By Garrett Byrne
From its advent, Northern Ireland’s political architecture – having undergone myriad reappraisals – has always sought to accentuate a cleavage between the country’s two main ethno-national demographics. Unionism and Nationalism. The intentions of entrenching this chasm have ranged from being overtly cynical (hark back to the days of gerrymandering constituencies) to the more recently benign Good Friday Agreement. However, good faith as a rule of thumb, seldom engenders constructive politics or desirable outcomes in Northern Ireland.
Following the 20th century’s recurring intercommunal hostility culminating in thousands of senseless deaths brought an insistence from the late 90’s public that the gun shots had to stop. The theoretical wisdom was that if a peace settlement was to work it had to be upheld by new institutional structures.
The theologically billed Good Friday Agreement was the end product of a collective exhaustion. It was an internationally observed peace settlement charged with fostering cross community governance with a view to achieving long-term societal reconciliation. This notion of good faith imbued into the Good Friday Agreement’s substance, failed to engender constructive relationships in Northern Irish Politics.
Instead of accelerating the post-troubles healing process, the ensuing 25 years have shown how the power sharing model served to weave sectarianism further into the DNA of the state. The country is forever consumed by constitutional hypotheticals, the perpetual moral spats between the DUP and Sinn Fein have resulted in real national crises concerning suicide rates, socio-economic disparities, and the exodus of the post GFA youth remaining unaddressed. This is precisely why Northern Ireland is a failed state. Its body politic rests on one question alone – its future. Discussion of its future takes precedence over the needs of the present whether it be health, education, or transport.
Last Thursday’s elections verify the bankruptcy Good Friday Agreement and the failure of the Northern Irish state per se. The reality is now staring the agreement’s most rabid supporters in the face. Now, three (not two) political constituencies, namely Unionism, Nationalism, and the burgeoning non-aligned movement i.e. The Alliance Party can credibly compete to be in Government. Alliance winning 17 seats no doubt foreshadows future electoral inroads and hence an existential challenge to the state’s binary foundations. ‘Power sharing’ as enshrined into the Good Friday Agreement means the country can only be governed by Unionists and Nationalists in tandem. Alliance don’t designate as either when taking their seats in the assembly. In other words, the GFA failed to cater in the long-term for a post-sectarian body politic. It took 25 years for evidence of a post-sectarian alternative to emerge in the form of the Alliance party. When asked by the press whether Alliance would designate as unionist in order to govern its leader smiled wryly, “No”.
Then you have Colum Eastwood and Doug Beattie.
The leaders of the moderate wings of Unionism (The UUP) and Nationalism (The SDLP).
They are the equally victims of the agreement’s narrow scope for liberal participation in the democratic process. Eastwood currently is objectively viewed as the country’s most adept political leader. Doug Beattie a comparatively less impressive performer but nonetheless a decent guy. Theoretically at least, he should have galvanized center-ground and unionist voters alike.
Both men polled pathetically.
The writing is on the wall. The system has rendered them futile. Green and Orange is now the preserve of the DUP and Sinn Fein.
Voters with vague Nationalist and Unionist sympathies (Beattie and Eastwood’s electorate) are flocking to the APNI en masse.
Fervent Nationalists and Unionists obsessed with national destiny have ditched the moderate outfits (particularly SDLP voters to Sinn Fein). Deeming moderate parties as unsatisfactorily reformist vehicles, thus inadequate for advancing their concerns surrounding the sanctity of their national identity
Meanwhile the perpetually misapprehension prone media in London is drawing the dots together all too quickly. Overwhelmingly, it fears the imminent implosion of the UK amidst Sinn Fein’s victory.
This popular narrative is fanciful for reasons which are two-fold, primarily, the DUP -not Unionists – had a cataclysmic election. Unionists still comprise a majority of seats in the Assembly and no doubt strategies will soon be engineered by Unionism to mobilize its vote under one banner to prevent the balance from falling next time round. Such is the sectarian calculus that consumes political maneuvering in Northern Ireland.
Secondly, the Republic of Ireland finds itself in rare albeit covert agreement with London. It wants nothing to do with Northern Ireland. For a United Ireland to occur it must be ratified by the electorate in the Republic of Ireland by way of referendum.
Why a sane population would not willingly countenance 1 million of its new entrants (Unionists) fundamentally opposed to the legitimacy of a United Ireland hardly amounts to political high science. Even if Sinn Fein were to win the forthcoming elections, the Irish parliament remains a tall order for Mary Lou to persuade the Republic that it should accommodate a fiercely disenchanted cohort of unionism in its borders. As for Johnson and his indifference to the Unionist project, the acerbically tongued British commentator Peter Hitchens nailed it in saying “Each day shows more clearly that the UK Government in London does not want the loyalty of the Loyalists. The creation of a customs frontier between Northern Ireland is as big a hint as you are likely to get”.
The co-guarantors (Dublin and London) have made it clear that they would rather have nothing to do with the Northern Irish quagmire. Inevitably, sectarian aspirations at home are only poised to sharpen in this vacuum.
The Good Friday Agreement notwithstanding its honourable intentions is by each day proving to be a busted flush.
After all it was consecrated by hawkish liberal stalwarts namely Bill Clinton and Tony Blair. Such was their peace-making acumen that soon after their joint messianic mission in Ulster they bombed the daylights out of the Balkans and Iraq. Was a paradigm of reconciliation brokered by scoundrels ever going to be the panacea for this uniquely polarised place?