Sense of growing political polarisation does not augur well
News review of the year 2017: Northern Ireland
Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader Michelle O’Neill and DUP leader Arlene Foster will face significant challenges in 2018. Photograph: Owen Humphreys/PA
This year was bookended by the collapse of Stormont in January and ructions over Brexit at the end of the year. In between there was considerable bah humbug political gloom and despondency, not to mention the death of Martin McGuinness, a man capable of healing divisions. Few reasons to be cheerful therefore in the bleak mid-winter.
At least from a Dublin and pro-Remain perspective the deal achieved by Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney created the potential for a soft border when Brexit is finally sorted – although there is always that nagging suspicion that the principle that “nothing is agreed until everything is agreed” could yet alter the plot.
In some quarters there can be a nonchalant attitude about the value of restoring the powersharing Northern Executive and Assembly.
If the DUP and Sinn Féin can’t sort out a few issues such as the Irish language, gay marriage and achieving a sustainable devolved administration then why not just leave it to British direct rule ministers, with Dublin having some form of enhanced role to look after Northern nationalists, is a view you will hear.
But at a Department of Foreign Affairs event in Belfast just before Christmas an old hand former Irish civil servant and a politician, Noel Dorr and Séamus Mallon respectively, pointed up the perils of a blasé approach to politics. It was a gathering to mark the Belfast launch of Dorr’s book about the 1973 Sunningdale agreement in which both he and Mallon were centrally involved.
They lamented the collapse of that powersharing administration which Mallon blamed on the “Provos with their bombs and bullets” and on loyalist paramilitaries with “their cudgels” and street protests and violence.
Mallon’s main point was that politicians have a duty to make good history, or as he put it to be “good ancestors” so that they leave something communally beneficial for the generations that follow. While that 1973/1974 experiment failed at least it was the template for the agreement of Good Friday 1998 – “Sunningdale for slow learners” – as Mallon memorably described it.
Right now nobody is anticipating a return to violence but there is precious little evidence of this crop of politicians being big enough to create or hold on to lasting structures that will benefit those that follow them. Rather the sense is of growing political polarisation which is working its way into the community.
Nationalists complain of being disrespected by the DUP. The DUP accuses Sinn Féin of waging a “cultural war” against unionism. Previously former taoiseach Enda Kenny and Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan were viewed by the DUP as honest brokers but after all the disagreement over Brexit Sammy Wilson has been dubbing their successors, Leo Varadkar and Simon Coveney a bunch of “political chancers” while ex first minister Peter Robinson says Dublin should “wind its neck in”.
The year is ending as it began, sourly. At Christmas last year nationalists already were angered over decisions by DUP Ministers to withdraw a £50,000 Liofa Gaeltacht grant and to change the name of a fishery protection vessel from Banríon Uladh to Queen of Ulster.
Arlene Foster refused demands by Martin McGuinness that she temporarily stand aside as First Minister pending an investigation of the Renewable Heat Incentive scheme fiasco that could cost Northern Ireland taxpayers hundreds of millions of pounds. She wasn’t for budging which prompted McGuinness to resign as Deputy First Minister, a move that required Foster to lose her post as well because of the joint nature of the office.
This in turn triggered an Assembly election where the DUP and Foster always were on the back foot. Foster made matters several times worse when during the election campaign in February she rejected Sinn Féin’s demand for an Irish language act by stating that”if you feed a crocodile it will keep coming back and looking for more”.
The reaction was astonishing. Nationalists interpreted her comments as Foster and the DUP seeking to reassert an old unionist dominance. Foster’s tone and words infuriated them to such an extent that the DUP started the election campaign ten seats ahead of Sinn Féin while after polling it was just one seat and less than 1,200 votes in front of Sinn Féin.
In June the DUP regained lost ground at the Westminster general election disastrously called by British prime minister Theresa May. It increased its House of Commons representation from 8 to ten seats and overall went more than 53,000 votes ahead of Sinn Féin. That punctured some of the Sinn Féin push for a border poll on a united Ireland but republicans weren’t too disheartened – Sinn Féin increased its representation from four to seven seats.
With such constitutional focus on Orange and Green the middle ground was virtually wiped out, the SDLP losing its three seats, the Ulster Unionist Party its two seats. Independent unionist Lady [Sylvia] Hermon was left as the only centrist MP standing.
Thereafter during key House of Commons or Westminster committee Brexit debates the absence of any nationalist voice or argument was starkly noticeable. Regardless, Sinn Féin was insistent it would not change its abstentionist policy.
It did however decide on leadership change. Michelle O’Neill replaced Martin McGuinness as Sinn Féin’s Northern leader in January. In November Gerry Adams announced he is standing down in the new year with Mary Lou McDonald almost viewed as a shoo-in to succeed him.
The death of Martin McGuinness in March and now the imminent departure of Adams have ensured a major break with the republican past. Soon the Northern and Southern and overall Sinn Féin leaderships won’t have a former IRA man at the helm.
During the year Dublin and London kept trying to cajole the DUP and Sinn Féin into doing a deal to get Stormont functioning again but each time they failed despite well-placed sources insisting they got very close in October.
They will try again in the new year. The issues at stake – the Irish language and same sex marriage legislation – are difficult but they are also well capable of resolution, and they are relatively minor when compared with the challenges facing politicians in 1973 and in 1998. Dealing with the past will be more problematic but here there are proposals in place from previous negotiations.
The unanswered questions as we face into 2018 are: can Foster take the necessary risks to restore Stormont while bringing the vast bulk of her party with her? And does Sinn Féin really want a deal or does it prefer to leave Northern Ireland in a state of unhappy suspended animation while it pursues more long term all-Ireland ambitions?