Friday 13 December 2019

The toddler politics of the North cannot be indulged

Rushing to Northern Ireland's aid at every self-inflicted crisis only encourages it to not grow up

More Brothers Grim than Chuckle Brothers: Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister and First Minister of Northern Ireland, speaking to journalists as they left Number 10 Downing Street last October Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters
More Brothers Grim than Chuckle Brothers: Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster, Deputy First Minister and First Minister of Northern Ireland, speaking to journalists as they left Number 10 Downing Street last October Photo: Dylan Martinez/Reuters

Eilis O'Hanlon

Poet John Montague, who died in December at the age of 87, compared his own evolving relationship with the Northern Irish Troubles to fellow poets' attitude towards the French Revolution.

In an archive interview broadcast on RTE Radio One's Bowman: Sunday: 8.30 programme last week, the Tyrone-born writer described how the Romantics went through stages of excitement and "awakening", then endured the "bloody exchange" and "stasis" that followed, before finally "having to turn away from the contemplation of this horror into some sort of resolution within themselves".

For Montague, his own excitement came with the civil rights movement, when suddenly it felt as if there was the possibility of positive change in the North; the "awakening" was the rapid growth of consciousness of the political situation; then came the galloping contagion of sectarian violence, which fostered a putrid inertia; finally, the inevitable turning away.

Montague decided that he'd said all he wanted to say. Resigned and despondent, he turned his eye to other things.

As the Stormont Assembly hurtles towards another collapse, that's not a bad description of this generation's experience of the peace process. That began with excitement and optimism too, before collapsing into a much more low level, but still intense, mutual suspicion. Differences would be overcome for a short while, and the devolved Assembly restored, only to re-emerge down the line, and always sooner rather than later. Finally, most people in Ireland and Britain stopped watching Northern Ireland's every move. They had their own problems. Holding Ulster's hand through another tedious crisis was not high on the list of priorities.

In that respect, the establishment in Dublin is way behind the curve, as it once again bustles along behind Northern politicians with a metaphorical pooper scooper, picking up the mess the DUP and Sinn Fein leave behind.

Foreign Minister Charlie Flanagan was in Belfast last week in search of a solution; Taoiseach Enda Kenny is pressing for talks, in the wake of the resignation of a visibly ailing Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister.

Does the Irish Government not have enough on its plate, with the UK about to trigger Article 50 and the recession far from over? Why waste all this time and energy on the latest self-inflicted pseudo crisis in Belfast when it won't make the slightest difference?

If SF does not nominate a replacement for McGuinness by Monday, UK Secretary of State James Brokenshire will be obliged to call another election that no one wants and which won't change a thing. Once the votes are counted, there'll just be more "crisis talks" at which the toddlers will be indulged into believing that the entire world revolves around them. It doesn't.

Far from it. President Trump isn't going to jet in and out of Belfast for photo opportunities like Blair and Clinton and Bush did; Brexit will leave little room for other considerations in Europe. The world has moved on.

"But what about the row over a heating scheme that could end up costing the North up to £490m?" some will cry. "What are we going to do about that?"

Well, here's a newsflash - it's really not that big a deal. Correction: it's a big deal in Belfast. That's as it should be. But London, Dublin and Washington have enough serious financial headaches of their own without dropping everything and rushing to sort out that disagreement as well. It's just not their problem.

Put bluntly, some spat about a financial cock-up of a sort that all governments have to face at some point should not be beyond the capabilities of the two parties in the North to solve on their own, if they're serious about ever sharing and exercising power.

But there's the rub. Do they have such intentions? SF made a big drama of its decision to pull out of the executive, citing everything from Irish language rights to the absence of action on LGBT issues as the real reason; but what is it really giving up?

The party is under huge pressure on the ground for not having delivered in office for its supporters. Last year's elections even saw them losing ground to left-wing populists People Before Profit, who topped the poll in Republican West Belfast. Nationalists are voting in fewer numbers overall, and those who still do are looking for alternatives to SF.

Now suddenly, with one bound SF is free again, with a chance to reverse recent setbacks by presenting themselves as heroes for standing up to those big, bad Unionists.

Meanwhile, Brexit negotiations will pass by, but they can wash their hands of responsibility of any unwelcome outcomes there too, because they won't be in office in the North during the period when the future is being decided, but under direct rule.

In that sense, withdrawing from government in the North could be seen as a deeply cynical move, and it's worth wondering how much it might have to do with positioning themselves for a possible election in the Republic.

Fighting the last election on an anti-austerity ticket was made much harder with the party implementing austerity policies in government north of the border. Richard Boyd Barrett skewered the hypocrisy of SF's position in a blistering attack in the Dail in 2015, calling the cuts to public services agreed between the DUP and SF "Northern Ireland's version of the troika austerity programme".

Now SF can fight any election in the near future as a party committed to dismantling austerity on both sides of the border, rather than, as last time, as people who say one thing in Dublin and do another thing in Belfast.

Martin McGuinness also gets the chance to end his political career in a blaze of glory.

This is not all SF's fault. Northern Ireland's First Minister can be a stubborn, obstreperous woman, who should have shown more humility after green-lighting the ruinously expensive Renewable Heating Initiative when she was Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment. Instead she dug in her heels. DUP Minister for Communities Paul Givan's decision not to allocate modest levels of funding to Irish language projects before Christmas was equally petty and provocative, albeit since reversed.

Dealing with the pair of them would drive a saint to tear his hair out. But these games are hard-wired into the peculiar system of power sharing which was set up by the Belfast Agreement. In order to ensure that both sides were represented, nothing could be done without the consent of a majority of both Nationalist and Unionists. This was predicated on the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists holding the moderate centre ground and working together for the good of Northern Ireland.

Instead it consolidated the positions of the DUP and SF - as voters on each side of the sectarian divide quite logically decided that the best hope of getting one over on "themmuns" on the other side was to return hardliners of their own with a mandate to dig in.

The result has been crisis after crisis; but sending in teams of doctors and nurses each time the Northern malingerers pretend to swoon simply encourages them to pull another phoney fainting fit.

The only reason for this official whirl of agitation is the lingering fear that violence might return if the Stormont Assembly is shown not to be working. However, that fear must be faced eventually.

A government's job is to pass a budget, and then get on with the boring job of running things. Northern Ireland is no different. At some point it has to be left to face the consequences of its decisions. Now is as good a time as any.

Sunday Independent

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