her generation will produce a paradigm shift in politics. Perhaps they’ll seize the emotion of the moment and strike a deal.   Had it not been for Lyra’s murder, the review of the GFA institutions would have been perfunctory.  Active British government involvement in the government of Northern Ireland had virtually ceased.  British- Irish relations were in cold storage over Brexit.  Vote harvesting is the season’s preoccupation as far as the eye can see, leaving little room for compromise. And yet the conviction is growing that “this can’t go on”  and that Northern Ireland is  approaching make or break for power sharing. Something has to give. But will it?  Not if the parties, especially the DUP and Sinn Fein are left entirely to their own devices. They are not as impermeable as some case- hardened  commentators think.

It’s  natural to think of these negotiations as essentially a matter for the local parties and therefore completely intractable; but it’s also a mistake.  For our politics are no longer locked  in their own sealed container. They leach into the politics of Brexit, the future of the Union and the confusion at Westminster that may produce two different new governments within a year. . The complications are enormous.  And yet…

No assembly, no reforms. No reforms, no Union?

How do we describe the present situation?   Sinn Fein have a progressive agenda on social issues which exposes Northern Ireland as the glaring anomaly from the rest of the United Kingdom, not to mention the Republic.They might have made more headway with  this and the Remain cause had they acted on Dublin advice and  taken their Westminster seats according to best constitutional practice; but then, in Sean Lemass’s famous  phrase, Sinn Fein are still only “slightly  constitutional”.  While in theory this weakens their argument to be treated with full constitutional respect, it is not an argument worth pursuing.

Their sticking points are indeed all anticipated  in the GFA, with the caveat that they have to be negotiated, either specifically as with the Irish language, or under the wider umbrella of human rights and equality.  If the DUP continue to resist all of them, Sinn Fein are demanding legislation from Westminster as Plan B, even though they would not be present to vote on it, as English supporters of reform constantly urge them to do.

Although there is considerable cross party back bench support  for overriding Unionist objections to equal marriage and abortion reform on allegedly superior  human rights grounds, there is no way that any British government will  abandon  the constitutional principles of devolution and legislate unilaterally to  introduce these reforms for as long as the GFA exists. This would be the case even if the confidence and supply deal had never been heard of.

In short, the Good Friday Agreement is a package. No Assembly, no reforms.

Sinn Fein know this but they also know the appeal of their case and are cockily overbidding. Meanwhile,by pursuing their disastrous policy on Brexit which has landed them with the backstop or a hard border, the DUP have been doing some of  Sinn Fein’s work for them.   But Sinn Fein have nowhere near the numbers to force the issue and will quickly face the basic choice: compromise or abandon Stormont altogether in favour of sitting it out for years waiting for a border poll. As politics is unpredictable and abhors a vacuum, that would be quite a gamble. Two could play the referendum game. How would a referendum go in favour of an Assembly based on reforms agreed by the two governments against a border poll?

On the other side, DUP obduracy is shakily based. The permanent majority may have gone forever and could never have been decisive anyway in a power sharing constitution.  As both parties persist in treating politics as a zero sum game, Sinn Fein make all the running and the DUP are permanently on the defensive. Why? The answer is obvious. The DUP have the prize of the Union. They’re sure that Sinn Fein are  exploiting the institutions  to hollow it out from the high moral ground of human rights. But now the ground is being cut under the DUP’s feet, largely due to their own misreading of the sea changes on both sides of the Irish Sea. Under the GFA consent principle, clinging to mother England’s apron strings will not guarantee them the Union. They must compromise, otherwise they risk losing the Union if not today,  then tomorrow or the day after.  Trapped by the illusion of short term power in the deal with the Tories, in public they betray only the odd flicker of realisation of their real position for the medium term. A face saver must be found to give it due weight in the negotiations.

In the end neither the DUP nor Sinn Fein can achieve their existential goals on the basis  of their own appeal alone. Any decision on a border poll will be subject to southern constraints.  In the next generation if not before, the Union will survive only with Catholic consent.

