Stormont clouds: Could Brexit fuel a Nationalist revival?
Next week’s Northern Ireland Assembly election comes at a time of increasing polarisation over Brexit. Historian and crossbench peer Paul Bew looks ahead to the vote
Talking to friends this week, I realised that we had all done it. In my case I had done it three times: I had acted in a way that helped to bring about the collapse of the devolved parliament of Northern Ireland at Stormont. The first time was during the civil rights crisis of the late 1960s. The second and third times when in defence of the Good Friday agreement of 1998 I advocated strongly that the institutions of Stormont be suspended until Sinn Fein broke with active paramilitarism and decommissioned its weapons.
Whatever might be said about these events, the underlying issues were at least serious. Today Stormont faces another suspension crisis but the underlying issue is simply the alleged financial scandal behind a botched renewable heating scheme costing close to half a billion.
In one sense the current election was easy to avoid. One of the last acts of Martin McGuinness as deputy first minister was to allow Arlene Foster, the first minister, a way out if she stepped aside for six weeks to permit an investigation. There was a precedent for this. Peter Robinson had done so and then returned to office. But – and at a human level this is understandable – Arlene Foster, whose family had suffered terrorism, found it impossible to give way to moralistic demands from Sinn Fein.
The political reality, however, is that Northern Ireland has, in many respects, a co-premiership and without the deputy’s support the first minister cannot carry on. Hence the current crisis of the institutions.
There are, of course, other factors. It has been an uninspiring period for Sinn Fein. I well recall at the time of the Good Friday agreement being told that the agreement might work in the short term but in 20 years’ time the two communities would be so close in terms of numbers that the old antagonisms would inevitably flare up again. In fact the combined nationalist vote fell by 3.6% in the last election. The unionist majority over nationalism in the assembly is as comfortable as ever it was.
There does appear to have been something of a grassroots revolt in Sinn Fein. Gerry Adams, betwixt his trips to the funeral of Fidel and the Trump White House, has installed a new leadership of Sinn Fein, visible under his control.
He has one great advantage – Brexit. Irish nationalist opinion at all levels is inflamed by what is seen as a mindless British display of chauvinism. There are genuine, though probably exaggerated, fears about mobility across the border.
There is a certain middle-class Catholic opinion in Northern Ireland which grew tired of the orange/green conflict and took refuge in a European identity. It would be very surprising if the combined nationalist vote continued to slump as it did the last time out.
The timing of this crisis means that it is at the moment when nationalism can easily exploit feelings over Brexit whilst three or five years down the road it might well be the case, as the Dublin media signals, that nationalism may actually be weakened. The latest polling in the Republic signals a significant drop in support for Irish unity as the electors fear the effect of Trump and the European Union’s pincer movement against Ireland’s brilliant success in the Foreign Direct Investment field and the fear too that Britain might reduce its corporation tax.
One distinguished former Irish diplomat, Ray Bassett, has heretically argued that Ireland should consider withdrawing alongside Britain.
But these are problems in the middle distance even as they grip policy makers in Dublin today, and will have little impact on this election.
The result, therefore, is likely to be a continued polarisation, and probably an end to the trend of recent years which has seen Catholics start to join large blocs of Protestants in their electoral apathy. Unionists perceiving greater activism on the nationalist side will likely stick to the DUP.
The brave attempt by the Ulster Unionist leader Mike Nesbitt to push an alliance with the SDLP appears not to be enthusing the voters. The DUP is blamed by many unionists for the heating scandal and it is hard to imagine that it can actually increase support but it is still likely, thanks to the sectarian dynamic of Ulster politics, to remain the largest party in terms of seats.
This allows a relatively predictable negotiation designed to restore the institutions but Adams will find the world has moved on since 2006-7. Equality, once so resonant a call, is rather tired when the latest figures show there is effective equality between Catholic and Protestant.
It may well be possible to achieve a compromise on Irish language issues but it would be far harder to deal with so-called legacy issues of the Troubles given the widespread sense both within unionism and British politics more generally that British army veterans are being treated unfairly.
It is tempting to say that a period of direct rule could lead to a series of reforms which Northern Ireland clearly needs as the latest in a long string of financial scandals indicates; more respect for the Nolan principles, transparency as to the identity of party donors and the same libel law as in the rest of the United Kingdom to facilitate honest investigative journalism.
But the government is likely to resist the temptation. Devolution all over the United Kingdom, but particularly in Northern Ireland, is not so much about good government as it is about peace and community psychotherapy. The government is right not to forget this.
Lord Bew is a crossbench peer
Get the inside track on what MPs and Peers are talking about. Sign up to The House's morning email for the latest insight and reaction from Parliamentarians, policy-makers and organisations.