Tuesday 9 September 2008

Rut politics

Maybe it's still the silly season, or maybe it's the current paralysis of the Northern Ireland Executive, but politics seems to be stuck in a bad-tempered rut at the moment. Both sides are engaged in recriminations and neither side appears willing to make any concrete moves to break the log-jam. To be fair, for either side to move on the other side's demands as currently stated would imply a loss. Such is the position both sides have got themselves into.

Needless to say, both sides insist that the fault lies with the other side. And indeed both are right, according to their own logic.

It could, however, be argued that both sides actually benefit from the current paralysis. While both claim to support devolution, it is not the preferred outcome of either unionists or nationalists. Unionists want Northern Ireland to be inextricably tied to Britain, while nationalists want to break that link. Neither side's Ministers really appear to be committed to making Northern Ireland Inc. work. So, as long as the machinery of government ticks over (which it generally though unspectacularly does), pensions and salaries are paid, roads are maintained, and schools and hospitals provide an acceptable level of service. Northern Ireland is not a real country, and so a lack of real government does not really matter.

Unionists are generally very sensitive towards anything that could support Charles Haughey's famous remark that Northern Ireland is a "failed political entity", but they could be hoping that if the current arrangements fail, the fall-back position will be one of closer integration with Britain. The ebb and low of the intra-unionist devolution-versus-integration debate may turn away from devolution if the current attempt fails. Previous similar attempts, in 1973-4 (Sunningdale), 1975-76 (the Convention), and 1982-6 (an earlier Assembly), all failed, and led to long periods of 'direct rule' from London. During these periods ambitious unionist politicians chaffed at their political impotence and longed for the return of limited powers to Belfast. But the reality of the return of these powers since the Good Friday Agreement may have robbed devolution of its attractions for unionists, and many may now prefer the stability of direct rule. Indeed some in the UUP are persuading themselves that if their party joins up with the Conservatives, they will somehow gain real power in London.

For nationalists, a successful Northern Ireland would clearly diminish the appeal of a united Ireland. If nationalists could enjoy cultural expression, political power, and economic prosperity within Northern Ireland, then why would they exchange that for the uncertainties of constitutional change? As representatives of their people nationalist politicians wish to have the best for those people, but as nationalists they want their people to have the best within a united Ireland. If, however, they succeed too well at making their people content within a separate Northern Ireland, then they diminish their own nationalist project. Yet, the very success of Northern Ireland, in economic and social terms, is a prerequisite for Irish unity. A basket-case economy and social dysfunction can be carried (at a distance) by London, but not by Dublin. This is, of course, one of the (unspoken) reasons why loyalists continue to make Northern Ireland unpleasant, and why unionists turn a blind eye to them.

So nationalists must walk a narrow path between promoting a successful Northern Ireland (that is still within the UK), and smartening up Northern Ireland in preparation for reunification. Unionists feel that they can win either way – if Northern Ireland improves economically and socially there may be less interest in constitutional issues, but if it fails to improve then only London can afford it, and London cannot simply walk away.

On the face of it, therefore, the current paralysis seems to suit unionists more than nationalists. Northern Ireland remains locked into its status quo, and if the arrangements fail, London must step back in. The only unknown is what London's long-term plans would then be. Clearly the demographic situation does not yet point towards reunification, so London must retain overall sovereignty. Yet a failure of devolution means that it would not be tried again for a decade, and by then the demographic situation will be different. The direct rule period that may follow the failure of the current arrangements may coincide with a period of conservative government in Britain, and this combination has always been dangerous for Northern Ireland. A clearly unionist-friendly government taking unpopular decisions, while the electorate slowly edges towards parity (and then nationalist-majority), could provide nationalism with the stimulus it needs. That this would happen during a decade thick with centenaries (of 1913, 1916, 1918, 1919, and so on) makes it doubly dangerous for unionism.

Both sides are faced with a difficult period, for different reasons. It seems that neither Sinn Féin nor the DUP have any answers. And so Northern Ireland drifts for the time being.

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