Monday, 9 January 2017

Pride comes before progress in Northern Ireland's politics

Martin McGuinness (courtesy The Irish Times)

The sight of a frail looking Martin McGuinness, on television, announcing his resignation as deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland executive made for sad viewing. Sad for him personally, but more significantly the future of  this country. As a neutral observer it is distressing to see what looks like a political heavyweight now on the ropes. But Mr McGuinness’ withdrawal from frontline politics highlights a deeper malaise, one that has been with us for a very long time as most Irish people will be only too well aware.

Whilst  I have not followed the latest political crisis in Ulster closely, it is clear to this writer that Sinn Fein and the DUP are ideologically incompatible. This is particularly problematic when issues of national pride enter the equation. The DUP have always been hard line in their approach. They make no secret of how proudly British they feel as unionists. On the other hand Sinn Fein are resolutely Irish and have always fought (albeit now peacefully) for Irish unity. These two positions are not mutually acceptable when nationality comes to the fore and this is the crux of the problem here.

The fudge that was the Belfast Agreement (which created the Northern Ireland executive at Stormont and the Assembly), has ultimately brought peace to this island. However in advancing peace an artificial political system was constructed to take account of the sectarian divide in Ulster. We are now seeing the failure of this system as a result of years of compromise.

Sinn Fein have, rightly, compromised for the good of peace. We are all the better for that. The IRA have ceased their armed campaign and the violence that led to so much devastation has largely been confined to history. But, under the surface, the pride of republicanism versus the pride of unionism has not been relinquished. It burns as brightly as ever over everything decided at Stormont and the devolved Assembly.

I happen to believe that ‘Brexit’ may have been a major factor in the present crisis. Astonishingly, the DUP enthusiastically supported Britain leaving the EU. This is despite the strong probability that it would harm Ulster’s farming community (many of whom are unionists). As I have stated here before, it is unlikely that the Treasury in London will continue to increase investment in Northern Ireland (funding has been cut in recent years). Therefore leaving the EU will put extra pressure on the province’s economic viability.

Aside from the obvious major implications of ‘Brexit’, the trust between the pro British/pro Irish parties in the Stormont government has been further eroded. Power sharing, a neat idea in theory, is not easy in practice. The chickens are now coming home to roost with the news of Mr McGuinness’ departure. He may not be fit to fire a gun in anger in his present state, but one senses that the Sinn Fein well of compromise has finally run dry.

This crisis signifies the failure of a great political fudge. Coalition governments fall apart eventually – they are artificial in most cases. The problem in Northern Ireland is that swallowing national pride doesn’t come easy to either tradition. Intensive negotiations involving both the British and Irish governments may be the only answer to this lasting political conundrum. This is the last thing the politicians need as the ‘Brexit’ negotiations get nearer and potentially perilous.