Monday 19 August 2019

Liam Weeks: 'Politicians in Northern Ireland must put aside partisan pursuits'

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein stand accused of a scarcely fathomable refusal to work together in the face of Brexit

DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, before the funeral of Lyra McKee. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire
DUP leader Arlene Foster with Sinn Fein’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill in St Anne’s Cathedral, Belfast, before the funeral of Lyra McKee. Photo: Brian Lawless/PA Wire

Liam Weeks

'Ask not what your country can do for your party - ask what your party can do for your country."

It is difficult to resist paraphrasing John F Kennedy's presidential inauguration address from 1961 to wonder what the two main parties of Northern Ireland have been doing for their jurisdiction.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein stand accused of pursuing their own partisan interests, to the detriment of those of Northern Ireland.

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At a time when Brexit poses a considerable threat to peace and prosperity in the region, it is scarcely fathomable that the DUP and Sinn Fein have not been able to work together to restore the North's Executive and Assembly.

Northern Ireland now holds an unenviable world record for the longest period without an elected government. It is almost a year since it surpassed the previous record, held by Belgium, of 541 days.

This unwanted feat shouldn't just concern political anoraks. It is more than a democratic deficit. It has led to a period of paralysis that has undermined the regional economy.

Investment has stalled and capital projects are on hold as Northern Ireland waits forlornly for its politicians to resolve the impasse.

It is not just in Stormont that the DUP and Sinn Fein have been accused of letting their people down.

Since June 2017 both parties have occupied an unprecedented position of leverage in Westminster. With the Conservative Party narrowly failing to win a majority at that month's election, both the DUP with 10 seats and Sinn Fein with seven seats were in a position to help Theresa May retain her premiership.

This level of influence wielded by an Irish party was something not seen in the House of Commons since the days of John Redmond's Home Rule Party in the early 1910s.

Ultimately, it was the DUP who took advantage of this situation, and like the Irish nationalists before them, the party extracted a hefty price in return for its confidence and supply agreement with the British government.

Rumoured to be in the region of £1bn, no doubt many from both communities in Northern Ireland rejoiced at Arlene Foster's ability to bring home the bacon. She was seen to provide for Northern Ireland in the same way Jackie Healy-Rae delivered for Kerry in previous decades.

But while Healy-Rae managed to keep things sweet in his dealings with governments and constituents, in Belfast it has gone somewhat sour.

Matters have unravelled considerably since the 2017 election in the UK. Few then envisaged that two years later Britain would be on the verge of a no-deal Brexit. Having initially been seen to deliver for Northern Ireland with the influence it was able to wield over Theresa May's government, the DUP now finds itself having to fend off a daily barrage of criticism that it is letting the region down.

The main bone of contention for the party's opponents is the DUP's rejection of the withdrawal agreement that May negotiated with the EU. The party's critics claim that this has pushed Brexit to the brink and made the return of a hard border on the island all the more inevitable.

But the DUP has been vehement in its opposition to the agreement because of its backstop clause. The party claims that this threatens to create an internal trade border within the UK.

One solution to the backstop, an EU guarantee to keep a soft border on the island, would be for Northern Ireland to remain a part of a customs union or some such trade agreement with the EU. This scenario would move the potential trade barriers from the border to the Irish Sea, but would also result in Northern Ireland being treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom.

This would allow the North to retain some of the benefits of EU membership, and maintain free trade with the South and other EU member states. It would give Northern Ireland an advantageous position in the UK, which, if managed correctly, could see it evolve from one of the poorer, to one of the wealthier regions in the Union.

Multinational corporations might move their British headquarters from London to Belfast, and Northern Ireland could become Europe's new shining light.

But, being treated differently to the rest of the United Kingdom does not rest easily with the DUP. They fear that a border in the Irish Sea, and all the accompanying talk of a border poll, might be the first step on the road to a united Ireland.

For this reason, the party does not want to relent on the backstop, and consequently faces accusations of letting Northern Ireland down.

Sinn Fein has had to deal with similar criticisms.

The seven seats it holds in the House of Commons could afford the party a great deal of leverage were it to occupy them.

But it chooses not to.

There have been a number of proposals put forward of how Sinn Fein could use its position to avoid the UK crashing out of the EU, but the party has been sticking by its claim that it has a mandate not to take its seats.

Avoiding for now the issue of how any party, other than a single-issue one, can interpret an electoral mandate, it needs to be asked just whose interests Sinn Fein's abstentionist policy serve.

Historically the party rejected three parliaments - the Northern Ireland Assembly, the Dail in the independent Irish state, and the British House of Commons. Abstention in the first two proved futile, and Sinn Fein is well aware of the growth it achieved in both once these policies were dropped.

There must be a lesson there for the party. Given that the influence it wields at present in Westminster is negligible, taking up its seats could only have a positive effect for Sinn Fein.

This would not undermine the validity of the party's secessionist policies.

There are many global examples of parties wishing to break away from the jurisdiction they represent, but there are none, to my knowledge, pursuing an abstentionist policy.

Various Basque and Catalonian parties in Spain, Vlaams Belang of the Flemish nationalists in Belgium, parties of the Austrian South Tyrol movement in Italy, the French-Canadian Bloc Quebecois, and the Scottish Nationalist Party all take their seats in the parliaments they wish to leave.

"Republicans should not be dogmatic and inflexible on this question. Those who first articulated abstentionism could not foresee the political developments that were to take place, nor could they, or did they, lay down a course of action with a stipulation that it could never be changed."

Not my words. They are taken from Gerry Adams's address to Sinn Fein's Ard Fheis in 1986, and could not be more prescient today.

No one could foresee the Brexit drama that has unfolded, and both Adams's party and his opponents in the DUP would do well to pay heed to his criticism of dogmatism and inflexibility.

A leading expert on political parties, Professor Anika Gauja, describes them as "adaptive institutions".

It needs to dawn on Sinn Fein and the DUP that they must adapt to the unprecedented and unimaginable situation in which Northern Ireland now finds itself.

It is time for the parties to decide what is in the region's interest and not their own.

Dr Liam Weeks is a lecturer in the Department of Government and Politics at University College Cork

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