Why, after almost 20 years in business, more or less, is the Northern Ireland Assembly in disarray? Do we blame the politicians, the people or, perhaps the blueprint?
The villains of the immediate brouhaha are, by common consent, Mrs Foster and the DUP, for their incompetence and pig-headedness, and Sinn Fein, for exploiting their opponents’- partners’ – maladroitness and pulling the roof down to forward their own agenda.
Sympathy for the people of Norther Ireland is in short supply, and perhaps it should be for the politicians are in power because the people voted them in. Meanwhile London and Dublin offer grave concern with much wringing of hands, and a hint of exasperation.
Or do the seeds of most of the problems lie with the Belfast Agreement itself? The plaudits heaped on the Agreement have made criticising it an unpopular pursuit. Terrorist violence has greatly decreased; there are many projects at local or community level where nationalist and unionist work together. NI is in many ways a much better place than it was in 1998.
But violence has not disappeared, the threat level is still officially ‘severe’. Gangsterism linked to terror groups is a big problem. Politics are as tribal as they were in 1998, even more so.
Then politics were dominated by the more moderate varieties of unionism and nationalism, the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP. In the Westminster election of 1997 the UUP came top with almost 33% of the vote, nearly two and a half times the share won by Paisley’s DUP. The SDLP’s share was 24%, comfortably ahead of Sinn Fein’s 16%. . Alliance got 8.5%.
The Belfast Agreement institutionalised tribalism with its requirement that all elected politicians be classified as unionist, nationalist or other and thus built these tribal categories into decision-making
Two decades on, the extremes rule. In last year’s Assembly poll the DUP won almost 30% of the votes cast, while the UUP struggled to 12.6%. Sinn Fein’s 24% was double the SDLP’s 12%. Alliance was down to 7.00%. David Trimble and John Hume may have won Nobel Peace Prizes, but saw the eclipse of their parties by more extreme rivals.
An even more depressing statistic is that the 1997 turnout was over 67%, while in 2016 the totall poll had plummeted to under 55%. Almost twenty years of devoled government, with powers over a range of policy areas, have done little to stimulate involvement in the political process. Now almost half the population entitled to vote can’t be bothered to.
The Agreement was not a settlement. It was an armistice between the Provisional IRA, represented by Sinn Fein, and the British Government, backed by Dublin. The objective of both Governments was to persuade Republicans to end violence and give up their arms, offering in return progress by political means.
The Agreement documents give evidence of this. In them there is only one mention of terrorists, and that refers to world terrorism, not the Irish variety. These latter have become ‘paramilitaries’. The word surrender does not appear at all. There no suggestion that terrorists be asked to surrender, they are not even asked to surrender their illegally-held arms. Instead we have the cringe-making request for ‘decommissioning’.
Tony Blair, at one stage in the negotiations, responded to a complaint from the SDLP’s Mark Durkan that his party’s views were not being taken into account by telling him that his, and the SDLP’s problem, was that they had no guns.
The Agreement was not a ‘settlement’ in that it fudged the fundamental issue been unionism and nationalisn - whether NI should continue in the UK, or leave and join a united Ireland. Its declaration that the status quo would be dismantled in favour of a united Ireland at any time a majority in NI so voted, was profoundly destabilising...
The assumption in the Agreement was that a majority in NI for union with the south was a distinct possibility, and that such a vote, by however narrow a majority, would settle the matter. To a unionist community prone to neurosis and only too aware of the possibility of Catholics outnumbering Protestants, this strengthened unionist suspicions. The big all-island vote in favour of the Agreement masked the size of the unionist vote against. At most probably 53% of the unionist community backed it.
On the eve of the referendum Tony Blair sought to reassure unionists by promising that those who use or threaten violence would be excluded from the Government of Northern Ireland. A year later the Executive was formed. It included two Sinn Fein Ministers, one of whom was Martin McGuinness, widely believed, though denied, to be on the IRA Army Council.
No IRA arms had been ‘decommissioned’ and another year was to pass before any were. It was 2005 before the IRA claimed all its arms had been put beyond use. During that time the IRA were in illegal possession of arms, and therefore, whatever declarations they made, were clearly threatening violence, and Sinn Fein was in government. During that period the DUP’s share of the vote had risen to 30%, and the Ulster Unionists had declined to 15%.
By May 2007 Ian Paisley was First Minister and tribal politics were more firmly entrenched. Having swept the unionist board electorally, he opted to be First Minister believing that he could better protect what he saw as the interests of Northern Ireland by chuckling inside Stormont Castle with Martin McGuinness, than by roaring at him from outside.
In some ways community relations have greatly improved, but the politicians have been locked into a loveless marriage since, and by, the Belfast Agreement. This election is unlikely to change anything. The contest will be over retaining the office of First Minister for unionism, with the DUP reminding voters that only they can hope to do that - a platform likely to off-set disenchantment with their competence, pro-Brexit stance and general demeanour.
The First Minister is first only by title, the ‘Deputy’ being equal in all other respects, but the symbolic importance of the post, particularly to unionists, is great. He, or she, is seen as personifying Northern Ireland and its unionist character. This has, so far, helped them live with the Agreement, despite de facto amnesties for IRA men, Sinn Fein’s rewriting of history, its honouring of people killed while engaging in terrorism, and a host of perceived concessions to nationalism.
A Sinn Feiner in the post is unthinkable, particularly one who, like Martin McGuinness, could never bring himself to use the term ‘Northern Ireland’, even though it appears about 150 times in the Belfast Agreement. Michelle O’Neill seems to suffer from similar terminological inhibitions.
If this election leaves the tribes in pole position the Secretary of State is unlikely to call another one Sinn Fein says it will not return to the status quo. That means a period of direct rule, and an opportunity to revisit the 1998 Agreement, a chance perhaps to redraft it away from tribalism to one which rewards moderation by providing for a cross-community Executive of a voluntary coalition of parties who can gather sufficient support for an agreed programme of sensible policies on flags, the Irish language, the European Union, cross-border bodies, education….
As any attempt to renegotiate the Belfast Agreement would have to be under the auspices of the British and Irish governments, it would help if the Irish Government could follow the UK’s lead and declare that it has no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.
Parity of esteem and all that, you know.