Thursday 5 December 2019

Changes must be made to Good Friday Agreement to keep the 'process' alive

Last week's crisis prompted shrugs of disinterest in Dublin and London. But in Belfast the tribal dog whistles are sounding

THE HISTORY BOYS: Stormont Castle, Tuesday May 8, 2007, when the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. From left, Martin McGuinness Ian Paisley, former British PM Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern share a smile. Photo: Paul Faith/PA
THE HISTORY BOYS: Stormont Castle, Tuesday May 8, 2007, when the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness were sworn in as First and Deputy First Ministers of Northern Ireland. From left, Martin McGuinness Ian Paisley, former British PM Tony Blair and former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern share a smile. Photo: Paul Faith/PA

Eoin O'Malley

A Northern Ireland government collapsed last week - and no one really cared. Although RTE despatched Bryan Dobson to Belfast, the latest crisis didn't sustain interest: Dobbo was back in the comfort of the Montrose studios the following day.

The paltry turnout in the House of Commons for a debate on the North showed that the British are no longer interested.

We might interpret this as a good thing. It's a sign that Northern Ireland is a bit like politics in "normal" places. No one expects a return to violence, and the collapse was ostensibly about the reaction to the Renewable Heating Initiative (RHI) policy. This appeared to be a crisis of the common or garden variety, a far cry from the usual Northern crisis subjects: flags, marching, guns.

But in reality this was about what every crisis in Belfast has been about for the past two decades - a lack of trust between the parties and the protection of each party's electoral base.

Even so, this is potentially a more serious crisis because there is no obvious solution. Both the DUP and Sinn Fein are talking themselves into corners. It might be the beginning of the end of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Only one of the two parties should welcome this, and it is not the DUP.

Sinn Fein never saw the GFA as a "settlement", for the party it was always a "process" towards a united Ireland. The only way the gunmen could be brought along was if they were convinced power-sharing in Stormont wasn't a destination, rather it was a stepping stone. Periodic crises are needed to maintain the sense that it is a transitional arrangement. If things appeared to work too well, people would question the need for change.

Although Sinn Fein has known about the problems with the Cash for Ash policy for at least a year, it was only at the end of 2016 that it became a fully fledged crisis. Ongoing revelations made it harder and harder for Sinn Fein to maintain support for Arlene Foster.

It was harder still because the SDLP is now in opposition, and so it could be fully critical of the government. Normally all the major parties were part of the government, and so all the major parties shared the blame. For the first time, Sinn Fein was being exposed as softer on unionists than the more moderate nationalist SDLP. Sinn Fein had tried to get Foster to stand aside to keep the institutions running. It can reasonably claim to have been pretty patient with the DUP.

Foster's reaction was strategically inept. When she was short on friends, she chose to make arguably snide remarks about Martin McGuinness's health and Sinn Fein's internal struggles. As veteran observer of Northern Irish politics Eamonn Mallie noted, she lacked grace.

While the DUP base might like the idea of picking fights with Sinn Fein, it only creates problems for the party and for unionism in general. It is sitting on a demographic time bomb with Catholics set to outnumber Protestants within the next two decades.

Add the likelihood of a hard Brexit and the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum, and Northern Ireland's position in the union is more uncertain than ever. The prospect of a united Ireland is now being talked of as a real medium-term proposition by serious people, not just dreamy green-field nationalists.

The DUP's job should have been to make the GFA work so well that there was no demand for more "process". It should have made it such that the Border barely existed, so moderate nationalists would be content with the North's status quo position. If the DUP facilitated normal relations, Sinn Fein's demand for further changes would have appeared unreasonable.

Brexit could have been an issue that pushed the DUP and Sinn Fein together - neither have an interest in a hard Border - but Foster seemed to delight in Brexit uncertainty. The DUP was either tone deaf or deliberately provocative in cutting funding to a tiny Irish language grant, especially in the context of the DUP wasting £500m on its Cash for Ash scheme.

The DUP has since backtracked on that grant, and Foster is now offering a full inquiry. But Sinn Fein has already moved on. If Sinn Fein ever had a problem with the handling of the RHI - and it appears it only did after others made it an issue - the party was already in election mode when McGuinness resigned from the executive. The executive collapse was because the DUP didn't respect the nationalist community, it said. Parity of esteem, it said. Equality.

These words are arguably dog whistles for nationalist (and unionists) to get back into the Green (and Orange) corners again.

So there will be an election, and the result is likely to see the DUP and Sinn Fein returned as the top two parties. Now that Sinn Fein has made the election ethnic again, unionist voters will forgive Foster her incompetence - as they'll see the DUP as the best protector of their community's interests.

According to the rules of the GFA, these will be the parties then mandated to form a new executive. If they can't, the rules stipulate a further election, which would only harden positions further. What's more likely is a period of direct rule, with a half-interested British government trying to stick the institutions back together again. They'll probably manage a compromise, because they always do - but it will only add to the sense that the GFA is not working.

The current institutional set-up doesn't encourage either side to work together. Ministers are dictators within their own portfolios. Cabinet is meaningless. There are mandated coalitions, but no mechanism to make them work. So crisis and the threat of collapse is the only way to make your point.

Perhaps it's time to move to voluntary coalitions, which would allow the DUP to coalesce with the SDLP, or Sinn Fein with the UUP. Some change to the GFA will be needed to keep the GFA going.

It's not clear the DUP would agree to that. It's not clear the DUP knows its own interests.

As for Sinn Fein, its day will come.

Eoin O'Malley is director of the MSc in Public Policy at Dublin City University

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