The current political fall-out in Northern Ireland, triggered by Martin McGuinness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister in January 2017, is the result of a deterioration in relationships caused primarily by the DUP stubbornness on a number of important issues which Sinn Fein claimed related to previously agreed elements of the Good Friday and subsequent agreements involving the North’s political parties and the British and Irish Governments. These issues included dealing with the legacy of the past, a Bill of Rights and an Irish Language Act.
The issue precipitating McGuinness’ resignation was the scandal of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI) scheme and ‘the arrogance of the DUP’ was cited as the last straw. Both British and Irish Governments also bear a significant responsibility for the crisis and should not be permitted to wash their hands of the problem by categorising the impasse is a result of a ‘failure to agree’ on the part of local parties.
In the period leading up to McGuinness’ resignation, Sinn Fein was under pressure within its heartlands about what nationalists regarded as the DUP’s contempt for both Sinn Fein and its constituency. It needs to be remembered there is a small but vociferous Republican opposition to Sinn Fein and Sinn Fein’s inability to deliver its full agenda has rendered it increasingly vulnerable to attacks from a variety of political groups within the Republican community.
In addition, the problems created for the devolved administration by the Westminster austerity has compounded the problems. While the Northern Ireland devolved administration had no say in the level of the Block Grant, Sinn Fein did engage in cliff edge negotiations over a number of years, part of which involved challenging the austerity impact on the North. However the British Government made no real concessions.
In some respects, Sinn Fein’s capacity to stand up to the Tory austerity was undermined by its ‘power’ sharing colleagues in the DUP. The DUP, voted against much, but not all, of the austerity measures in Westminster, but once these were adapted, they argued for the application of austerity to Northern Ireland on the basis that it was part of Britain.
The pro- and anti-austerity political fault lines in the North were effectively drawn along unionist/ nationalist lines with Sinn Fein and the SDLP taking a more anti-austerity stance and the various unionist parties not prepared to take a stand against the British Government. On a number of occasions, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, in cooperation with the Scottish and Wales TUCs, had some initial success in forging an alliance of the three devolved governments in opposition to the financial settlements for the devolved regions.
Sinn Fein’s association with implementing the Tory austerity agenda also left it vulnerable to over-simplistic criticism by some on the left that they were pro- austerity in the North and anti -austerity in the Republic of Ireland (RoI). Sinn Fein weathered these storms, using the argument that a return to Direct Rule would hand all decision making over to a right-wing Tory government and it was able to demonstrate that some mitigation of the effects of austerity, especially in the case of welfare reform and the bedroom tax had been secured.
In the Northern Ireland Assembly election in March 2017, Sinn Fein made major advances and the DUP emerged much weakened and with less power. The DUP response to the RHI scandal and its initially contemptuous dismissal of the case for an Irish Language Act mobilised voters in the nationalist communities to come out in large numbers to vote.
The next test was the snap Westminster election called by Theresa May in June. The DUP topped the poll increasing their seats to 10 in an election which witnessed the further demise of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP advance in this election was, in many respects, the result of the unionist community’s reaction to the Sinn Fein success in the March Assembly election.
And, thus it goes. The DUP, staggering after the results in March, were on their feet with renewed confidence – something they would parade in full view as May now depended on the 10 DUP Westminster MPs for her survival. The problem with the Tory/DUP deal is not the financial concessions in Northern Ireland’s favour but that the DUP is now central to maintaining the austerity agenda across all of Britain.
These complications have been compounded by the Brexit referendum outcome. The Sinn Fein narrative on the Good Friday Agreement pointed its supporters towards an eventual united Ireland, within the European Union, with the disappearance of all manifestations of the ‘border’. However, the position of the British government on the single market and the customs union raised the prospect of border controls on both people and goods. This is seen as a major set- back to the goal of a united Ireland and the greater integration of the two economies in Ireland and the development of an all island economy.
