Editorial from Irish Political Review, April 2007

Bread And Butter Politics

Garret FitzGerald hailed the agreement of the DUP to form a government with Sinn Fein as an Irish solution

It happened because the Whitehall Government engaged in a direct form of economic and cultural blackmail, directed at the Unionist voters, and the DUP did not dare to challenge it. It threatened that water charges would be imposed, and an Irish Language Act would be introduced, and the 11-plus examination would be abolished if the Unionists did not make a commitment by March 26th to join in Government with Sinn Fein. To lend credibility to the threat, draft water bills were sent out. All three items would be transferred to the devolved legislature once the Unionists met the March 26th deadline, and the Unionist majority could bury them, and there would in addition be a gift to the devolved Government of £1 billion.

Another threatened consequence of failing to toe the line on March 26th was the abolition of the Stormont apparatus. Not only would the salaries of the Assembly be cut off, but the extensive apparatus of government that was kept in being during the years when there was nothing for it to do would be dismantled, adding significantly to the unemployed in the Unionist middle class.

Further to this, there was threatened Plan B—joint British-Irish government being enhanced and regularised, with devolution taken off the agenda. The probability is that this was a complete bluff. Paisley called that bluff last year and it lost credibility.

Another matter which stimulated Unionism to pay the Sinn Fein price of restoring devolved government was the reorganisation of Local Government, which has been hanging in the air for close on 40 years. Whitehall indicated that it would implement something like the Mark Langhammer scheme for a small number of large Local Government areas, whereas the Unionists want a large number of small areas. The Nationalists would cope with either.

Nationalism is the growing and purposeful element in the North, and in its Sinn Fein development it is outgoing towards the Protestant community in a way that the SDLP never was, so large areas would be to its advantage. What Unionism desires is seclusion in small areas where contact with Nationalists would be minimised.

The choice for Unionists, carefully set up by Whitehall, was participation with Sinn Fein under a system of devolved government in which they could prevent legislation, or continuing government by the Government of the State with economic penalties, and legislative enactments favourable to the Nationalist community and aggravating to Unionists.

Whitehall's object is this is to put Northern Ireland back in the place designed for it in 1921—to keep it within the British State, but take it out of British politics—and to use it as a lever for easing the Irish State back towards the British State.

The Secretary of State (who doubles up as Secretary of State for Wales) says that he now looks forward to the emergence of "bread and butter" politics in Northern Ireland. And he made a pretence of having been surprised, when he came to Northern Ireland as Secretary of State, to find that the normal bread-and-butter politics of the state did not operate there.

The Campaign for Labour representation made certain, by intensive lobbying over a period of twenty years, that every British MP and every Constituency Labour Party knew that Northern Ireland was excluded from the party-political structure of the UK. And it even addressed a meeting of Peter Hain's own Party Branch on the subject. Hain was in the building, but chose not to be present at the meeting. He knew only too well what the CLR case was, and he did not want to be asked awkward questions about it by his party workers in the presence of a CLR speaker.

Leaving that aside, he could not have failed to notice, as Secretary of State for both Wales and Northern Ireland, the fundamental structural difference between politics in Wales and Northern Ireland. There is devolution in Wales, but he is a Minister in the UK Government and a representative in Parliament of a Welsh constituency as member of a British party.

As Minister in Belfast he has no representative connection, either personally or through his party, with the region that he governs. That region, when it was being set up, was deliberately put outside the sphere of the "bread and butter" politics of the state by the Labour Party acting in collusion with the Tory Party.

Hain knows all of this very well. And he has also known from the moment he started climbing the greasy pole of British politics that it was necessary to pretend not to know it.

The solution of March 26th, insofar as it is a solution, is an entirely British solution. It was organised by the British Government for a British purpose.

If Britain had ever wanted the Northern Ireland region of its state to have "bread and butter" politics as its norm, it would not have established Northern Ireland. When partitioning Ireland it would simply have let the Six Counties rest as part of the British state, governed as Scotland and Wales were, with the same system of party politics that subordinated sectarian divisions in Scotland and Wales to the "bread and butter" politics of the state. Northern Ireland was not set up in response to a demand for it in the Six Counties. Nor was it set up because the great men of the Lloyd George Coalition took leave of their senses and thought a Northern Ireland pseudo-state, consisting of two national/religious communities in antagonism, would somehow give rise to peace and normality.

In the very act of making provision that Ulster should remain British, it cut British Ulster out of the political life of the British state. It partitioned Ireland in 1921; forcibly denied independence to the 26 Counties, which wanted it; and imposed a Home Rule system on the Six Counties, which did not want it and was essentially unsuitable for it.

