The “constructive ambiguity” of 1998 has morphed into destructive clarity. So why will nobody in Westminster—or Stormont—do anything about it?by / July 18, 2018 / Leave a comment
On May 8, 2007 the British media, and Westminster, lost interest in Northern Ireland. That was the day when Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness sealed an extraordinary power-sharing deal between the DUP and Sinn Féin and agreed to serve together as First and deputy First Minister and co-chairs of a new Executive.
The British, Irish and US governments heaved a sigh of relief, convinced that, at last, the Good Friday Agreement was about to deliver stability, genuine cooperation and a “new way of doing politics between old enemies.”
Today there is no Executive and no Assembly. There hasn’t been for 18 months. The last political act of the late Martin McGuinness was a resignation letter in January 2017, in which he accused the DUP of never fully embracing the “equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement,” accusing them of showing “a shameful disrespect” towards members of the Nationalist community.
The letter confirmed what some of us had been saying for some time; namely, the DUP-Sinn Féin relationship had been built on a self-serving pretence. It was never about a new-era Northern Ireland; it was always a numbers game in which both parties promoted the contradictory interests and agendas of their own sides.
Successive British governments were aware of this. They were aware that instead of any new, bold architecture indicating a post-conflict society, all we’d seen was some half-hearted repointing of the “dreary old steeples.” They were aware that the electoral centre had been squashed by the ongoing rise of the two main parties, whose combined vote share increased from 34 per cent in 1998 to 66 per cent in 2017. They knew that Northern Ireland was almost as much a ‘place apart’ as it was when the phrase was first coined in 1978. They were aware that key decisions on big-ticket issues like legacy, integration and culture, were still being fudged—or ignored altogether.
They were aware, yet at no point did they make any effort to knock heads together; opting instead to throw more money into the pot, constantly pampering self-important local leaders and continuing with the delusion that “this project is too big to be allowed to fail.”
That’s a wonderful position for those self-interested leaders to find themselves—and let’s not forget that they’re all still on full salaries today—yet despairingly farcical for the rest of us.
Northern Ireland is in a very, very fragile place at the moment. Politics is seen to have failed. Power-sharing is seen to have failed. The Good Friday Agreement is seen to have failed. The hopes and excitement of April 1998—which rose again in May 2007—have exploded into dust.
Add to that mix the fallout from the Brexit result; the worst relationship between unionism and republicanism since the mid-1990s; the chatter about a border poll and Irish unity; the failure of the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree a basis for new talks; and unionists being spooked by the fact that they no longer have an overall majority in the Assembly.
In my view, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that the “constructive ambiguity” of 1998—which allowed us to muddle along—has finally morphed into destructive clarity. It is clear that there isn’t majority support within either unionism or nationalism for a form of power-sharing in which both have confidence.
Nor are there new political voices or electoral vehicles offering something different. There is no sign that the Alliance, UUP and SDLP parties can rebuild.
There is no common view on the constitutional future. No consensus on what issues should be prioritized. No agreed narrative, no agreed future, and no obvious exit route from the present paralysis because in Northern Ireland the past is always in front of us.
Crucially, the bulk of the evidence suggests that increasing numbers prefer us-and-them options to anything remotely recognizable as a “shared future.”
That’s why I’m particularly worried about what happened in Londonderry/Derry and Belfast in the run-up to the Twelfth. Over successive nights, we saw violence orchestrated by those who believe that violence is more likely to deliver than politics.
Those people are called terrorists. No political influence was capable of stopping them, and more significantly, there are no political institutions offering alternatives, or anyone, in either London or Belfast, prepared to take responsibility or make decisions. Even the Secretary of State doesn’t seem to understand that it is her job to provide government in the absence of an Executive. None of this bodes well for the possibility of further violence.
This is pessimistic. But, to paraphrase Louis MacNeice, maybe we need to accept that genuine reconciliation is a bogus god and search instead for authentic mammon, which, at the very least, provides stability rather than miracles.
That will require interest and input from Westminster again—along with the Irish government. We’re not, as we have demonstrated, capable of doing this by ourselves.