Northern Ireland and dysfunctional politics
Sir, – I have been wondering if Charles Haughey, whom I did not admire, was guilty of no more than being ahead of his time when he described Northern Ireland as a failed political entity. He drew plenty of flak for that but the recent evidence is compelling.
Let’s gloss over the fact that the Executive and the Assembly have been, as Gregory Campbell might say, as láthair for nearly 27 months. Rather let us focus on how they are dealing with the defining political issue of the age.
The DUP, which has 10 of the 18 Northern Ireland MPs, campaigned for Brexit and is keeping Theresa May’s minority government in power. It has voted thrice against the withdrawal agreement negotiated by the UK government with the European Union on the grounds that the backstop provisions, should they ever come into effect (the intention on all sides is that they should not), could result in Northern Ireland being treated differently, albeit to its economic advantage, from the rest of the United Kingdom. This principled insistence on equality of treatment throughout their precious Union does not apply to same-sex marriage, abortion rights or corporation tax.
One might have expected a vociferous DUP response to the tariffs proposed by the UK government in the event of a no-deal Brexit. I may have missed it. These proposals, which could have taken effect on March 29th and which may now take effect on April 12th, treat Northern Ireland differently, again to its advantage, from the rest of the UK. But a similar approach in the backstop, which in all probability will never come into effect, is to be resisted at all costs. Indeed Nigel Dodds has said in the last few days that the DUP would prefer to stay in the EU than to accept the withdrawal agreement precisely because it could result in Northern Ireland being treated differently.
All of this suggests that the approach of the DUP to equality of treatment throughout the United Kingdom is informed, in order of importance, by its version of religion, the maintenance of the integrity of the union and the economic interests of the people of Northern Ireland. The last appears to be a distant third in the thinking of DUP leaders. A recent survey conducted for The Irish Times suggests that, in taking this approach, the DUP is out of touch not just with the people of Northern Ireland generally but with its own supporters.
What of Sinn Féin, which holds seven of the remaining eight Northern Ireland seats at Westminster? It has the unique distinction of having representatives elected to seats in three of the parliaments in these small islands. It has declined attendance at (but not payment for) one of them for a century and another for over two years. But it is vociferous in the third in encouraging the Irish Government to hold firm on the backstop and to resist a hard Brexit. It recognises that its supporters voted to Remain and that their economic interests would be served very badly by a hard Brexit. Yet it is not held to account when proposals at Westminster which could result in a soft Brexit, such as that put forward last Wednesday by Kenneth Clarke, are defeated by a margin lower than the number of seats held by Sinn Féin.
So one of the two major parties in Northern Ireland goes to Westminster and agitates actively against the interests of its supporters. The other one couldn’t be bothered. – Yours, etc,
Dublin 6 .