Political paralysis in the North risks the awful prospect of a return to direct rule
Published 02/10/2015 | 02:30
Colum Eastwood, MLA for Foyle, plans to challenge Dr Alasdair McDonnell for the leadership of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). He is 32 years old, Dr McDonnell 66. He has called for "a new brand of progressive nationalism" in Northern Ireland.
Since the North needs new brands of almost everything, especially in the political and administrative spheres, you have to welcome the contest. You also have to welcome the way in which Mike Nesbitt has breathed a touch of new life into his Ulster Unionist Party, long since reduced to a mini-party by the rise of the Democratic Unionists.
But it will take more than one leadership contest to overcome the deplorable condition of the region, which is generally described as "political paralysis".
In all probability, only a tiny fraction of the Republic's population has heard the phrase, or has the smallest interest in Northern affairs. As long as the North remains more or less quiet, we take no notice.
"More or less quiet"? If you look closely, you can see that the place isn't quiet at all.
The Mairia Cahill affair woke us up for a while because of her abominable treatment by Sinn Féin and because it revealed the way in which that party rules the Catholic population. It was followed by two IRA-linked murders on the streets of Belfast. The Chief Constable of the PSNI says that the IRA still exists, presumably complete with a dominant "army council".
The same chief constable heads a police force which is visibly undermanned. In the riots that break out after Orange parades, 20 people or more can be injured - all of them police, not rioters.
And on the border, an area outside the law, vast sums are gained from smuggling, fuel-tampering and other crimes.
Finance Minister Michael Noonan, in his upcoming Budget, intends to increase the price of cigarettes in order to cut consumption.
Does he know that the move could increase consumption instead of cutting it? Smuggled cigarettes are cheap - and nasty. Everybody knows that smoking damages health, but not everybody knows that the cheap variety can kill you.
In the meantime, political paralysis in its most literal form reigns at Stormont. The DUP and Sinn Féin are at odds on the issue of welfare cuts. The British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, says that the North will not get a more generous deal from the UK. Deadlock.
On top of all that, the region is gripped by a Grade A scandal whose tentacles extend to Dublin, London and the Isle of Man. Leading Loyalists have been forced to issue strenuous denials of involvement. Whistleblowers have emerged: Mick Wallace in the Republic, Jamie Bryson in the North. We hear of "fixers" for whom, it is alleged, money has been set aside in an Isle of Man bank account and elsewhere.
Yesterday in Dublin the Dáil Public Accounts Committee began an investigation. There is plenty to investigate, summed up by Deputy Shane Ross in the single word "wow!" But you and I and everybody else in the Republic will be more interested in Nama, the "bad bank", and its firesales, which it calls bargains.
Sadly, it also appears impossible for our Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, or any number of distinguished persons from other countries, to contribute anything of substance to a Northern solution.
Goodness knows, we have often tried and failed. In 1998 we thought (although we kept our fingers crossed) that we had cracked it with the Good Friday Agreement.
The purpose of the GFA was to bring, or rather force, the DUP and Sinn Féin to work together in the common interest. But neither the DUP nor Sinn Féin understands that term. The DUP wants to keep the status quo. Sinn Féin wants a united Ireland - although its own activities have done more than any other factor to make unity impossible.
Nobody has an alternative to put on the table, and nobody can think of concrete proposals. Maybe Colum Eastwood can put flesh on the bones of his "progressive nationalism", but I doubt it.
At this moment we seem to be lurching towards a move which almost everybody views with detestation: to allow the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement to collapse and reinstitute British direct rule.
Nobody hates this prospect more than a British government which regards Northern Ireland as, at best, an incubus to be tolerated. Doubtless the clever backroom boys in Whitehall have drawn up contingency plans, but hope like the rest of us that they will never have to be implemented.
They also have to take into account the two massive threats to stability: possible Scottish independence and British withdrawal from the EU. I think that the first of these is likely, but that the British public have too much sense to vote for the second.
In either event - to say nothing of both events - the British will do the minimum necessary to keep some sort of show on the road. The implications, for the Northern economy and especially for the younger generation, are frightening.
If there is any hope, it must lie in the advanced age and/or doubtful health of the main party leaders. The retirement of Peter Robinson and Gerry Adams would not obliterate the prejudices of centuries. But it might, just might, open the door to people tired of political paralysis and willing to start all over again.