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Time for Stormont politicians to discover the self in self-determination

Diarmaid Ferriter: Even with Brexit looming both sides opt for hand-holding

Stormont: the Northern Ireland Assembly has not sat for eight months. Photograph: Paul Faith/AFP/Getty

On this day 85 years ago the socialist Jack Beattie caused a huge stir in the Northern Ireland parliament, then sitting in Belfast City Hall, when he seized the parliamentary mace and flung it across the floor to protest against the absence from the order paper of a motion dealing with unemployment that he had handed in for discussion. He was adamant that he would “refuse to sit in a House of hypocrisy while the people starved”.

The son of a blacksmith who worked in the Belfast shipyards, Beattie also served time in those shipyards, and he topped the poll in Belfast East in 1925 as a Labour Party candidate. After the abolition of proportional representation he was the only Labour candidate elected for the Northern parliament in 1929. Although much of his support came from Catholics, he also won a significant Protestant vote due to his labour and trade-union activities.

As is too often the case, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP was quick to condescend to those who expressed concern

A staunch anti-partitionist, Beattie was later expelled from the Northern Ireland Labour Party; he was regarded as a maverick and, no doubt helped by his support for a united Ireland, was later elected an MP for Belfast West. But as one civil servant familiar with his work remarked after his death, in 1960, “sooner or later every debate was diverted by him into the channel of unemployment”.

In that sense he served his constituents well, which is more than can be said for some of his successors elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly, which has not sat for eight months, although its members continue to be paid salaries. News during the week that Belfast could be facing serious job losses as a result of findings in the US against Bombardier Aerospace, which employs 4,500 people in Belfast, underline how vulnerable the Northern economy is to external developments – and, of course, in parallel with this, the Brexit threat looms large. All agree that Brexit will have profound implications for the North; all the more reason, then, to decry the absence of a Northern political assembly at such a crucial juncture.

As is too often the case, Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP was quick during the week to condescend to those who expressed concern about all these matters. He accused trade-union leaders of “cheap shots” in their criticisms of politicians for not doing more about the threat to jobs in Northern Ireland and insisted, because of temporary agreement with the British government about agricultural subsidies, that Ulster farmers have nothing to worry about in relation to Brexit: “The Ulster farmer will be looked after by the DUP. You can be absolutely sure of that.”

Nigel Dodds again insisted that the DUP wants a ‘seamless Border’ but also wants, in facing Brexit, to be no different ‘from other parts of the UK’

Meanwhile, Sinn Féin displays no urgency about the lack of an assembly as it concentrates its attention on the Republic, badgering the Government to do things that it resolutely refuses to do in the North, while also facing a series of embarrassing allegations about ferocious bullying within the party.

The great pity is that, while this vacuum exists, others make the noise about the North and the Border, such as the Belgian MEP Guy Verhofstadt, who recently visited with, for some, some soothing rhetoric about how, because Britain created the problem, it is up to it to find a Border solution. Michelle O’Neill of Sinn Féin heaped praise on him as someone who “has been very strong in setting out his position on issues which need to be resolved before moving on to the next stage of negotiations”. Nigel Dodds again insisted that the DUP wants a “seamless Border” but also wants, in facing Brexit, to be no different “from other parts of the UK”.

In the midst of all this the British Labour Party’s shadow secretary for Northern Ireland, Owen Smith, has warned of the British government “playing chicken” with the EU over the Irish Border, waiting for the EU to propose solutions. Of course the EU27 will insist it is up to Britain to find a solution, but surely some domestic thinking on this is also appropriate, particularly ideas emanating from the North by both sides of the Brexit debate there.

Politicians on both sides are displaying a remarkable indifference at a time when the stakes are so high

There will be relief from many quarters that the Trump administration seems prepared to reverse its position on abolishing the post of special envoy for Northern Ireland, and next month will see Bill Clinton, the darling of the peace process, receive another honorary doctorate for his contributions to Ireland. But almost 20 years on from the Belfast Agreement, is it the case that Northern politicians on both sides will continue to opt for hand-holding and external, rhetorical soothing instead of getting their own act together? When will they tackle the “self” in the self-determination the 1998 agreement was supposed to inaugurate and guarantee?

They are displaying a remarkable indifference at a time when the stakes are so high. The mace-flinging Jack Beattie was anything but indifferent, and, in a warning that Northern politicians should heed today, he insisted that the North should not remain the “moth-eaten tail of the British lion”.