THE Northern Ireland Assembly elections revealed nationalism has unified around Sinn Féin and unionism is hopelessly divided. The big winner was the Alliance Party which represents the middle ground. Superlatives like ‘breakthrough’ and ‘tectonic shift’ have been bandied around by commentators yet progress cannot be made unless a veto, currently deployed by the Democratic Unionist Party, can be overcome.
This paradox of power in the north was created by partition. Lloyd George and Winston Churchill locked us in an asylum with two violent lunatics and threw away the key. In 1921 there was an earnest hope the two parts of Ireland could move closer together becoming a single society embracing British and Irish identities and all religions. Instead the border created two sectarian states and triggered a short civil war in the south which developed into a long civil war in the north. After much blood-letting the Republic matured into a modern state where old enemies will share government. The Good Friday Agreement in 1998 was an honest attempt to break the cycle of violence in the north but delivered an administration crippled by lack of trust and insecurity.
Yet we must not abandon hope that progress can be made.
The most likely scenario is the British government will allow the situation to continue drifting in the hope the political parties here can yet find a way forward for themselves. It would be helped by some fudge over the Northern Ireland protocol with the European Union, which would give the DUP a pretext for accepting power, and agreement to create the title Joint First Ministers which might take the sting out of nationalism’s historic victory for the loyalist hardliners. The Dublin government could help by fleshing out its ‘shared island’ approach and denouncing Sinn Féin’s call for a border poll – at least until after the next election in the republic which is likely to see Mary Lou McDonald as Taoiseach.
The British government cannot revoke the protocol without breaching an international agreement, triggering a damaging trade war with 27 other countries, and casting a shadow over relations with the United States. The Irish government must support it because Ireland would be the biggest casualty in the trade war. However allowing the political situation to drift runs the risk of triggering a hostile response from Lloyd George and Winston Churchill’s violent lunatics. The marching season is upon us and loyalists are already restless over ‘the Irish Sea border’ which they claim undermines their British identity. Republican hardliners have never abandoned their belief that Irish unity can only be achieved by murdering their neighbours.
If the Good Friday Agreement cannot be made to work there are few options left in the struggle to find good governance for Northern Ireland and its 1.7 million citizens – smaller than Leeds-Bradford and slightly bigger than greater Dublin. If an Executive cannot be formed then London will assume responsibility by default. This may be acceptable to many unionists but it is unacceptable to the vast majority of nationalists and most moderates. It will go down badly in Washington, Brussels and Dublin. The green benches at Westminster are often empty during Northern Ireland Questions and there are few in British politics with a firm grasp of the issues here, let alone a will to deal with them.
An alternative is some form of joint rule undertaken by London and Dublin, perhaps involving the willing parties at Stormont and under the auspices of the British-Irish Intergovernmental conference established as part of the Good Friday Agreement. But this would trigger violence in loyalist communities where it would be interpreted as another click of the ratchet towards British abandonment of the unionist community. It would be widely rejected by moderate voters as a step back to the Anglo-Irish Agreement which gave Dublin a consultative role in the governance of the six counties in 1985 and sparked a long campaign of political huffery and street protest.
Irish unity remains an aspiration rather than a solution. Success requires a subtle approach, considerable input by the Irish government and significant guarantees by the British. The US and the EU have a major role to play in sweetening any proposals which might attract the support of Northern Ireland’s comfortable middle classes and allay the understandable fears of people in the Republic. It would need to be backed up by indisputable numbers and prepared to suppress the inevitable loyalist backlash in parts of the north. Hard cash would be required to cover the economic consequences for the south and the funding of a bloated public sector in the north.
Yet life goes on here and the political stalemate must be seen in its wider economic and social context. As I sit at my window overlooking Belfast Lough and the green Antrim hills I can watch container vessels come and go from the busiest port on this island and passenger ferries ply their way back and forth to Britain. Among them are cruise ships bringing thousands of visitors to see the World Heritage site at the Giants’ Causeway and locations where the epic television drama Game of Thrones was filmed. The sightseeing coaches in Belfast are booked out once more and bars and restaurants are busy despite rising prices. It is difficult to find a good hotel room this summer and property prices in many areas are rising fast driven by people leaving the expensive cities of Dublin and London for a better quality of life. Unemployment is falling and the Irish economy is healthy. Ernst & Young predicts it will grow by 5.3% in 2022 in contrast to Brexitland where the most optimistic prediction is 1.5%.
The legacy of the Troubles is slowly receding and the population is growing. Almost two thirds of those who were born in the north are under the age of 40 and plan to stay. Ireland is no longer an old sow that eats her farrow. Hope and history are learning to rhyme.