In 1922 the Lloyd George Government split the independence movement in the 26 Counties by means of an offer of domestic self-government under the authority of the Crown. It dangled the prospect of Irish unity before the Free State by means of a Council of Ireland, while according the Unionist Government a veto, not only on unification, but on the functioning of the Council.

By these means it pushed the 'Irish question' out of the internal politics of Britain, while keeping it alive for the British state as a means of exerting pressure on the internal politics of the Irish state.

If the Six Counties had simply been governed as part of Britain, and if the Catholic community—excluded from the national life of the Irish state—had become an active component of the party politics of the British state (with Catholic workers finding common ground with Protestant workers in the Labour politics of the state), Britain would have lost a major means of influence on the internal politics of the independent Irish state.

Crisis is opportunity. And crisis in Northern Ireland has been Britain's opportunity for the ambitious attempt to re-Anglicise Ireland that has been in operation in recent decades.

Northern Ireland is a region of the British State, and Britain has no intention that it should ever be anything else. But it is also a hook with which Britain can go fishing in the Irish State.

No state would do to a region of itself what Britain did with the Six Counties if it did not have an ulterior purpose.

Northern Ireland is a region of the British state which Britain presents as somehow being Irish, and even as being an Irish state, so that the trouble in it can be presented as being caused by some trait in Irish nationality that is incomprehensible to normal sensible people. And this propaganda perversion of Constitutional reality has been immensely influential in its disabling effect on political thought in the Republic since the early 1970s.

That Northern Ireland is a state has been consistently bewgled about by Lord Bew for about thirty years, and it was taken up by the Godfather of revisionism in Trinity College, Professor Fitzpatrick.

The first major book on the system by which Northern Ireland was governed was written by Professor Nicholas Mansergh, an academic-cum-administrative servant of the British state, who has recently been hailed by Professor Joseph Lee as one of the greatest Irish historians. Professor Mansergh described the formalities of the devolved system in loving detail. He did not say it was a state. He knew very well that it wasn't. But he treated its strange mode of government—as a region of the state disconnected from the political processes by which the state was governed—as being within the norms of the democratic era, even though the political conduct to which it gave rise was not.

Lord Craigavon, who set up the devolved government and ran it for a generation, knew very well that Northern Ireland was a thoroughly abnormal concoction which could not bear very much political activity. He operated it because Whitehall insisted that it must be the way that a bit of Ulster remained connected with Britain. Britain had a purpose for the Six Counties, other than having them settle down as part of the democracy of the state. Being excluded from the democracy of the state, and not being themselves a state, and being required to operate a local party system which would return a majority for 'the British connection' at every election, Northern Ireland could have nothing but the form of politics that is now called "sectarian". It was only through the conflict of parties competing for power in the state that 'sectarianism' might have been eroded. That is how it was eroded in Britain in regions where the conflict of sectarian communities had often been intense.

The 'moral' demand that antagonistic religious/national communities should stand face to face with each other, without intermediary ground on which people from each might stand together without prejudice to their differences, and 'reconcile', is thoroughly unrealistic. It is not the kind of thing that happens in the democratic era. Democracy functions through party-political conflict. It intensifies conflict. And, if the parties which are the vital parts of the structure of the state are not present, it intensifies whatever conflict is to hand. In the North the conflict could only be between the two communities which were at war when Lord Bew's "Northern Ireland state" was slotted over them.

Lord Craigavon has been roundly denounced for saying that Stormont was "a Protestant Parliament for a Protestant people". But that is all it could be. The function of elections was not to provide for government but to provide for 'the British connection' to continue. The actual state, Britain, was always present in the life of the people in the pseudo-state, even though they were disconnected from its political life. What was decided by elections was whether the region would remain part of the British state. After Craigavon had set the thing functioning, what happened as a matter of routine was that the Protestant community returned a Unionist majority to Stormont, and the Stormont 'Legislature' then re-enacted Westminster legislation, regardless of which party was in power in London.

Craigavon had a long innings, and then Brookeborough had a long innings—notice how we keep up to date with the new Irish sport—and then Captain O'Neill said it was disgraceful that Brookeborough spent of his time on foreign holidays. O'Neill decided to shake things up—and things fell apart a few years later.

Forty years on, it seems possible that things will settle down for a while. But, for all the shaking-up, the settling-down is into what was there at the start—the Protestant and Catholic communities as disinct, and antagonistic entities.

Of course a great change has happened within the Catholic community. It has fought a war and is full of purpose. And the condition of settlement is that all parties must be in government.

The Secretary of State announced that the era of normal bread-and-butter politics has now begun in Northern Ireland. As he said it, he was putting an extra billion pounds into the bread-and-butter kitty, and enabling the water charges to be called off.


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