House of Cards: The Delicate State of Northern Irish Politics

Stormont stares down from atop its East Belfast perch upon a city whose industrial landscape contrasts sharply with the imperial, white colonnades of the devolved center of government. However, its imposing structure is a façade. The “House on the Hill” is in fact a house of cards, its perch precariously balanced upon a forced coalition of parties who immutably loathe each other: “Sinn Fein [should be urged] to stop wallowing in the filth of murder,” “[the DUP show] utter contempt for this process … and lack of respect for all the other parties.”
The Assembly has never been perfect, but in prior crises there has always been a compulsion to act to ensure the continuity of the government; to avoid a return to the dark days of The Troubles—the violent armed conflict between paramilitaries supporting a nationalist Irish agenda, such as the Irish Republican Army, and unionists who supported strong ties with the United Kingdom, such as the Ulster Volunteer Force. It led to the deaths of over 3,600, with estimates of at least 50,000 wounded. Since the Good Friday Agreement, the treaty signed to establish government in Northern Ireland in 1998, the Assembly has collapsed four times as factional disputes triggered key parties’ refusal to participate in the legislative process. Yet each time, leaders have been willing to make sacrifices to return the Assembly to functionality.
The comments above, issued respectively by Nigel Dodds of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Martin McGuinness of Sinn Fein have come to characterize the atmosphere in the Northern Irish Assembly—toxic. The DUP is an extreme unionist party, notable for its involvement in the Ulster Workers Strike of 1974 and its initially staunch opposition to Sinn Fein’s involvement in the Assembly. Sinn Fein was, for many years, the political wing of the IRA but has since de-coupled. It constituted the main stumbling block to peace negotiations in 1998. These two leading parties are polar opposites, and animosity flows barely below the surface between them. The last five years have tested their ability to work together for the continuation of the Assembly, but the cards that kept it stable have been pulled out one by one. The desire to preserve and strengthen the Assembly for future generations has been abandoned as the parties’ mutual hatred has spiralled out of control.
Shaky Foundations
The seeds of the current crisis were sown in the very foundations of the assembly itself. The model of consociationalism upon which it was built forces all major parties into a governing executive committee together. Furthermore, any legislation can be vetoed with only 30 signatures through a petition of concern. The DUP has 38 Members in the Assembly; Sinn Fein has 29, although they can often borrow from the other nationalist party, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). This has ensured that nationalists and unionists can block virtually any legislation coming from the other side.
The central pillars of stability began to collapse in earnest after the 2010 Hillsborough Agreement, which devolved the responsibilities of “Policing and Justice” to Northern Ireland under the purview of David Ford of the Alliance Party, which identifies as neither Nationalist nor Unionist. At the time, politicians in the United Kingdom and Ireland hailed it as “a new chapter” and “inspirational,” hoping the law would put an end to Northern Ireland’s woes. Sinn Fein had been threatening to leave the government if such action were not taken—they didn’t believe that the British could be trusted with the justice system in Northern Ireland—and so the agreement was seen as a significant accomplishment. However, Sinn Fein and the DUP’s decision to push through the agreement without the support of the two smaller unionist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Traditional Unionist Voice opened up DUP First Minister Peter Robinson’s party to systematic attacks on its right flank.
“TUV rejects the Hillsborough Agreement…we object to it because Sinn Fein will have a veto over all justice proposals and it continues to justify and glorify its past of murdering,” a spokesperson commented to the Christian Science Monitor in 2010. This was, and still is, a sensitive issue. Many saw the recent killings of a Police Service of Northern Ireland officer and two British soldiers by the Continuity IRA—an illegal militant remnant of the Troubles-era army that has been declared a terrorist organization by the British government—at the Massereene Barracks as a sign that Sinn Fein, a party inextricably linked in the minds of many to the IRA, was unsuitable to oversee policing.
The lack of cooperation by the UUP (another unionist party) on the Hillsborough talks marked a change in electoral tactics: moving to the right of the DUP on certain issues to win the votes of those dismayed at seeing the party of “never” say yes to Sinn Fein involvement not just in government but in the justice system as well. The strategy was not immediately successful, with the DUP winning a commanding eight seats out of Northern Ireland’s 18 in the House of Commons in the 2010 parliamentary elections. However, in a blow to Unionism, First Minister and DUP leader Peter Robinson lost his seat in the House of Commons to Naomi Long of the Alliance Party following a bloody electoral combat in East Belfast involving his scandal-plagued family.

