Editorial from Irish Political Review, March 2007

Northern Ireland:—Beyond The Fringes

The strength, or weakness, of devolved government in the Six Counties (which 'political science' experts like Lord Bew have persisted in calling "the Northern Ireland state") was that nobody wanted it, and that it had no purpose for itself. The state—Britain—wanted it and had an (undeclared) purpose for it, which was to retain some leverage on the 26 Counties. But, within Northern Ireland, the only purpose of the Unionist Party (which voted against the Act establishing Northern Ireland) was to use it to retain "the connection with Britain". This absence of purpose was the strength of the arrangement.

After two generations of doing nothing much except holding down the Catholics, a Unionist Prime Minister was gripped by the delusion that Northern Ireland was a kind of state and that purposeful government of a more or less democratic kind might be conducted within it. He was encouraged in this delusion by Taoiseach Sean Lemass, who had no understanding of the North, and who put pressure on the Nationalist Party to pretend to be the Loyal Opposition at Stormont. But there was no function for a Loyal Opposition at Stormont. That was the weakness of the 1920 arrangement. The efforts of Capt. O'Neill, assisted by Lemass, led to melt-down in 1969.

It now seems possible, 30 years later, that a devolved government which will be something more than a flash in the pan will be restored at Stormont. But Stormont is not the legislature of a state now, any more than it was then. And there is no more scope for Loyal Opposition now than there was then. The difference between now and then is that Constitutional illusions have been discarded. Though the word "democracy" continues to be batted around, the structures of government are devised on the understanding that it is impossible. There is no role for a pretend Loyal Opposition. What in a democracy would be an Opposition aspiring to win an election and become the Government is here to be part of the Government as of right.

This more realistic arrangement is the outcome of a war waged for close on 30 years by the opposition which represents the actual feeling of the Catholic community about the structure called Northern Ireland. It does not provide for democracy—government by a party that wins an election—any more than the old system did. Its merit is that it does not pretend to do so.

The media has consistently misrepresented what is the centre and what are the fringes of political life in Northern Ireland. As a result of developments since 1998, the "centre ground" has finally been reached, insofar as anything deserving that name exists. In other situations, political tendencies with impracticable notions are called the extremes, or the fringe. Media operatives, believing in the irresistible power of official propaganda, adopted the practice of calling Northern Ireland tendencies with impracticable notions "the centre ground". This mode of description has led to the absurdity that the 'centre ground' now consists of what commentators called the two fringes, while the real extremist fringes occupy the main stretches of ground on both sides.

Constitutional nationalism had its opportunity after 1998. What it did with that opportunity was reduce itself to a fringe. The speed with which this happened may have been due to incompetent leadership, but the development itself was pretty well inevitable. The apparent opportunity was an illusion, and Mark Durkan discredited the SDLP by mistaking the illusion for an opportunity, and by playing make-believe democratic politics with Trimble.

All that was ever possible in the political structure called Northern Ireland was the conflict of the two communities, one of which was in 1921 given the task of policing the other as a condition of retaining "the British connection". The very large minority community was purposefully excluded from the democracy of the state, within which it might have settled down. The majority community operated the devolved system in order to remain connected with Britain, but without any other use for it. It had no agenda of its own to implement.

The rebellion of the Catholic community was a protest against life in a situation in which politics consisted of being policed by the Protestant community. The ending of Partition was adopted as an ideal, but that ideal was not what gave rise to the insurrection. The Protestant community on the other hand has had no purpose beyond a restoration of the arrangements of 1921-1969 (or 1972), which was proved to be dysfunctional.

The arrangements provided by the Good Friday Agreement cannot be regarded as a settlement by either community. For the majority it is a step towards the restoration of Unionist rule outside the democracy of the state (the British political parties). For the minority community it is a step towards participation in the democracy of another state.

This condition of things is not due to perverse wilfulness on either side. It is a necessity of the 1921 set-up—insofar as anything in politics can be held to be necessary.

The DUP programme for the election being held under the St. Andrews modification of the Good Friday Agreement is to bring about the ousting of Sinn Fein, the largest Catholic party, by the British Government. (It knows that instances of Sinn Fein 'misbehaviour' which it will bring forward will not bring about a cross-community vote to sanction Sinn Fein and relies that it will be able to pressurise a Secretary of State to do what a cross-community vote will not do.) The DUP objective is 'voluntary' power-sharing with the SDLP as a stepping-stone to a majority-rule constitution. That is its essential programme, though there are inconsequential social policy 'add-ons' in its election manifesto.

The Sinn Fein policy is to make the 'Northern Ireland State' work as a transitional stage to its abolition. It, too, has inconsequential social policy 'add-ons'.

Whilst there may be a considerable overlap in the social policies of the two 'extremes' which now form the centreground of Northern Irish politics, that is of no consequence, because the two parties face in different directions. What appears to be a centre-ground is anything but that. It is a battlefield on which a Truce has been called.

However Sinn Fein will use this period of Truce to do its utmost to provide a period of productive coalition government, because that is a necessary stage towards its ultimate objective of ending the pretence that Northern Ireland can govern itself. On its part, the DUP will use the period of Truce to try to wrong-foot Sinn Fein as a partner in Government in order to restore the position where Northern Ireland government is nothing more than a mantle for the idea of Union with Britain. And it has to be said that the leadership of the DUP is showing considerable political agility and sophistication in working towards its end. The days when Unionists could be described as lacking political finesse appear to be over.

Viewed in that light, the DUP is facing power-sharing with a negative objective and Sinn Fein with a positive one. It plans to make Northern Ireland work in order to dismantle it.

There is no way of knowing how this story will end: both sides are playing their parts, but they are also being changed by the parts they are playing. Interesting times lie ahead.


Northern Ireland:—Beyond The Fringes

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