Dan O’Brien: ‘Why odds are against a North breakthrough’


Dan O’Brien: ‘Why odds are against a North breakthrough’

A polarised and dysfunctional Northern Ireland is dividing further over Brexit, a border poll, direct rule and social issues

'It is to be hoped that the talks among the Northern parties succeed.' Stock picture
‘It is to be hoped that the talks among the Northern parties succeed.’ Stock picture

The stalemate in the North has continued for well over two years. The institutions of devolved government established under the Good Friday Agreement have not functioned since January 2017. The ‘New IRA’ murder of Lrya McKee 10 days ago has added a fresh impetus to efforts to restore those institutions, as formally announced by the Irish and British governments last Friday.

It is to be hoped that the talks among the Northern parties succeed. But the obstacles appear insurmountable, particularly as the incentives for what have become the two main players – the DUP and Sinn Fein – to make compromises are extremely limited.

The talks are scheduled to begin after this week’s local elections in the North. If these elections show a significant swing from the two hardline parties, the calculus for Sinn Fein and the DUP could change. But there is little expectation of any such shift. If anything, the trend of the past two decades is set to continue.

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The last time voters in the North went to the polls, for the 2017 Westminster election, the DUP won 36pc of the vote, by far its best performance in election history. Sinn Fein also had its best election, winning almost 30pc of the vote. By contrast, the centrists of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists had their worst ever performances.

One of the flaws of the Good Friday Agreement was that it created incentives for voters to move from the middle-ground parties, which had dominated Northern politics for so long, in favour of the more extreme parties. This, incidentally, is exactly what happened in the European peace process that is most similar to Ireland’s, that of Bosnia Herzegovina.

The experience of both places shows that intense electoral competition (this week’s elections in the North will be the fifth poll since the last local elections in 2014) in divided societies with limited trust in shared political and civic institutions gives an advantage to those who claim to take the hardest line in defence of their respective communities.

The Agreement, signed just over 21 years ago, was negotiated at a time of global decline in non-democracies and the emergence of a belief that democracy was inevitable. This was best encapsulated by the ‘End of History’ thesis of political scientist Francis Fukuyama. The Irish version of this at the time was the captured in the phrase “politics works”.

The intervening two decades have shown that politics does not always work, in the North, in Bosnia and in the dozens of countries around the world where democratisation processes and democratic institutions have not brought well-functioning democracies.

Given its weaknesses, the Good Friday Agreement should not be seen as some sort of a sacred text. Nor should it be conflated with the peace process, as happens frequently when politicians claim that it is the reason violence ended. There is a need for conceptual clarity: the Agreement was the political outworking of the peace process. It is thus part of the peace process, and an important part, but it is not the peace process.

Like any policy instrument, it has flaws and needs flexibility when those flaws become obvious. But making changes to the Agreement at this juncture would be even less likely to succeed than restoring its institutions of devolved government. And even that looks harder than ever given the polarising effect of Brexit, Sinn Fein’s (related) push for a border poll, the role of the DUP in propping up Theresa May’s government, and the emergence of a new and deep division between the two largest parties on social issues. Each one is worth exploring in more detail.

The hammer blow of Brexit

Opinion polls show the two communities are spilt both on leaving the EU and on the backstop. On the nationalist side, those polls suggest almost complete opposition to Brexit and overwhelming support for the backstop.

The unionist side is different, but not by much – and not by nearly as much as is often portrayed south of the Border. While there is a minority of unionists who did not back Brexit in 2016 and who now support the backstop, including some significant economic interests, both the DUP and UUP (in other words, all of political unionism) vehemently oppose the backstop. Those two parties share the view that if it were to kick in, the status of the North would be changed. As UUP leader Robin Swann recently wrote, “the backstop undermines the principle of consent underpinning the Belfast Agreement”, going on to say that it “is a direct attack on the bedrock of the Agreement”. Nothing in the text of the Agreement points to his interpretation being wrong.

Sinn Fein’s border poll push

Most normal political parties in democracies have a range of objectives. For Sinn Fein, getting “England out of Ireland”, as was emblazoned on a banner behind which the party’s leader marched recently in the US, is the objective which trumps all others. All events are viewed through the prism of ending partition.

Brexit has shifted opinion among the nationalist community in favour of a united Ireland. In the past, many in that community were content to avoid the disruption and risks that a unification process would cause. But the prospect of being locked into a union in which English nationalism is a significantly more powerful force than before has changed things.

For Sinn Fein, pushing a border poll will be more difficult if it returns to a devolved government with the DUP. As in other areas, being free of the responsibilities of government allows it to pursue its over-riding objective more freely.

The destabilising role of the DUP in Westminster

What is now the North’s largest single party did not sign the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Many of its senior figures have never bought into its devolutionary intent, preferring full integration with “the mainland”. It is for that reason that a return to direct rule from London has never been viewed negatively by the party. Since it has held the balance of power at Westminster, the prospect of direct rule from London, over which the DUP could expect to have some sway and be seen by its supporters and opponents alike to have sway, is all the more appealing.

The architecture of the Agreement is fragile, with Dublin and London governments book-ending the political process, which, among other things, provides buttressing pressure to keep the institutions standing. Since 2017, the British government has depended on the DUP for its majority in Westminster, something that has inevitably undermined London’s role as a straight player in the process (Sinn Fein having a role in government in the Republic, something that is far from impossible, would have a similar effect). The Agreement did not envisage the delicate architecture being destabilised in this way.

Culture wars have created a new fissure

As if differences between the two hardline parties were not great to begin with, the rapid opening up of another fissure has made matters even more intractable. In recent years, Sinn Fein has shifted from being socially conservative to become socially liberal. The DUP has remained staunchly socially conservative.

As a recently as a decade ago, same-sex marriage was still viewed by most politicians as a fringe issue. Just half a decade ago, change to the prohibition on abortion was not supported by any of the major parties.

On abortion, Sinn Fein dropped its pro-life policy stance as recently as 2015. Prior to that, both Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness had described the party’s position as “anti-abortion”. Now Sinn Fein is ardently pro-choice and is seeking change to the North’s prohibition on abortion, along with legalisation of same-sex marriage, as part of whatever grand bargain might be struck to bring about the restoration of devolution.

The ‘culture wars’ between conservatives and liberals has become a more important aspect of politics in many western countries in recent years, with each side increasingly intolerant of the position of the other. This has infected the politics of Northern Ireland, where tolerance of the other side’s positions was already in short supply.

None of these factors augurs well for a sustained and successful restoration of the North’s political institutions. Add into the mix the low esteem in which the current secretary of state, Karen Bradley, is held almost universally, and the deep distrust among unionists of all hues of her interlocutor and counterpart, Tanaiste Simon Coveney, and the chances of a breakthrough appear even more remote.

Sunday Independent


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