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|From: Irish Political Review: Editorials|
|Date: December, 2016|
Northern Ireland is now as close to being a democracy as it can possibly be, given that it is bound into an undemocratic political structure as part of a state that excludes it from its political life. It has two-nations devolved government, made functional by the collaboration of Sinn Fein and the DUP, the party founded by Ian Paisley.
DUP leader and 1st Minister Arlene Foster—
"has struck up an easy and warm working relationship with her partner in government—remarkable, really, considering that the IRA almost killed her father and her in separate attacks in her native Fermanagh… 'We get on and we do the work', she says. She doesn't mind the 'Marlene' depiction of herself and the Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. 'I could be called a lot worse', she says.
"Foster appears smugly satisfied that the UUP and the SDLP did not take up ministries in the… Executive after the May Assembly elections… 'When we had a five-party Executive, we had a lot of internal opposition. We don't have that any more so it allows us to have frank and open discussions at the Executive table and know that it is not going to be leaked' she says, crisply." (Irish Times 29.10.16)
The SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party had the opportunity to establish a functional governing relationship, as the DUP and Sinn Fein have done. But they weren't able for it. The UUP under David Trimble's leadership, and advised by Lord Bew and Eoghan Harris of the Official IRA, prevented the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement until the Unionist electorate got sick of it and turned to Paisley. And the SDLP under the leadership of first Seamus Mallon and then Mark Durkin, while toying with the notion of a full-blooded Coalition with the UUP against the "extremists" (ie, the present governing Coalition) did not have the nerve to put it decisively on the political agenda. It dithered and postured and its electoral support seeped away.
When the UUP began to crumble in Trimble's hands, some of it prominent members defected to the DUP. Arlene Foster was one of them. The formal ground of their opposition to Trimble, in many cases, was that he had consented to the Good Friday Agreement and was soft on Sinn Fein. And then the DUP, reinforced with recruits from the UUP, made a working arrangement with Sinn Fein within the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. That is the kind of thing that happens on the opportunist ground of democratic politics.
Northern Ireland, in the hands of Paisley, Adams and McGuinness, came to resemble a democracy sufficiently for it to happen there.
When the SDLP began to crumble because Mallon was locked into a doctrinaire but superficial Constitutionalism on a Hibernian base there was no defection from the SDLP to Sinn Fein. The SDLP leaders had been making Constitutionalist debating points for so long that they had become incapable of movement in the real world.
The SDLP and UUP have, in their decline, finally got around to forming a kind of Coalition of negativity. They decided after the last Election not to take up the Government Departments to which their vote and entitled them, and they had got the Agreement amended so that they might have the official title of Opposition (with some funding for the role). But the structure of the Agreement has no actual place for an Opposition in the sense of an alternative Government which is waiting to win an Election. The SDLP and UUP refuse to take up their seats in government, and they do not, as an Opposition, shadow the Government Departments held by the DUP and Sinn Fein; and they do not have an agreed programme of government to implement in the extremely unlikely event of winning a majority of Assembly seats at the next Election.
What they do is snipe, from an implicitly anti-Agreement position, at the two parties that have superseded them and made the Agreement function.
But they snipe from opposite extremes. And, if by a miracle they did win an Election, they would quickly find themselves back where they were in the days of Trimble and Mallon.
The present position of the two parties is reminiscent of the old permanent minority status of the Nationalist Party under Stormont, only now the SDLP has voluntarily accepted that position. The UUP is trying to connect with an atavistic majority-rule sentiment in the Unionist electorate and it is strange to find the successor to the old 'Nationalist Party' working along with that. Such is Hibernianism.
The Alliance Party under David Ford declined to take up its entitlement to the Justice portfolio (to which it was entitled not under its share of the popular vote but under a DUP/Sinn Fein deal which brought about some devolution of policing) unless the Power-Sharing arrangements of the GFA were superceded by a weighted majority rule system. This policy had not appeared in the Alliance election platform. This placed SF and the DUP under some difficulty as neither could consent to the other taking up the role. In the event, with Sinn Fein showing considerable flexibility, a young Independent Unionist representing East Derry, Claire Sugden, the daughter of a Prison Officer, accepted the role and has been doing a good job of it. We cannot say whether Ford's retirement as Alliance leader and replacement by Naomi Long is connected with the failure of Ford's attempt to bring about a Constitutional crisis.
Arlene Foster commented on the 1916 Centenary Commemoration:
"She believes they were handled with 'maturity' but still holds to her position that the Rising was 'an attack on democracy'. She does not, however, believe the Larne loyalist anti-Home rule gun-running of 1914 was an attack on democracy, 'when we… in what became Northern Ireland were… faced with going into an all-Ireland state which we were fundamentally opposed to. There was gun-running that took place at that time, as I understand it, to defend Northern Ireland so I don't think it was an attack on democracy'…"
Detachment of the Six Counties from the Home Rule Bill was a virtual certainty by the time of the Larne gun-running, but the construction of the Six Counties into Northern Ireland, semi-detached from Britain, was un-imagined by the gun-runners. What they wanted was that Ireland should be an integral part of Britain in its political life. That was made impossible by the rise of the Nationalist movement in most of the country. It became possible in the Six Counties when the Ulster Unionists gave up on all-Ireland Unionism in 1916 and agreed to Six County exclusion in the Home Rule Bill. The Ulster Unionist election programme in 1918 was that the Six Counties should become a normal region of the British state. And that is what would have happened if Westminster had not prevented it by insisting on setting up a Northern Ireland system outside British politics, in an arrangement of communal dominance and politics.
The achievement of the DUP and Sinn Fein is that they have brought about a semblance of democracy, despite the undemocratic structure in which they must function.
And as for the IRA; the War cleared the air and made basic realities visible. It is a delusion of hindsight to suppose that the present condition of things cold have been brought about cerebrally.
We have proof of that because that is what we tried to do more than 40 years ago. The actual present always comes out of the actual past. And the major event in the actual past from which the present emerged was the War.
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