Engineering Decay: The (absolute) state of the nation
Our two leading parties are disingenuously gambling with the future of every Northern Irish citizen. There probably won’t be any winners. The ultimate casualty however could be the prospect of devolution ever returning to Northern Ireland.
589 days without a Stormont executive came and went. In any normal democracy there would be vocal outrage but in Northern Ireland the milestone was met with a weary shrug. #WeDeserveBetter was depressingly/hilariously (delete as appropriate) hijacked by the DUP. The two warring parties have Taken To Twitter to fight out their new war of blaming each other for the impasse. We didn’t even get the award in the end because we actually do have a government. It’s called the UK Parliament. They are just refusing to govern. On the face of it, it is difficult to see why.
The DUP have been publicly calling for direct rule to be implemented. The UK government would need to pass new legislation through parliament for this to happen. Given that between them both the Conservatives and the DUP have the numbers to pass such legislation, the onus here is entirely on Secretary of State Karen Bradley who has so far resisted calls from unionists to impose direct rule.
It takes two to disagree
Bradley is quickly running out of reasons publicly go against her coalition partners. For a while they could point to the semi-permanent feel of direct rule. It’s a tacit acceptance that things won’t be resolved for the long-term. Perhaps there was hope that the restoration was imminent, particularly with the draft agreement of February which the DUP was all but ready to agree with until the Orange Order had a quiet word in Arlene Foster’s ear. Sinn Féin appeared to be happy with it. It was the DUP who eventually nixed the proposed deal following a grassroots backlash. They can claim to have listened to their voters and acted accordingly but they cannot also claim that it is only Sinn Féin who are boycotting the assembly when their own u-turn also amounts to a boycott.
Significantly, however, this u-turn killed the last round of talks stone dead and there has been little dialogue ever since with each party having handcuffed themselves to two irreconcilable positions. For either one to cave in now would represent such a dramatic and public act of crow-eating that it’s impossible to see either party entertaining the notion of backing down and having to explain it to their supporters. Both parties have form for pissing on their voter’s heads and telling them it is raining, but the smell of ammonia would be too strong for either of them to get away with this one.
Direct Rule or Neglect Rule?
With dialogue having been all but dead for over half a year, the ARC21 ruling largely disempowering civil servants and decisions in dire need of being taken, we are at the point that things cannot continue like this for much longer. The logical next move would be for the UK government to implement direct rule. Anything else is wilful neglect. So with their captors-in-government calling for direct rule and the prospects for devolution as bleak as the future of the Arctic ice caps, why have the Conservatives not even tried to implement it?
Consider the DUP’s latest social media campaign, the excruciating hijack of the #WeDeserveBetter meme (for which they already appear to be running out of ideas). It’s nothing new for them to blame Sinn Féin for everything but it’s a divergence from their usual strategy for them to point to Actual Current Issues rather than ‘whatabout the IRA’. Who could blame them when they are essentially reacting to #WeDeserveBetter‘s apparent demand for all red lines to be dropped ‘so issues could be debated at the seat of government?’ They see an opportunity to hammer Sinn Féin by saying they are letting waiting lists spiral for the sake of a Language Act (neglecting to mention that this accusation goes both ways). If direct rule was implemented and Conservative ministers start making decisions, they can no longer claim this and the easy attack line falls into Sinn Féin’s hands: ‘DUP-Tory misrule’ they will cry. You feel like they will only accept direct rule if the Tories committed significant investment (and a lot more than the already agreed package is required) into sorting NI’s problems. Otherwise there is absolutely nothing in it for them.
Puppet on a string
So is it possible that the DUP are saying one thing publicly and another privately? Well, on the not-completely-unrelated issue of MLA pay, the DUP have publicly called for a cut for almost a year. Bradley has resisted these calls in the face of public pressure and even NIO advice. However it has been suggested that it was in fact DUP pressure that delayed the cut. Added to the fact that the day Karen Bradley announced the cut was the day god-bothering songster Jonathan Bell was giving his DUP-damning testimony to the RHI inquiry. When it comes to Karen Bradley’s decisions regarding Northern Ireland, the puppet strings of Nigel Dodds never seem too far away.
For the DUP, the current chaos seems to suit them as long as they can blame Sinn Féin while continuing to silently and invisibly send a chill down Karen Bradley’s neck. No direct rule and they will not be for giving in to SF’s demands.
“Where there is chaos, there is opportunity”
Will Sinn Féin compromise then? Why would they? They’ve been reading Sun-Tzu like an incel and see the current chaos as the greatest political opportunity of their existence.
Pre June-2016, it would not have been a silly thing to say that Irish unity was unlikely for many generations. Polling suggested that a significant amount of Catholics were happy with the status quo, perhaps swayed by the stability, the free healthcare and later the financial crisis in the Republic.
The shift in conversation since Brexit has been astonishing. Sinn Féin haven’t needed to lift a finger. Two years of destructive and ignorant behaviour from the UK government and the DUP have done more for the cause for Irish unity than Sinn Féin have managed in nearly 40 years of politics or the IRA did in 30 years of conflict. We can rhyme off the milestones – Brexit, the Líofa funding, ‘crocodiles’ - that managed to effectively unite nationalists at a level not seen since the Civil Rights movement. Tacit approval of the union among Catholics evaporated.
Escaping the runaway clown car
Meanwhile, 10% who largely support the Alliance and Green parties – until now regarded as largely nominally unionist – are now looking like the swing vote in any referendum. Most of them are dismayed by Brexit, are socially liberal and have seen the Republic vote decisively in favour of equal marriage and abortion rights while Northern Ireland gets left behind. They look at Britain and see a mess of a country dominated by infighting in the main political parties who are both threatening to tear themselves apart, a country heading for economic oblivion with no Brexit plan in place and could very well end up with a literal clown as Prime Minister if they are not too careful. They look at Ireland and see a modern, socially liberal Europhile republic that, relative to Britain, seems to have its shit together (the fact that Ireland is rife with its own problems in terms of housing, health, tax avoidance and corporate shillery is a measure of just what a spluttering clown car the UK has become when it looks attractive in comparison).
