IT is exactly 100 years since Northern Ireland first had its own government. In 2007, just before he left for his new home in Spain, my colleague Harry Castles said he no longer wished to live in a country run by ‘the two Taliban.’ It was a harsh but honest criticism of our political parties and distorted politics. Northern Ireland has a power-sharing administration dominated by people who defied public health regulations to attend the funeral of a bank robber and fundamentalist Christians who are convinced the Earth is 4,000 years old. There is an election next year, when we will get a chance to reshuffle the deck, but the system ensures the same people will be returned to power – unless someone brings down this carefully crafted house of cards. Then control will transfer to the UK parliament at Westminster. British politicians care so little for this land that only last month a second Prime Minister was forced to apologise for his soldiers who gunned down innocent people on the streets. Few of Boris Johnson’s English nationalists can tell the difference between Orange and Green Paddies.
In secular western societies politics usually follows Marxist lines. Those who believe in state intervention vote for socialist parties and those who believe in the minimum of interference vote for conservatives. Liberals and independents make up the middle ground. Administrations are formed by coalitions. They agree a programme of government and a budget that includes something for everybody.
Northern Ireland’s politics are different. The fault line was established, by Winston Churchill and Lloyd George in 1921, when they insisted on partition of the island in a bid to placate the warring factions. The programme of government is agreed in Belfast but the budget is set in London. The majority of people do not vote for the party which best represents their views on economic and social issues. They vote for the party which is most likely to check the progress of their enemies. Nationalism’s objective is the end of partition. Unionism’s objective is to defend it. Every election turns into a referendum on the border.
Nationalism in the north is dominated by Sinn Féin. The party was founded in 1905 by Arthur Griffiths, a printer and journalist in Dublin, and Bulmer Hobson a Quaker from Marino outside Holywood in Co Down. Its first objective was an independent Ireland under the Crown. It attracted a cross-section of radicals and nationalists including members of the armed Irish Republican Brotherhood, pacifists and feminists. It advocated passive resistance to achieve its goal but did not gain significant electoral support until after the 1916 Rising. A new more militant Sinn Fein convened in 1917 to elect Eamon de Valera as its president and declared support for ‘an independent Irish republic.’ In the 1918 general election it won 73 of the 105 seats in Ireland. In the first general election to the Northern Ireland House of Commons in 1921 it won six seats returning Michael Collins in Armagh, Eamon de Valera in Down and Arthur Griffith in Fermanagh and Tyrone. When de Valera split from the party in 1926 to form Fianna Fail, Sinn Féin strengthened its ties with the IRA. It enjoyed some electoral success during the Border Campaign in the 1950s. But the movement split again in 1970 over aims and methods. The Officials became the Workers Party in 1977, enjoying some electoral success on both sides of the border, while the Provisionals rejected electoral politics becoming a propaganda tool for the IRA. They ‘embraced the ballot box alongside the Armalite’ in 1981. Sinn Féin entered the Dáil in 1986, a ceasefire was declared in 1994 and signed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. Today it has 23 seats of the 160 seats in the Dáil and 26 of the 90 seats at Stormont.
Unionism is dominated by the Democratic Unionist Party. It was founded in 1971 by preacher Ian Paisley and Desmond Boal, a leading barrister, who shared opposition to the progressive reforms of Prime Minister Terence O’Neill and opposition to the Civil Rights Movement. Boal, who was its first chairman, said it: would be ‘right wing in on the Constitution but left wing on social policies.’ The party grew strongly in the 1970s when unionism was deeply divided over its future and IRA violence was at its peak. It opposed the decision to prorogue the majority rule parliament at Stormont and strongly opposed power-sharing with nationalists. It opposed the Sunningdale agreement and Ian Paisley played a leading role in the loyalist strike which brought down this early power-sharing experiment in 1974. The party played a leading role in opposition to the Anglo-Irish agreement in 1985 and the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It only consented to a power-sharing deal at St Andrews in 2006 – after topping the poll in the 2003 Assembly elections. Today it has eight of the 650 seats at Westminster and 27 of the 90 seats at Stormont.
These parties are polar opposites and backed by men in the shadows. Their working relationship is strained and often breaks down completely. They are secretive about who funds them and reluctant to submit to media scrutiny. The DUP sees the Dublin government as a bogeyman and Sinn Féin despises London. Nobody trusts anybody else in this long game of Irish poker. With the marching season looming and elections in the wind, the political temperature will rise over the summer. Unionists feel betrayed by the so-called ‘border in the Irish Sea’. Nationalists feel betrayed by a failure to call a border poll. Unionism is deeply divided. If the parties cannot pull together, Sinn Féin will secure the First Minister’s office in the next government. It may be a significant moment in Irish history, perhaps even a turning point. The only certainty is that it will be a violent one.
Winston Churchill and Lloyd George were wrong to think partition was a solution to the Irish problem and the late Harry Castles may yet be proved right about the barbarous nature of our two tribes.
© Maurice Neill 2020