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From: Irish Political Review: Editorials
Date: June, 2020
By: Editorial

Anti-Government Democracy

Anti-Government Democracy!
The Dail met after the General Election to appoint a Taoiseach. It failed. The leaders of the three main parties all failed to gain a majority. The leader of Sinn Fein came closest to it, but the leaders of the two other major parties then declared as a matter of fundamental principle that they would not take part in the forming of a Coalition which included Sinn Fein. They have so far been unable to form a Coalition without Sinn Fein. And so the matter stands. There is no Government.

The Government that was in place before the Election remains in place. Not all the Ministers in that Government succeeded in holding their seats, but three months after losing their seats they are still Ministers. (See the Michael Stack column inside.)

The Greens are the fourth party but they are not strong enough to enable a Government to be formed, even if they agree to enter a Coalition with Fine Gael and Fianna Fail. They are in any case finding it difficult to contemplate entering a Coalition because of differences amongst themselves. It is not obvious what a Green policy is. Is it vegetarian or vegan? Does it just mean not eating cows, or does it mean not exploiting them by drinking their milk.
Complications also arise from the fact that the Greens are an all-Ireland party like Sinn Fein, but not so well established in each of the two states separately as Sinn Fein is.

If the Greens eventually find a way to join Fine Gael and Fianna Fail in Coalition, and enough Independents can be found to vote for it, who will be Taoiseach? Fianna Fail is the largest party. It has one seat more than Sinn Fein, but that is the uncontested seat of the Ceann Comhairle. But it is a party in serious decline in the opinion polls because of the inability of its leader, Micheál Martin, to make any impression on events since the Election.

Fine Gael did badly in the Election but its position has been improving just by virtue of continuing to be the Government in the virus crisis since it lost the Election. The measures it has taken have enhanced its position with the electorate. It has a vested interest in the Parliamentary impasse continuing until resolution by means of another Election becomes imperative.

Sinn Fein stands to gain either from an Election or from being the Opposition to a Government of all the other parties directed against it.

England's parting gift to Ireland was the system of Proportional Representation brought in in 1920. Its purpose was to make the formation of effective government more difficult. It is a thing which England has recommended to others while refusing to have it for itself. Its inherent logic encourages the proliferation of parties by differentiating shades of opinion into separate parties, all of which have representation in Parliament, so that becomes rare for any one party to have a governing majority.
This disabling tendency was over-ridden for a few generations by the Treaty dispute. Widespread feeling for and against the Treaty ensured that there was a two-party system in defiance of PR. After De Valera had brought the anti-Treaty position to electoral dominance he tried to remedy that final disability.
Fine Gael somehow persuaded itself that, in attempting to abolish PR, he was laying the foundation for permanent Fianna Fail government when the opposite was clearly the case.
Fine Gael never won an election under PR, and its first return to Government after 1932 was in the 1948 Coalition with an unrepentant former Chief of Staff of the IRA.
In more recent times there has been further fragmentation, with the two party system giving way to a three party system and a tail of minuscule parties and Independent TDs.

The Corona Virus Crisis has, if anything, underscored divisions between the two political administrations in Ireland. The Irish Government does not appear to have kept the Stormont Executive fully informed about the measures it planned to take or to have consulted over the issues raised by cross-border travel.
And within Northern Ireland, deep divisions about how it was to be handled emerged between the Nationalist and the Unionist Parties. Sinn Fein and the SDLP wanted to follow the more rigorous approach to public protection adopted by the Dublin Government, while the Unionist Family wished to keep in step with Britain.
Unfortunately for Unionism, however, the three political administrations in the UK pursued different policies, with Scotland and Wales adopting a more rigorous approach to lockdown—albeit all are largely funded by Westminster.
And the more liberal English approach to lockdown did not sit well in Northern Ireland, bordering as it does on a society taking lockdown more seriously.
Things were not helped by the constitutional position under the Good Friday Agreement that each Minister has ultimate control of policy in his own Department, within the confines of a Budget, whose size is determined by Whitehall but whose implementation is agreed by the Executive as a whole.
After some initial public spats, however, the Northern Ireland Executive settled down into an agreed approach to lockdown policy which was more restrictive than that prevailing in Britain, but less strict than that pertaining in the South.