Added to that, Sinn Féin have modernised, finally getting their policy on abortion into the 21st century, shedding the ghosts of Troubles Past in favour of clean-handed Mary-Lou McDonald who has performed largely impressively in the media since ascending to the top of the party. The conversation around unity keeps getting louder and with the UK’s clown car careering towards the No Deal cliff edge, it doesn’t look like stopping. Why would Sinn Féin change a thing right now?
Although they got caught out trying to quietly drop their equal marriage demand after the February draft was leaked, their supporters have absolutely no problem with an Irish Language Act remaining a red line to power – particularly if the DUP continue to refuse to accede to it. Their increasing social liberalism (and recently-acquired status as the Republic of Ireland’s most mainstream left-wing party) means they aren’t toxic to young voters in the same way the DUP are. The current chaos is doing quite nicely for them.
We are at the stage where it will require another comprehensive Belfast/St Andrews style agreement to form any sort of government, but why would Sinn Féin agree to one? Those agreements won them international plaudits but did nothing for their ultimate cause. In fact, you could argue they almost killed off Irish Unity for generations. People got comfortable with a new ‘Northern Irish’ identity, Rory McIlroy and Snow Patrol became the symbols of a bland, feelgood Northern Ireland. No-one was particularly in the mood for radical change, only too glad that everyday life now represented some semblance of normality. Sinn Féin took a lot of criticism from their grassroots over this. Why go back to that when there is the nettle of instability to be grasped?
If neither party is willing to compromise and unlikely to give in long-term, what hope is left for devolution in NI? There aren’t going to be new parties on top anytime soon. Even a drop in the vote for either DUP or Sinn Féin won’t threaten the status of either, with their closest rivals in seeming terminal decline and Alliance still struggling to make a breakthrough beyond the eastern constituencies surrounding Belfast. Change is several election cycles away. Even the liberal dream of an anti-DUP/Sinn Féin coalition is impossible due to the terms of the agreement – which isn’t changing anytime soon.
Increasingly, it looks like a only a significant event will end the impasse. After twenty years of cultural skirmishes it might be time for Northern Ireland to properly confront the national question in order to achieve stability. This is not to say that Irish Unity is necessarily the only stable outcome – a damage-limitation Brexit deal or even a reversal of Article 50 would probably be enough to settle the nerves of the 10% swing vote for now. The possibility of a socialist government in the UK (which, let’s be honest, is much more likely in the medium term than in Ireland) might even encourage leftists to consider sticking with the UK.
At that point, Sinn Féin may decide there is little more to gain from the current chaos and might quietly go back, pretending they got what they wanted after all. However it is difficult to see their current agitation ending without clear evidence that the appetite for unity has dropped. With all sorts of wild opinion polls floating about, you imagine only a comprehensive referendum defeat will stop this. This appears unlikely in the event of a No Deal Brexit. Few truly believe that No Deal is going to be a good thing for the population at large and most predict that Northern Ireland is likely to be affected much worse than most. If the aforementioned 10% are considering their allegiance now, what would a disastrous Brexit do?
It’s hard to avoid the feeling that both parties are content to set each other impossible demands and disingenuously engineer a decay in Northern Ireland which they each think benefits their own cause. The DUP - drunk on the power as the Westminster kingmakers – see an opportunity to decisively cut Northern Ireland off from the Republic and fully integrate NI into their dream of a low-regulation Brexit Britain. Sinn Féin see a once-in-a generation opportunity to capitalise on the alienation from Britain of non-traditional voters who might see a New Ireland as a more attractive prospect for their children.
I’m not at all a fan of the ‘both sides are as bad as each other’ rhetoric because on many issues, they aren’t. However if both parties are content for Northern Ireland to rot and suffer because they see an opportunity to achieve a selfish goal then they have an awful lot to answer for, particularly given their mandate has largely been formed by harvesting fear and loathing that they have generated themselves. Neither outcome is guaranteed so this amounts to little more than both parties dangerously gambling with the lives of the people they were elected to represent.
Closed For Good?
All these factors add together an increasing suspicion that there is no way back for devolved government in Northern Ireland. Not only do the obstacles seem insurmountable, but the prize is too small. Almost a decade of devolution produced embarrassingly little. The cliche of Stormont being a glorified county council became all too real over the years when I switched the radio over from RTE’s Morning Ireland to BBC’s Good Morning Ulster and it suddenly feels like I’m listening to the political equivalent of CBeebies. Our political landscape is not at all mature enough to even conceive of proper government. This generates such a low public opinion of our politicians to the point where most are unperturbed about unelected civil servants running the place.
With calculated resistance from the two main blocs for a Stormont return, utter ambivalence from everyone else coupled with a reluctance from a UK Government - beholden to the DUP - to act, we look absolutely set for another four years of stagnation. Bar another accident of mathematics, the next UK government will be freer to interpret the woolly conditions by which it may call at Unity referendum. Even at that, only a comprehensive vote to stay in the UK would likely be enough for Sinn Féin to decide to try and make Northern Ireland work again. Is a comprehensive result at all likely post-Brexit?
Very few of the realistic scenarios point to a return to devolved government in Northern Ireland right now. The impasse is set to continue, the decay is ongoing and it’s near impossible to envisage a resolution. With no prospect of consensus and major constitutional events on the horizon, it genuinely could be that Stormont has closed its doors for the last time.