Opinion

In Northern Ireland's government, anything could happen

Sinn Fein says Irish reunification is 'within touching distance'. And it's looking ever more likely, but nothing is certain

Business in Stormont has been stalled for two years since the DUP refused to form a government. Image: Veve from Pixabay

Trying to explain the politics of Northern Ireland to somebody, anybody, not from the north is like presenting quantum theory in an ancient archaic language that even the speakers barely comprehend. 

This, therefore, is not the fault of those trying to understand. 

Northern Ireland has got a curious idea of itself. The writer Robert McLiam Wilson, a precision chronicler of the absurdity of the Northern Irish socio-political quagmire, once said that without The Troubles, Northern Ireland would be Hull. I don’t think this was a slight on Hull, more a comment about how that nasty, brutalising war became a huge telescope multiplying focus on what would otherwise have been a provincial area of moderate size going about its business. 

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That business has been stalled for some time – two years – since the DUP refused to form a government in Stormont. For clarity, the DUP is the Democratic Unionist Party, established over 50 years ago by Ian Paisley; once the outsiders, now they are the leading party for the pro-union vote. However, they aren’t the biggest party by vote in Northern Ireland. That is Sinn Fein. But given the curious nature of politics post-Good Friday Agreement, in order to form a Stormont government and retain parity of esteem, both the leading pro-union and pro-nationalist parties have equal veto (and in this context, with Northern Ireland’s curious freighting of words, nationalist means, basically, Catholic and pro-Ireland, if not a fully pro-united Ireland.) 

So why did the DUP move to block government? They opposed the post-Brexit protocol agreement that was created to aid movement of goods across the Irish Sea, and so to prevent a hard border on the island of Ireland. They said this arrangement would break up the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain, established in 1923 (the history does go back further, obviously), and make Northern Ireland move closer to Dublin, in law and identity.

However, further complicating the conversation, it’s worth noting the DUP were loud advocates of Brexit, and for the agreement post Brexit. Also, the Theresa May deal they loudly opposed would have, in all likelihood, prevented what has happened. Clear so far? 

There are other more extreme voices in unionism and loyalism that are even louder in the NEVER NEVER NEVER approach to anything that isn’t hardline. They are represented, largely, by the TUV (Traditional Unionist Voice) and a blogger/activist called Jamie Bryson who is a very contemporary figure in that he appears to have the ear of (unionist) decision makers, though most people are unclear exactly for whom or why he speaks. 

It is in this polar vortex of locked thinking that the DUP snookered themselves. It meant that Northern Ireland’s public services started to slide off the cliff. No decisions were being taken, no money was moving. So the emergence from this earlier in the week towards a government is very significant, because it means there will be elected decision makers, so nearly two million people will start to see improvements.

It means the beneficial position Northern Ireland finds itself in for trade (and this benefit has been there during the period of lockout – identity politics was deemed more important than that reality) will be allowed to grow. It means that Sinn Fein will have the first minister of Northern Ireland. When the state was established, this was unthinkable. The system was built to prevent rights – on housing, jobs and votes – for the Catholic population. The rising against this, led by titans like John Hume, fuelled the civil rights movement in the late ’60s.  

And here’s the crunch. Sinn Fein have said this move means Irish reunification is “within touching distance”. Which is something to frighten the pro-union horses and scare up the vortex as negotiations continue. But it does feel that there is growing inevitability to that point. And given Sinn Fein have been electorally successful in Dublin for a couple of decades, their long-game play is looking like smart politics.

But… BUT… as I write this, nothing is agreed. While a change could signal a moment with massive UK and global ramifications, it’s Schrödinger’s government just now. It exists and doesn’t exist very much at the same time. It could be either or neither indefinitely. 

Glad we’re clear. 

Paul McNamee is editor of the Big IssueRead more of his columns here. Follow him on Twitter.

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