It's been twenty years since the Good Friday Agreement. It's been a year since power sharing collapsed. Now, there's a new Northern Ireland Secretary. So what happens next?by Andrew McQuillan / January 12, 2018 / Leave a comment
Peace walls in Northern Ireland. But can a deal finally be struck in Stormont? Photo: David Dixon/Geograph.ie 2018 is yet another year of significant anniversaries in Northern Ireland. It is twenty years since the tentative hope of the Good Friday Agreement. It is one year since the institutions it set up collapsed amid the fallout of the Renewable Heating Initiative farce. “Cash for ash” has come to symbolise the drift from the high-minded optimism of 1998, representing the very worst of the pork barrel politics local politicians have indulged in since the DUP and Sinn Féin rebooted devolution at St Andrews in 2006. Given the devolution settlement was markedly less ambitious than those in Scotland and Wales, the potential for the Assembly and Executive to slip into lazy redistribution was always there. Indeed, to expect anything else was wishful thinking. Making the Agreement work in the context of a mandatory coalition relied heavily on the assumption local politicians and voters would be able to eventually move beyond the enmity of the past and agree on cohesive policy options. This has proven unworkable; elections to Stormont became another head-counting exercise between unionists and nationalists. Since the resignation of the late Martin McGuinness, any pretence at moderation has been jettisoned. The inherent risk of placing the future of Northern Ireland’s institutions in the hands of two parties who had originally expressed at best agnosticism, at worst outright hostility, towards them has come to pass. Now, we are left with, on the one hand, the DUP’s repeated demands for direct rule, and on the other, Sinn Féin’s hope that Brexit and the absence of devolution will pave the road towards Dublin involvement and, eventually, unification. In the febrile aftermath of last January’s collapse, voters have flocked to both parties at subsequent elections. The perennial appeal of not giving an inch in Northern Irish politics has never been more in vogue. Though the absence of functioning local government has contributed to a slew of concerning stories about public services adorning the front pages of the local press, these results, at least, suggest the populace seems relatively untroubled. This, more than most, acts as an indication of the failure of devolution to make its mark as something worth saving. In the absence of any resolution to the past, devolved government became another front on which Northern Ireland’s divides could be rehashed and refought. Now free from the shackles of government, the parties pushed a profound deterioration in public discourse. This included the DUP’s self-professed active disrespect towards the Irish language; any seasoned watcher of the party will know that it was a regular target of the vaudeville that passed for its annual conference. However, Arlene Foster comparing calls for language legislation to the behaviour of a rapacious crocodile inflamed nationalism and rallied it to Sinn Féin in an almost unparalleled fashion at the March Assembly election. The psychodrama of losing their Stormont majority for the first time caused the “rally round the flag” retrenchment unionism is so fond of in moments of crisis, making any compromise on the language act and other nationalist demands unlikely. More recently, Sinn Féin’s respect agenda was profoundly undermined by the actions of their MP for West Tyrone, Barry McElduff uploading a video to Twitter of him cavorting with a loaf of Kingsmill’s bread on his head in a service station. That he decided to do this on the 42nd anniversary of the unsolved Kingsmill massacre, when ten Protestant workmen were shot dead by the Provisional IRA, was not lost on a uniformly disgusted unionist community. His party’s relatively meek decision to suspend him for three months on full pay and the blasé response of the republican grassroots to such a crass and callous act provides another insight into the hardening of attitudes and increasing sectarian rancour in Ulster’s politics. For all their attempts to recast themselves as the vanguard of equality in Northern Irish politics, this episode has acted as a reminder of the profoundly troubling currents which run through Sinn Féin’s interpretation of Irish nationalism. Of course, the deliberately ambiguous 1998 Agreement made little or no attempt to deal with the toxicity of the Troubles; given that for every Kingsmill there is a Loughinisland the prospect of a universally acceptable historical narrative remains slim. Factoring in the divisiveness of Brexit and the DUP’s support for the Conservatives at Westminster, the prospect of locally-sourced solutions to local problems seems distressingly remote. As the new Secretary of State aped her predecessor by regurgitating his lines about restoring devolution, it was fitting that she did so on the fog covered banks of the Lagan. The weather reflected the malaise and lack of clarity afflicting the politicians entrusted with the future of Northern Ireland. A year on from the whimpering collapse of admittedly flawed institutions, the bright hopeful days of May 1998 when the Northern Irish people brought about their birth seems more distant than twenty years ago.