In the context of the Virus, for the first time ever, travel restrictions between Northern Ireland and the rest of the island were enforced by the Irish police who have not only been turning back Southern Irish people wishing to travel, but also sent back Northerners wishing to cross the Border.
During the crisis the UK BBC started reporting on developments in what it called the four nations of Britain. That four nations formulation became standard in Britain, and was taken up on BBC Radio Ulster—which perhaps hoped that the Word might bring forth the Deed!
Of course there is nothing that would please Britain, and Ulster Unionism, more than for Northern Ireland to become a 'nation' within the United Kingdom, along the lines of Scotland and Wales. However, that has been tried before (notably by Labour's Merlyn Rees in the mid-1970s) and failed to run!
After reaching out to civil society in Northern Ireland in his first few months as Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar regressed to 26 County horizons. In a radio interview he said of Fine Gael: "We don't have a lot of overseas members. We do have some overseas members though. We have members in Belfast for example", he told Pat Kenny's Radio Show (See Leo Varadkar Accused Of 'Insulting Nationalists, Irish News 9.5.20).
This of course caused outrage amongst NI nationalists, and of course the acting Taoiseach quickly retracted his faux pas. And he pointed out that there was a FG Branch in Queen's University.
However, this Freudian slip did reflect a certain reality, which led Chris Donnelly, a political commentator and former Sinn Fein candidate, to point out that the "Dublin has been social distancing from the north long before coronavirus" (Irish News, 11.5.20). Donnelly went on to review Irish policies with regard to the North. It seems that the draft Fianna Fail/Fine Gael Programme for Government provides for a unit to be established in the Taoiseach's Office to "examine political, social, economic and cultural considerations ". Donnelly thinks that—

" In reality, that will mean Micheal Martin and Leo Varadkar (or his successor in the rotating taoiseach role) sending a few acolytes north every now and then for box-ticking chats. In case you think that’s being cynical, let’s look at Micheal’s form.
In 2014 he told us that Fianna Fáil would contest elections in Northern Ireland in 2019. “We’re impatient with the lack of progress North/South. The first phase of our engagement with the North is very much on a policy basis.” Alas, not only has there been no Fianna Fáil candidates on the ballot papers up here, but that impatience with North/South progress has yet to result in any meaningful strategy never mind policies emerging from the party to confront major issues on an island-wide basis.
It is hard to view such pronouncements as anything other than a cynical attempt to find something to counter Sinn Féin’s all-island credentials…"

It is good to see that Donnelly understands the importance of the two main Southern parties standing candidates in Northern Ireland. Surely that should happen long before any Irish Government "unit" tries to interact with Northern Ireland society?
Down the decades since independence there have been numerous TDs who have advocated that elected Northern Ireland politicians should be permitted to sit in the Dail. If Fianna Fail and Fine Gael were to succeed in getting candidates elected in Northern Ireland, why should they not be allowed to sit in the Dail—possibly as observers with speaking rights in the first instance?
The nearest Varadkar has come to that was to allow Mark Durkan to stand on the Fine Gael ticket for a Dublin seat in the last European Election: Durkan was not elected.

Donnelly went on to point out that Micheál Martin has retreated from earlier moves by Fianna Fail to stand candidates in the North:

" In 2014 he told us that Fianna Fáil would contest elections in Northern Ireland in 2019. “We’re impatient with the lack of progress North/South. The first phase of our engagement with the North is very much on a policy basis.” Alas, not only has there been no Fianna Fáil candidates on the ballot papers up here, but that impatience with North/South progress has yet to result in any meaningful strategy never mind policies emerging from the party to confront major issues on an island-wide basis.."

