Wednesday 23 October 2019

Michael Kelly: 'Westminster's zombie parliament has attacked right of Northern Ireland to decide its own destiny'

Brexit and Mrs May’s cack-handed management of the negotiations has seen the Mother of All Parliaments reduced to the level of farce. Photo: House of Commons/PA
Brexit and Mrs May’s cack-handed management of the negotiations has seen the Mother of All Parliaments reduced to the level of farce. Photo: House of Commons/PA
Michael Kelly

Michael Kelly

Given the endless Brexit shenanigans, it may have escaped your notice that Theresa May has actually reached something of a milestone. She has presided over the longest session of a British parliament in 366 years.

According to the House of Commons website, "historically, sessions with a large number of sitting days have witnessed considerable debate on constitutional issues".

Historically perhaps, yes. The record holder, during the English Civil War in the 1600s, passed far-reaching constitutional reforms, actually won the Civil War and even ordered the execution of the monarch Charles I.

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Brexit and Mrs May's cack-handed management of the negotiations, on the other hand, has seen the Mother of All Parliaments reduced to the level of farce.

MPs sit around in the tea rooms and bars endlessly wondering when they will be free to dash off on their summer holidays.

Brexit has paralysed legislation and reduced sittings of the Commons to little more than a rambunctious session of a university debating society.

This is why MPs used parliamentary time this week to threaten to impose both abortion and same-sex marriage on the North in the absence of a devolved administration there.

Many legislators - whose inability to agree anything meaningful on Brexit has seen their public standing shredded - are desperate to give the impression that they are busy enacting laws.

Many have long since had the North in their sights. It's as cynical as it is transparent. Brexit has shown that most UK citizens - and their elected representatives - have little or no interest or understanding of Northern Ireland.

Poll after poll has revealed that the man on the Clapham omnibus doesn't care one iota about the union with the six counties on the north-east of this island.

The move to impose laws over the heads of local elected representatives is also a deep affront to the peace process and the painstaking negotiations that led to the compromise that was the Good Friday Agreement.

I was there in Belfast in 1998 when US president Bill Clinton told us all loudly that: "From hereon the destiny of Northern Ireland is in the hands of its people and its representatives. From farming to finance, education to healthcare, this new assembly has the opportunity and the obligation to forge the future."

I was 18, and just a few months earlier had voted for the first time in my life. It was to endorse the Good Friday Agreement. I remember the optimism well. My classmates and I - from the historically disadvantaged nationalist community - could help shape our own destiny based not on past divisions but on a shared future in a shared society.

God knows there have been bumps on the road, and the North is now experiencing its own form of paralysis due to the inability or unwillingness of the DUP and Sinn Féin to govern together and make tough decisions.

Of course, the legislative overreach from London suits Sinn Féin perfectly. Having spent decades supporting a terrorist and latterly political campaign to end British rule in Ireland, the party this week welcomed Westminster's moves.

It's a long way from Mary Lou McDonald triumphantly walking behind the "England Get Out of Ireland" banner in New York.

Sinn Féin, it seems, is quite happy to have Britain do its bidding in Ireland on the more controversial aspects of the party's legislative agenda.

Sinn Féin in the North is under pressure on the issue of abortion. Their more honest elected representatives will tell you this. Several leading republicans have deserted the party and publicly criticised its stance on the right to life of the unborn.

For the first time in living memory, Sinn Féin remained stagnant in May's local council elections in the region. Francie Brolly - a former Sinn Féin assembly member - said the issue of abortion was coming up time and again on the doorsteps in republican heartlands like West Tyrone and Mid Ulster.

With Westminster having set October as the deadline for devolution before it imposes abortion on the North, Sinn Féin will be quite content to sit on its hands between now and then.

They see it as an easy out for them and they can tell pro-life-minded voters that their hands were tied.

The DUP is right to point out that the interference in the North from London is a breach of devolution.

It will make re-establishing the power-sharing political institutions even more difficult.

It will also further corrode public interest in the legislative process since a cabal of pro-abortion MPs from England and Wales have shown they'll drive a coach and horses through any political consensus they don't feel sufficiently progressive.

The rush of people like Health Minister Simon Harris in Dublin to breathlessly join in the chorus also undermines attempts to get Stormont up and running again. Rather than acquiescing with moves that undermine the right of the people of Northern Ireland to decide their own destiny, the Government here should be pressuring the DUP and Sinn Féin to cut a deal.

A new executive and assembly at Stormont may well in time move to legislate for wider access to abortion. Pro-life campaigners and politicians will oppose any such move but, like the referendum in the Republic, when you're beat, you're beat. If the political representatives of the people of the North vote for abortion, the law is the law - regardless of how bitterly this will disappoint many people.

But, at the end of the day, what is clear is that the people of the North and their representatives should debate and decide on these controversial issues that deeply divide people. Anything else undermines the principles behind power-sharing and the Good Friday Agreement. Whatever way Brexit goes, it will do huge damage to the island of Ireland. It would add insult to injury for a zombie parliament to inflict a body blow on democracy in the North.

Michael Kelly is editor of the 'Irish Catholic' newspaper

Irish Independent

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