Belated Brexit and Groundhog Talks in Northern Ireland
Cillian McGrattan (Ulster University)
The latest round of talks in Northern Ireland to restore devolved power-sharing has not begun well. The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) MP, Ian Paisley, for instance, has suggested that Tanaiste Simon Coveney should ‘butt out’ of Northern Irish affairs.
Paisley’s tetchiness might reflect a growing divide between unionists and Dublin over the Brexit process and the perception that the Irish government has not been as forthcoming on ‘legacy’ issues, particularly surrounding border security and allegations of Gardaí-republican collusion, as might be expected.
While Mr. Paisley has recently attracted attention for the kind of rabble-rousing that was the trademark of his father, that even the moderate and affable Doug Beattie of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) expressed frustration speaks to something of the problems facing the two governments in getting the Northern Ireland Assembly up and running again. The UUP had not been told about the talks initiative, he stated, ‘We found out this information second hand from the Irish media … The Irish government seems to know what is happening before Northern Ireland political parties … I think that is not right’.
To appropriate a phrase attributed to both Slavoj Zizek and Fredric Jameson about capitalism and the end of the world: it is easier to imagine the end of the United Kingdom than it is to imagine an end to Brexit. Certainly, the feeling from politicians and civic society actors I had spoken with over the past few months suggested that power-sharing could be restored by the end of 2019, but it would only take place after the Withdrawal Bill had passed the Commons. That the talks have been restarted, then, points to an implicit admission that the latest Brexit delay will extend beyond the summer.
A more cynical reading would suggest that the talks’ announcement is a response to the remarks of the priest at the funeral of Lyra McKee. Having chastised the assembled politicians for not coming together before her killing, Fr Martin Magill asked, ‘Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?’
There has been no public indication that either of the two main nationalist and unionist parties, Sinn Fein and the DUP, respectively, have come closer to agreeing on the issues that have divided them since at least the collapse of the Assembly at the beginning of 2017. This is compounded by the fact that those issues are apparently zero-sum or wickedly complex.
For instance, there either has to be an Irish Language Act or not. Sinn Fein want legislation to promote the Irish language and envisage positive discrimination-type obligations for employers. Unionists reject these suggestions.
Again, will there be a deal on legacy issues? If so, what will it look like? Sinn Fein have been broadly supportive of the ideas put forward in British government papers in 2018. Although the DUP were closely involved in drafting those papers, the party has recently voiced concern over the design of some of the components. Given that the investigative and policing elements will not be decoupled from the historical and storytelling elements – all or nothing – the issue is multifaceted and somewhat convoluted.
Given the DUP’s reluctance to countenance marriage equality or abortion reform and its use of a veto mechanism in the Assembly to guillotine any legislation on these areas, the rules and procedures of the Assembly itself represent another outstanding issue. Again, there is a zero-sum dimension to this: either the so-called ‘petition of concern’ is amended (DUP loss) or it’s not (Sinn Fein loss).
Groundhog Day or Turkeys Voting for Christmas?
As far back as 1999, The Economist was suggesting that the then Northern Irish talks were becoming like Groundhog Day. But the leadership generation that designed the Good Friday Agreement and that risked (and in some cases, ultimately lost) political capital for the sake of peace has long departed. Although it is an intangible assertion, there seems to be little buy-in to those structures from current political leaders. Furthermore, given that the DUP and Sinn Fein solidified their positions as the two ethnic tribune parties in the elections since the collapse of the Assembly, they must, one would assume, be reluctant to risk destabilizing their hegemony.
There seems to be little risk of that hegemony being unsettled by major seat losses to the smaller (and almost moribund) Social Democratic and Labour Party or the UUP. Voter turnout has been plummeting – before the Assembly collapsed, it was expected to decline to below 50%. But vote management by the two main parties has meant that this anti-politics is a non-issue.
Two more complicating factors exist. Firstly, Brexit: The interminable nature of the UK’s withdrawal from the EU might actually facilitate political movement. Sinn Fein has been conspicuously quiet on Brexit. Perhaps following the Leninist logic of worse-before-better, it is calculating that the massive destabilization of the Catholic middle-class by the 2016 referendum result will create enough momentum to win a future ‘border poll’ on reunification. The question for party strategizing might then be how re-entering power-sharing with the DUP would impact that long-term goal.
The DUP, meanwhile, have managed to alienate some of their closest supporters on both sides of the Irish Sea – their pro-Brexit stance and refusal to countenance special arrangements for Northern Ireland have been criticized by business leaders and the National Farmers’ Union at home and Conservative Brexiters in London upset by the fact that the DUP has tied Britain into either a soft Brexit or none at all. Its pre-eminent position at Westminster is, therefore, drawing to a close and there seems little doubt that the party has played its hand badly. Arlene Foster has become effectively a dead-duck leader and it will be interesting to see if any of the senior party members – nearly all of whom are MPs – try to make a move from Westminster to Stormont.
The second factor relates to what might be termed the belated quality of the talks. With little incentive to engage and a lot of bad feeling having been built up, the background to the talks is hardly conducive for dialogue and compromise. The ‘there-is-no-alternative’ rationale for Stormont no longer possesses much political cache. Completely different forms of decision-making, including a greater role for civil society, may be the only reasonable alternative to the dead-ends that party democracy has created in Northern Ireland.
Dr. Cillian McGrattan is Lecturer at the School of Applied Social and Policy Sciences, Ulster University.