Donnelly might have added that Eamon O Cuiv was severely disciplined by Martin, after he endorsed a Fianna Fail candidate in a Derry election.
Leo Varadkar's most notable intervention about Northern Ireland, however, has been in a spat he had with MaryLou McDonald. This was hardly reported in the Irish papers, but Radio Ulster was so delighted with his put-down of the Sinn Fein leader that it carried a sound-bite from the Dail Debate twice in its morning show!
Having been criticised by MaryLou over possible cutbacks to Covid-19 payments to come, after the immediate crisis is over, Varadkar lashed out:

"The temporary wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 per week have protected those who have lost their jobs in a way that was appropriate and was right to do. I think we all acknowledge that it cannot last forever…
"The temporary wage subsidy scheme and the pandemic unemployment payment of €350 per week have protected those who have lost their jobs… I think we all acknowledge that it cannot last forever… However, it will need to continue at least until people have the opportunity to return to their jobs. For the vast majority, that will not be possible before mid-June, so, yes, it will need to be extended beyond mid-June…
I am sorry, though, that Deputy McDonald chose to become so party political in her contributions because what she said was so two-faced and so fundamentally dishonest. My party, Fine Gael, never cut the minimum wage. Working with the Labour Party and then with Independents, we increased it by 25% to one of the highest in the world. What is the minimum wage in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is in power? In this jurisdiction, a Government led by my party introduced a pandemic unemployment payment of €350 a week so the people who lost their jobs had some financial security. What happened in Northern Ireland, where Sinn Féin is in office? It is £100 a week, with nothing for the self-employed until June. Sinn Féin Ministers on their Facebook site promote the fact that they hand out food parcels to the poor, reminiscent to me of Donald Trump handing out toilet roll after the hurricane hit the islands in the Caribbean. Sinn Féin's leader here in this House, Deputy McDonald, is an Opposition party leader. That is fair enough, and she can criticise what we do and say it is not enough. She can do that every day but she cannot hide the fact that she is also leader of an all-Ireland party, a party that is in power in Northern Ireland, where the minimum wage is lower than here, where they do not give people £350 a week but they hand out food parcels and boast about it on Facebook. I would be ashamed to do something like that. Do not blame it on the Tories and do not blame it on London. If it was not for their money, it would be even worse…"

The fact is that Northern Ireland, which is regularly referred to as "a state" by academic historians and by politicians, has fewer powers than the Scottish devolved Government, which is never described as the Scottish State, and is unable to function autonomously, as is the Scottish Government. It has what Unionist politicians have described on the BBC Parliament Channel, without being contradicted, as "imposed Coalition". It was recently without a so-called Government for a couple of years because the DUP backed out of an agreement that there should be an Irish Language Act, and it got on fine.
Normal sub-government was re-established on the insistence of Whitehall, supported by Leinster House. We assume Varadkar knows very well that Sinn Fein is not in power in the North, and that his remarks are cheap debating points in response to the sting of Mary Lou's criticisms, which are sometimes over-the-top in proper party political style. But it may be that the thing is deeper than that and that his remarks spring from an essential ignorance of what Northern Ireland is, at least at the level of feelings.

The Northern Ireland system was not established in response to a Six County demand for it. It is not the devolved Government of a British nation, as the British State propaganda describes. That is what the Scottish Government is—and is recognised widely as a stepping stone towards Scottish independence. In Scotland nationalist politics competes with the State politics of the UK, and seems to be winning.
The Six Counties is cut off from the State politics of the UK and there is no Six County nationalist politics striving for independence. Six-County sub-government exists on the insistence of Westminster. It operates with a fixed budget allocated by Whitehall, and it is spent under Whitehall supervision. There is no Northern Ireland Government in the normal sense. The 1998 Agreement provided for Unionist and Nationalist parties to take up Ministries in a devolved administration without acting together as a Government. That was the conditions of the peace settlement. It is clearly a transitional arrangement, and is incapable of settling down into a routine of stability, because there is no 'Northern Ireland nation'. If Varadkar aspires towards Irish unity, he needs to familiarise himself with Six County realities. And, if it is true that he has a Belfast Branch, he should put it into political action, if only to give himself a stake in the game.

Meanwhile the re-broadcasting by Radio Ulster of his diatribe against Mary Lou may have the side-effect of bringing home to public opinion in the North the superiority of social welfare provision in the South in everything other than the NHS—which remains to be tackled by Sinn Fein.