Turmoil about the future of Northern Ireland, both before and after the Stormont election, is likely to last until the various participants tone down their rhetoric and return to their privately held conclusions that compromise is the only option for stability, in spite of what they say.
A return to violence, this time possibly from the loyalist side, is in no one’s interests. But as ever, the risk of mindless aggression based on fear, is never too far away. As usual in Northern Ireland, especially among the two traditionally leading parties, elections tend to focus on the fundamentally divisive issues of a United Ireland and the defence of the UK constitution – where no compromise can exist and therefore little progress is ever made.
This time circumstances might have changed. A middle ground has been opened up where issues such as the rising cost of living and health concerns have been aired extensively. A fairly large section of the electorate, mainly Protestant, abstained. The non-sectarian Alliance Party more than doubled its assembly seats and came third after Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) respectively.
Sinn Féin has revamped its public face to try to lose its old image of terrorist violence. It has talked mostly about domestic issues and claims it wishes to work in government with unionists.
The Ulster Unionists have made few advances under a more liberal leader, a former soldier.
John Hume’s party the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) had a disappointing result in spite of fielding a range of impressive and very able candidates, many of whose supporters backed Sinn Féin and Alliance against the DUP.
The DUP are internally split and have lost ground.
The Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV), formerly a one-man band of hard-line anti-protocol reactionaries are in the mood to compromise with no one. They too have made ground with defections from the DUP in the main. Although their resultant numbers of seats does not reflect that.
What are the main issues at stake for Northern Ireland?
Will the DUP eventually enter the executive? Will the protocol survive? What are the prospects for a United Ireland? Will there be a border referendum? Is there a viable compromise solution?
Just as in the time of Ian Paisley, I believe that the DUP will join the executive after much puffing and blowing. The DUP don’t want to leave government and lose the baubles and beads. There will be more negotiation and perhaps some change, to save face. For example, the DUP may perhaps have a joint first minister responsibility with Sinn Féin, rather than become ‘deputy’, even though the two posts have equal legal responsibility.
If I am wrong and the DUP refuse, in the end, to allow an executive to function, they will be responsible for precipitating a crisis. Most of the political world that is watching, in Europe, in the United States, and in Britain, will express their revulsion at the tactic, except for the Conservative nationalist faction on the right wing back benches of the Conservative Party, with whom the DUP has long allied itself.
If this is indeed the outcome, we may then see whether the Irish government might engage under the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement (GFA) as a partner with Britain in exercising some form of joint authority, as the absence of a Northern Ireland executive would require some action along those lines or government would seize up.
Or will the British government continue to herald its rampant ‘global Britain’ independence and refuse such cooperation? If so, that would mean serious trouble.
If as I expect, an executive will come into being in due course, maybe even in months, one of the major issues facing us now, is the future of the protocol. Voices in many places are fairly sanguine on this issue
Future of the protocol
It is simply not true that a majority of people in Northern Ireland oppose the protocol. They may not all like it, but the negotiation will continue. The European commissioner Maroš Šefčovič commands the respect in private at least, of all the Northern Irish party leaders. In any event, what are the alternatives? A hard border? A leaky single market that can’t be properly monitored?
Almost all parties in Northern Ireland are prepared to live with the protocol, including many unionists. The exceptions are the DUP, the TUV and the DUP allies on the right wing of the Conservative Party, who have caused a lot of trouble throughout the negotiation with threats of various kinds.
If the British government attempts to table wrecking amendments to the procedures, as it can’t unilaterally alter the treaty the protocol is based on, there will be an international outcry. Will the British government even try to confront such opposition to international law and ignore established procedures to support its ally the DUP?
Or is it prepared to override the DUP, which no longer represents a majority in Northern Ireland and no longer needs DUP votes in London? Let us wait and see.
Huge damage has been done to Britain’s international reputation already, by Brexit. So in the end, the protocol is likely to pass with some amendment but not so much as to damage its central purpose.
And the constitution of the UK will remain intact with Northern Ireland still an integral part of it. The hard-line unionists who have tried to make the protocol a constitutional issue, which manifestly it is not, will have lost yet again, but in trying to do so have deceived many decent people by twisting the facts and being dishonest.
The position of Ireland
The South has been badly affected by Brexit. It has also been disappointed by the British government dragging its feet on implementing the North/South and East/West relationships as laid out in the Belfast Agreement. These are intended to break new ground.
Ministers from both parts of Ireland will meet together. And East/West, ministers from Scotland, Wales, London and Dublin will also meet together to ensure close coordination of common interests. These are as fundamental as is the provision of power-sharing requirements by the assembly in the North.
The resultant effect of the British foot dragging on several aspects of the GFA has been a souring of the bilateral relationship and the loss of much trust between the two. I remember clearly the days when both countries were members of the EU, the relationship between them was really close. Each defended and supported the other.
But even though Ireland has been wounded by the effects of Brexit, it has at the same time been developing deeper relations with Scotland and Wales, each of which has a different attitude to the outcomes of Brexit than the government in London. Wales in particular has been badly hit, with much traffic across the Irish Sea now diverting directly to the continent. It is also revealing that parts of England north of the red wall are doing likewise as in the example of the mayors of Manchester and Liverpool’s recent business mission to Ireland. Irish government offices have already opened in Wales, Scotland and the North West of England.
A United Ireland or a shared island?
In the South, in contrast to the hopes and fears in the North, the southern governing coalition, in the face of public opinion polls, has been advancing proposals for ‘a shared island’ rather than a ‘united’ one.
A special unit has been established in the office of the Taoiseach and a substantial budget already agreed. This is a major development, yet is receiving minimum publicity. It does however put aspirations for a United Ireland over the horizon.
A border referendum, much called for by Sinn Féin, remains the exclusive responsibility of the secretary of state. There is little sign of any governmental interest in it North or South in the near future. And the polls show that in the North if one were to be called, it would be unlikely to be successful.
Where does that leave us now? Probably with many more challenges than ever before. Principally whether an executive can function properly within a democratic, even-handed and stable framework, respected internationally, for the first time in 101 years.
It is necessary to ensure that the relationships established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement are allowed to work properly for the first time, not only in the assembly but among and between ministers from London, Northern Ireland, Scotland, Wales, the Republic and further afield too. The absence of external links again, since leaving the EU, has created a very introspective society, unsure of itself and lacking in confidence.
Compromise by all
If Northern Ireland is to work properly, concessions are needed on all sides including by the British government. Historical aspirations and idealistic scenarios need to be replaced by effective modern governance. The significant middle ground participation in the Stormont elections is an indicator of the need for fundamental change and outward looking objectives to be achieved by working together.
Unity and unionism remain incompatible. But an alternative is almost within reach for the second time – devolved and power-sharing self-government, supported by the United Kingdom, Ireland, the rest of the European Union and the United States, just as it was in 1998.