 British-Irish solidarity is vital

In the forthcoming negotiations, both governments must act as natural players. The old referee role  was both inappropriate and ineffective. The political universe has been transformed. Northern Ireland’s domestic affairs have figured more prominently in Irish and UK politics than could have been imagined a few years ago. A general debate at Westminster would register widespread cross party support for equal marriage, abortion and statutory status for the Irish language regardless of DUP reservations. At the moment of victory in the Republic’s abortion referendum, the slogan  at Dublin Castle was ” Next, the North, ” in London “Don’t leave one million Northern Ireland women behind.”  Faced with British equivocation over the border, Dublin have stepped rather cheekily into London’s role as the leading promoter of peace, as if they were primarily responsible for border security. They have taken up position as champion of the North’s interests in the EU and are the guarantors of Irish and EU citizens’ rights in the North.

Like it or not, by different constitutional routes, Northern Ireland’s internal affairs are subject to Irish as well as British intervention.

The governments must stop waiting for Godot and make no bones about it.  While respecting the principles of devolution, they should jointly declare their support for equal marriage, abortion and giving the Irish language statutory status in line with both nations’ policies.  Faced with Brexit’s threat  to the cohesion of the entire UK, Westminster  is leaning  towards  holding the Union together on the basis of common values  rather than the diversity of the Union state. The SNP may not like it but a unionist party can hardly complain. Ultimately and whatever is the state of Commons arithmetic, Westminster will press the DUP to compromise.

Persuasion and pressure

Stick as well as carrot may be necessary to create movement. If Sinn Fein remain obdurate they face rejection from Fine Gael and Fianna Fail as a potential coalition partner and a refusal to contemplate a concurrent referendum on unity in the south. At some point Varadkar and Martin will make that clear, provided the DUP make the concessions and claim credit for retrieving the situation.  The British government must spell  out that stasis can’t go on forever. Direct rule by whatever name would be green tinged amounting to joint authority for a fixed period monitored by the intergovernmental council sitting in regular sessions.  This would become the bipartisan policy at Westminster under any conceivable government.

Building confidence   

To obviate all this aggravation, the obvious move is for the DUP to lift the block on equal marriage of the petition of concern and allow it to pass the Assembly by simple majority. This would be the essential  confidence building move for a resumption of the Executive. It would be endorsed in advance by all parties to the talks.

To increase confidence further, unanimous opposition to dissident republican and all other paramilitary violence should be extended to develop common positions to damp down flashpoints before they ignite. It would help the prospects if the DUP indicated a willingness not to repeat Peter Robinson’s staggered withdrawal from the Executive just because a street feud bore the label IRA and there was no threat to the wider community.Action on the final disbandment of paramilitary groups which includes  incentives as well as policing has stalled since the Stormont suspension must be resumed.

Both governments should look forward to a role for the Assembly in formulating free trade arrangements across an open border and between the island of Ireland and GB, in which Northern Ireland enjoys the best of both worlds.

If only for the sake of morale one can dream about agreement in the talks forming the manifesto for a confidence building election.

 Assembly and Executive reform 

Turning to practicalities…

The sticking points should be tackled alongside Assembly reform rather than in isolation, as in the abortive  Stormont House agreement. The keenly awaited cash for ash inquiry report will remorselessly expose the bankruptcy of clientelism and sectarian carve up and boost calls from civil society for its reform.

A full blown voluntary coalition with the designations removed is unachievable. But replacing the designations may be feasible to give full voting power to all members and allow ad hoc coalitions on particular issues to form more easily.  To unlock the mutual veto, Robin Wilson has put forward the voguish suggestion of a Citizen’s Assembly that was so successful on the south and is now being adopted by politicians as different as Theresa May and Nicola Sturgeon.  Deliberative debate by a representative group of citizens could finally test whether the civil society really is ahead of the politicians over the terms of agreement. The two governments should take care not to allow the minor parties to be sidelined this time.  If they can form some common positions, now is their chance to make an impact.

 Stormont restoration is part of full B&I reconciliation

Ironically echoes of the tortuous Brexit negotiations are just audible. Doubts must be overcome about the British government’s capacity and competence to steer the talks, in uncomfortable contrast with Dublin.  Fine Gael and Fianna Fail will resist the temptation to play footsie under the table with Sinn Fein for party advantage.  Solidarity within and between both establishments is vital and the route to a common objective must be agreed. Negotiations should stretch into the autumn and beyond after the obligatory summer pause. There should be a fair amount of transparency from the governments.  Through the fog of Brexit, the two governments must be confident active players rather than nervous referees.

This is their big chance to repair the relationship in which throughout these islands and in spite of Brexit, we are one of the other through and beyond the constitutional forms. It is in this wider context that a solution to the Stormont standoff may be found and bring Northern Ireland in from the cold.