Patience of McGuinness a useful example for North’s deadlocked parties
Former deputy first minister pursued long-term strategy with much forbearance
Mary Lou McDonald, Martin McGuinness, Gerry Adams and Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin at Stormont last January. Photograph: Charles McQuillan/Getty Images
It was a tremendous achievement to sustain the Northern Ireland Executive for nearly 10 years without interruption. I was glad to have the opportunity to say that in a brief last conversation with Martin McGuinness in January at the funeral of Dermot Gallagher, former secretary-general of the Department of Foreign Affairs. The credit for showing that devolved government in Northern Ireland could work, even if imperfectly, belongs of course to all the parties that were involved, but McGuinness’s role was crucial. It remains to be seen whether Michelle O’Neill, his anointed successor, and her colleagues can begin to fill his shoes.
Half a year has gone by since the Executive collapsed, with lingering hopes but no certainty that it will be restored in a calmer autumn atmosphere. The parties are not constrained by toothless government deadlines, given the absence of credible sanctions. To everyone’s relief, the DUP and Sinn Féin can at least agree that MLAs’ salaries should continue to be paid, pending a functioning Assembly. There is great uncertainty about governmental stability at Westminster, following the unexpectedly disastrous election for the Tory incumbents. While the parliamentary situation in Dublin also remains precarious, a new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, enjoys a political honeymoon.
The wider context is important for both Sinn Féin and the DUP, and offers both risks and opportunities. It can be a double-edged sword to be an all-Ireland party operating in different roles in different jurisdictions, where apparently inconsistent positions can be compared by political rivals. Presumably, the extra money negotiated by the DUP will temporarily insulate Northern Ireland from some of the austerity facing the UK, as the early effects of the Brexit decision begin to bite. Whenever an election is called in the Republic, Sinn Féin might have difficulty explaining why it should be in government in Dublin, if it were still refusing to be in government in Belfast.
Any party in the DUP’s position after the Westminster election, holding the balance of power, would have used it to extract as much advantage for Northern Ireland as reasonably possible. The party quite properly refused to be taken for granted by the Tories. Of course, there are also risks attached to its situation. Now that the DUP has become a key factor in British domestic politics, on which the very life of a vulnerable government depends, it is under the British media and political spotlight as never before. Caricatured as antediluvian, it can expect ongoing criticism and attack, ostensibly based on high-minded concern for the peace, welfare and denied rights of Northern Ireland, from opponents and critics of the British government.
Events this year have shown that attempts to gain decisive advantage by attempting to face down the other community simply end in a prolonged stand-off. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin succeeded in further mobilising and consolidating their electoral support. The question is will their hardening of positions prevent compromise being made.
Brexit, it is agreed, needs practical solutions that will minimise interference with cross-Border trade and movement. As negotiations proceed, it is important that the political voice of Northern Ireland is heard, speaking with authority as a devolved government that is the product of a functioning peace process.
Those who imagine that there is constitutional advantage to be gained from Brexit should not be tempted up a cul de sac. There will be neither a shift of opinion towards a united Ireland within the EU among unionists enough to justify a Border poll, nor a shift of opinion in the Republic towards an Irexit and back towards the UK. A Tory think tank headed by a succession of noted English champions of unionism, even when able to deploy a former Irish ambassador, will try in vain to persuade us that Brexit is a huge disaster for Ireland (but not for Britain).
A political competition as to which nationalist party north or south is the most zealous promoter of a united Ireland can do little to advance actual achievement of that objective, and we have been around that circuit many times before. Finding the necessary adaptations to protect the real gains in relations and the free movement of the past 20 years is the only challenge.
Without belittling any of them, it has to be questioned whether the issues put forward as reasons for not entering an Executive outweigh bigger interests of the people living in Northern Ireland. The more symbolic an issue is, the more likely it is to raise a head of steam. The trumpets of equality are not going to bring down the walls of Jericho. To expect that every point of disagreement or contention has to be resolved before going back into government is unrealistic.
Arlene Foster’s remark the other day that the list of difficulties seemed to be getting longer brought back depressing memories of the night before the Belfast Agreement, when the Sinn Féin leadership spent hours with Mo Mowlam and Bertie Ahern going through a list of 70-plus unresolved points of dissatisfaction, demanding answers. Notwithstanding this, important progress made on other matters during the night provided a surprise breakthrough.
Martin McGuinness had a long-term strategy that relied on a lot of patience and forbearance but hoped gradually to build up trust and confidence and reconciliation. Has a better one been found?
Martin Mansergh is a former government adviser and member of the Irish negotiating team for the Belfast Agreement