The position of the DUP, always opposed to membership of the EU, has further exacerbated the divisions between it and Sinn Fein. Sinn Fein’s main demand now is for special status for Northern Ireland, within the EU, while the region remains part of Britain. However, Brexit issue will not be the main obstacle to a return to the power sharing devolved administration.
Brexit has also created a narrative within mainstream politics in the RoI which has elevated the border question to a higher plane with even Fine Gael, the main government party, talking about a united Ireland, something which is extremely unusual and virtually unprecedented. But the primary concern within the RoI political establishment is not the peace process, given its laissez faire approach to resolving recent political stalemates in the North, but the potential impact on the economy in the South arising from Brexit. A significant percentage of RoI trade is with Britain (especially agricultural exports). The prospect of the imposition of trade barriers and tariffs on Irish exports to Britain and the potential loss of jobs is exercising the minds of everyone in the Republic, including the union movement.
If Brexit does result in a negative impact on jobs then the RoI Government will be forced to seek assistance or special measures from the EU, given its special position relating to it being the only EU country with a land border with Britain and a comparatively high dependence on British markets for its trade vis-à-vis other EU countries. The EU response to any difficulties caused by Brexit could reopen a long dead debate on the EU within the RoI.
Despite expectations that the RoI will benefit in some ways from Brexit through relocation of financial services and other business to Dublin, the additional jobs are not likely to match the number of jobs lost and these jobs will not be of much benefit to the workers and communities dependent on agriculture and food processing businesses which are negatively impacted by Brexit. This will lead to a further skewing of the Republic’s economy, with an increased dependence on transnational corporations and the financial sector, and in a country which already suffers from a serious over-reliance on Foreign Direct Investment.
The conflict in the North has been regarded by some on the left as a problem solely of sectarianism and by others, also on the left, as a problem arising primarily from Britain’s presence in the North. There is also the temptation to treat both unionist and nationalist/republican as two sides of the one coin and all that is required is for working class communities and political interests to overcome sectarianism and build a society based on equality and social and economic justice.
But such an approach disregards the reality of Britain’s historical role in Ireland. It ignores the imperial project and the historic democratic injustice caused by the partition of Ireland in 1920. It fails to recognise that the underlying political fault lines that exist today have not shifted in real terms since the early part of the twentieth century. The recurrent crises in the North stem directly from the distorted political system created by British imperialism in the early 1920s. It has all the hallmarks of a political maze whose entrance and exit have been blocked.
Essentially, the Unionists still – for the main part – exist within the psyche of Empire and are fighting a rear-guard action to maintain some semblance of the dominance that was granted to them with the establishment of the Northern Ireland ‘state’. It would be a mistake to view the pro-union and nationalist/republican interests in Northern Ireland in terms of political equivalence.
The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was effectively forced on the DUP, who opposed it in 1998, and the current logjams are symptomatic of its unease and distaste for the political historic compromise the Agreement represents. The DUP is a reluctant partner in power sharing and it is difficult to envisage how, of its own accord, it will escape this contradiction. It is likely to require more forceful intervention by a British Government, which in turn will only act in a more decisive way if the Irish Government takes its responsibilities serious.
Fifty years ago in 1967 the Northern Ireland Civil Rights’ Association was founded in Belfast. The civil rights movement was forced off the streets by the military campaign to secure a British Declaration of Withdrawal. That campaign contributed, in its own way, to the community divisions becoming more entrenched than they had ever been before. Now we are experiencing political deadlock again.
The historic compromise that the Good Friday Agreement represents was necessary at the time but twenty years later it is becoming clear that it is in danger of becoming an historic cul- de-sac.
There is renewed talk about advancing negotiations to find a resolution to the current impasse. Something will have to give or another form of words on the contentious issues will have to be found to allow all parties to extricate themselves from the hooks, on which all parties caught themselves. A critical discussion within the left is needed to consider how the cul- de-sac can be overcome and in a way that transcends the usual polarised political discourse. That essentially is today’s primary challenge.
Brian Campfield is the former General Secretary of the Northern Ireland Public Service Alliance, NIPSA and the immediate past President of Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU).