The future of Northern Ireland

Last week, Sinn Fein topped the poll for the Northern Irish assembly at Stormont. This means that it is likely that a nationalist will be the First Minister for the first time in the province’s history. Elections and devolved government in Northern Ireland are complex and so simply being the largest party doesn’t tell us everything.  First, the poll is via a single transferrable vote system with multiple members in each constituency. Secondly, the system of government is designed to ensure power sharing with seats in the cabinet allocated based on vote share and the requirement for a nationalist and a unionist to fill the posts of first and deputy first minister.  In effect these positions have equal power. 

The system was well intended. It’s aim was to ensure that all communities and factions had a stake in democratic government and so discourage a return to terrorism.   It was crucial to the peace process at the time. However, it has also enabled parties to collapse devolved government by withdrawing from it if they didn’t get their way.

Yet, here we are with Sinn Fein now the main party in Northern Ireland.  As well as the symbolic and practical status that gives them in Stormont, it also would mean that if repeated, then given Sinn Fein’s refusal to take their seats in Westminster that if repeated at the next General Election, Northern Ireland would be even less well represented in Parliament than now. 

Personally, I’m deeply uncomfortable with a situation where Sinn Fein might end up running Northern Ireland.  I am instinctively a Unionist and that reflects my background with my maternal Grandfather originating from Belfast.  However, if  majority of people in Northern Ireland wanted to leave the UK and join a united Ireland than that would be absolutely right as with Scottish independence.  However, the idea that a party whose history has primarily been as the front for one of the most heinous criminal and terrorist outfits might be in power over part of the United Kingdom should shock us.  Sinn Fein-IRA’s history is not just about a terror campaign against the British but also about mafia style organised crime and a reign of terror over communities in Northern Ireland.

But we are also in the situation once again where the DUP by refusing to join the administration can collapse the whole thing. The other end of sectarianism is able to hold the province and the UK to ransom in the process failing to represent even those who voted for them.

Furthermore, I think that where we are now reflects failure on the part of the other parties in Northern Ireland and successive British Governments. We see this because first of all, Sinn Fein’s recent success has come about not because they have strengthened their vote share in recent years but because the Unionist vote has splintered, and the DUP vote has collapsed. The DUP’s track record in office has been shocking and tainted by sleaze. 

However, the biggest failure has been our inability to move beyond sectarian thinking with regards to the province and that’s why the wider world, the UK government, EU and others must also bear responsibility.  The first piece of evidence for this is Brexit. Back in 1997, the Belfast Agreement was signed and this has been seen as the guarantor of peace for 25 years now.  However, what we’ve found over the past 6 years after the Brexit referendum is that the Belfast Agreement has consistently been used as a tool to try and prevent Britain making decisions about its current constitutional situation.  Normal democracy has been held to ransom with the threat of a return to violence in the air.

The thing is that if we are never able to move on, beyond the agreement and make decisions relevant to today then we never really had peace, we simply had a ceasefire and truce. We should by now be able to take decisions as a country without the fear of violent reprisals. Now, the result of those decisions may well be that a majority of people prefer to see their future with the republic and hence with the EU but that decision should be arrived at peacefully and democratically.

The second piece of evidence is in fact public attitudes in the province to a united Ireland.  With Sinn Fein the largest party and demographics increasingly moving to a situation where those of a Catholic heritage are likely to be in the majority soon, you might expect us to be moving closer to the time when there is a majority for unification. However, recent polls have suggested that only 30% would vote for Northern Ireland to join the republic.

We’ve made the mistake of conflating Catholicism with Irish nationalism.  Because of this we’ve insisted that sectarianism is locked into the Northern Irish constitution and Northern Irish politics. With Sinn Fein and the DUP capitalising on a post Belfast Agreement backlash against the traditional mainstream nationalist and unionist parties back at the turn of the century, this has meant that sectarians have helped a strong grip on the institutions of power.  The system has also meant that because they could have seats at the table simply by maintaining a core base, the politicians have never been forced to reach out beyond their tribes for a mandate. 

To give a further feel for how the current system works against progress it would be helpful to observe how the final make up of the assembly looks. There will be 37 Unionist members, 35 nationalist and 18 “other” (unaligned/cross community). This means that if it were simply down to forming an administration that could command the support of the Assembly, then it would be possibly for a unionist party to form an administration with the support of the unaligned parties. This would ensure that the administration did not rule for one community alone. Or perhaps better still, as a step towards the de-sectarianisation of politics, we could imagine a situation where the Alliance party sought to form an administration with Unionist and moderate nationalist support.

So, what does Northern Ireland need?  Well, the primary thing needed for peace was put in place within the Belfast Agreement, namely that the UK and Irish governments -with other onlookers committed to recognising the democratic will of the people. Northern Ireland’s status as part of the UK is a matter of consent and if that consent were to be withdrawn via a referendum, then the province would have the option to either join the Republic or go it alone as an independent state.  We should therefore be able to move to a situation where the question of Northern Ireland’s constitutional future sits in the background and where politicians focus instead on bread and butter issues, ensuring a healthy economy, protecting jobs, providing good quality healthcare, ensuring children are well educated, running reliable public transport.  Local, assembly and parliamentary elections should focus on those issues.

In other words, the aim should be to normalise and de-sectarianise Northern Irish politics.  It is encouraging therefore to see growth of support for non-sectarian parties like the Alliance Party.  I think that there might be other ways in which we could help with that normalisation.

  1. The province would benefit from certainty about its future status.  Now would therefore be a good time to test the public will on that matter.  I believe that there should be a referendum on a united Ireland within the next couple of years.  In order to establish a clear mandate either way, both sides of the debate would have to reach beyond traditional communities.  A clear mandate for a united Ireland would at this stage need support from traditionally unionist/protestant quarters whilst similarly, a vote to remain in the UK would probably include significant numbers of Catholic voters. It would be important for all sides to agree that this was in effect a generational decision with no further vote for another 15-20 years.
  2. The current power sharing arrangement should be removed.  The voting system means that it isn’t really possible for one party to govern on its own. 
  3. The Conservatives, Labour and Liberal Democrats should commit to participating fully in Northern Irish politics and recognise that it will take a serious long term effort for them to establish themselves there. 
  4. Ideally, it would be good to see traditional sectarian parties disband. They shouldn’t simply align to mainland parties as that would link those parties to sectarian agendas.  I appreciate this is the hardest ask of all but peace requires sacrifice and hard work.

Unfortunately, I don’t pick up a genuine concern to see these changes through. The usual attitude in Westminster is that unless Northern Ireland bothers them, then they aren’t bothered.  However, I pray that real and lasting peace will come to Northern Ireland.

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