Too-obvious metaphors are to be avoided, but some metaphors are too obvious to avoid. The largest lake in Ireland or Britain, Lough Neagh, is dying in plain sight. A thick blue-green algae scum has formed, the colour and texture of which is unnatural, otherworldly even.
The poisoning of the lough is partly a product of poor decision-making at Stormont over decades. But it is also a metaphor for the poisoned state of politics and governance in the North. The waters of democratic debate have been tainted for some time, and the huge optimism that surrounded the 1998 Agreement can seem an awfully long while ago. This is notwithstanding the many wonderful ways northern society has evolved: the growing cultural vibrancy and even confidence, the determination of non-sectarian activists to make change and the ingenuity of some of our businesses are all reasons to be optimistic about the place.
But there is still an odour of decay around Northern politics that it would be unwise to ignore or minimise. The grindingly cyclical nature of the peace process, and the political process that followed, with intermittent collapses, endless multi-party talks and then deals, fudges and financial carve-ups, established the assumption among much of the punditry class that there will always be adults in London and Dublin with a plan to keep the show on the road. And that if Stormont does collapse, it can be re-established roughly based on the same calculations as before.
Such assumptions are being tested to their limits at the minute. Who are the adults, and where is their plan? Other than threatening the public with swingeing cuts and a raft of new charges in order to put pressure on the DUP, I’m unclear what the plan is.
If we do not have devolved Government in Northern Ireland by the end of the year, long-accepted assumptions about the region will have to be reassessed, particularly in Dublin – whether on the urgency of Stormont reform, the unacceptability of direct rule (which this British government may not even bother with anyway) or on the meaningful prospect of full-blown constitutional change on this island, which will inevitably increase if devolution is left indefinitely shut down. Simply hoping for the cycle to turn and the devolution machine to turn itself back on might not work this time.
Does the largest party in unionism want to govern Northern Ireland as it is in 2023, rather than 1953?
For more than a year, the DUP has been engaged in a tortured and largely private dialogue with the British government over the terms on which it could return to Stormont. The cloistered, bilateral nature of these talks is in itself evidence of the rot in Northern politics. All peace process-era British prime ministers since John Major had private dialogues with unionist leaders, and made offers to them (notably Tony Blair’s letter to David Trimble on decommissioning), but this was usually in the context of an otherwise inclusive, multi-party, two-government process.
For a while, the Northern Ireland Office pretended this was a classic multi-party disagreement rather than a boycott by one party. There were Potemkin-like meetings with photo-ops and surreal finger-wagging to the effect that everyone should just pull their socks up and form an executive. Mercifully, such pretence has mostly ceased. The UK has signed the performatively named Windsor Framework with the EU, which went further in addressing the DUP’s so-called seven tests for NI-GB trade than many expected, and in many ways further than the SDLP or others wanted, including with the creation of the Heath Robinson-esque Stormont Brake on new EU regulations, a device only likely to lead to further political instability while casting a shadow over our Single Market access.
Still, it wasn’t enough for the DUP. Or more accurately, Jeffrey Donaldson wasn’t brave enough to claim an obvious political win and do what he probably knows needs to be done, for the sake of the constitutional cause his party professes to care about more than anything. Here we get to the source of the rot: does the largest party in unionism want to govern Northern Ireland as it is in 2023, rather than 1953? And having restored its relationship with the EU, and secured the attendant economic and diplomatic benefits, does the UK government care enough about the absence of devolution to prioritise restoring it? That the answer to both questions is unclear goes a long way to explaining the fetid state of politics in the North.
It would be a tragedy if the power-sharing institutions my party and others fought so hard to create are allowed to rot and stagnate further
It won’t be like that forever, because politics doesn’t stay in one place, even in Northern Ireland. The conversation will inevitably move on. Since I and my party cannot do our job as an opposition to a devolved executive, or even offer plausible policy ideas that might be implemented in the devolved context, our focus has inevitably turned to more fundamental change on this island. Our New Ireland Commission is engaging people and groups far beyond traditional binary boundaries of identity, many of whom have concluded that our current arrangements cannot deliver the kind of future they aspire to. The DUP’s current actions are not persuading them otherwise.
There is a strange irony in both the DUP and the UK government fulminating about the mere mention of constitutional change and a new Ireland – as they did last week – while the former is making the status quo an ungoverned mess with the effective complicity of the latter.
It would be a tragedy if the power-sharing institutions my party and others fought so hard to create are allowed to rot and stagnate further, especially as public services, along with the environment itself, decay in front of us. But it would be comically naive to assume that in the absence of devolution, and the thwarting of a democratic mandate, everyone else will simply wait politely for the DUP to come to its senses. Some of us will be planning a new future, on less tainted, more hopeful ground than we stand at present.
Matthew O’Toole is MLA for Belfast South for the Social Democratic and Labour Party