Unionist resentment of Alliance came to a boil two years later in 2012. That December, the Alliance Party controlled the swing votes in the Belfast City Council, which was voting on the removal of the British Flag from City Hall. The move would have inflamed unionists, who see the flag as symbolic their national identity. Unwilling to come down on either side, Alliance put forward a compromise of only flying the flag on designated days throughout the year. In what is often considered an act of political revenge for Member of Parliament Naomi Long’s defeat of Peter Robinson in 2010, the DUP and UUP distributed 40,000 leaflets in his former constituency attacking Alliance for removing the flag and calling on unionists to protest. When the marches and protests turned into riots and attacks on Alliance Party offices, the DUP was slow to condemn the violence. The parties unleashed a wave of outrage that they couldn’t control, and the repercussions are dragging the Assembly back into an era of mistrust and confrontation.
The fallout from the conflict precipitated the Haass Talks in 2013, a series of negotiations covering unsolved Troubles-era issues, vaguely defined by Richard Haass as “flags, parades, and the past [a sweeping discussion of how the troubles are viewed in contemporary Northern Ireland].” The flag problem has escalated only relatively recently, but the parades issue has consumed the assembly for most of its existence. Parading is a central aspect of cultural, national, and political identity in Northern Ireland; any limitations placed on the practice are viewed as an attack on the identity of the participants themselves. The much reviled Parades Commission has been criticized by some for being too heavy handed and by others for not being strict enough. Their light restrictions on a parade in Castlederg commemorating IRA men killed in an accidental explosion sparked DUP criticism and the party’s call for the parade’s cancellation. Yet the DUP also criticized the banning of a parade by a unionist group on a major unionist holiday, arguing the “Parades Commission must go.” Both parade controversies and the flag protests in 2012 occurred just prior to the Haass Talks and colored the Unionist Party’s cynical approach to the negotiations, despite both nationalist parties being open to the talks.
Because of the unionist fervor surrounding the parade and flag disputes, the DUP and UUP staked out hard-line positions, refused to accept a compromise, and allowed the talks to break down. Justice Minister David Ford implicated their failure “to face down the extremes over flags,” and criticized their reliance “on those extremes to sustain their vote.” Ford was clearly frustrated with the prioritization of electoral strategy over national cohesion.
These frustrations led to a lack of cooperation on Sinn Fein’s behalf in the executive branch the following year. This was highlighted by an inability of the two sides to come together to negotiate welfare reform, which was forced upon the assembly by the British government. Failure to pass it would have led to a £600 million shortfall in Northern Ireland’s budget. When no compromise was reached, a second round of talks began, culminating in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement, which effectively shelved dealing with “flags, parades, and the past” in favor of a more practical economic agreement addressing welfare. This achievement seemed to get the Assembly back on track, but a failure of leadership on both sides would turn this diplomatic success into ultimate disintegration.
At Loggerheads
Much of Sinn Fein’s recent electoral success has stemmed from their ability to position themselves as the anti-austerity alternative to the current governing coalition; it would have been a death-knell to their ambitions for government in the Republic to impose austerity through the proposed Welfare Bill. So in March 2015 they withdrew support for the bill and the Stormont House Agreement collapsed. This led to a partial shutdown of government operations, which could not be financed because of the budgetary gap caused by the Assembly’s failure to pass the reforms.
Since Sinn Fein walked back their support of a hard-won agreement, unionist parties’ vehement opposition to the dominant nationalist party has intensified. An opportunity to hammer them on their failed leadership would prove desirable in advance of what many assumed would be an early election—perhaps as soon as this year. This opportunity arose when a senior figure in the IRA, Kevin McGuigan, was shot in Belfast in retaliation for his earlier murder of a senior IRA figure and alleged criminal hegemony. Chief Constable George Hamilton confirmed in a press release that his death showed that “IRA organizational structure continues to exist”. Allegations of the IRA becoming a professionally criminal organization have swirled from claims by informants, including accusations of senior Sinn Fein involvement in the command structure.
Sinn Fein denied the existence of the IRA, but the UUP issued them an ultimatum that if they didn’t clarify the status of the group, the unionist party would withdraw from the government and enter opposition. When their calls went unanswered, that’s exactly what the UUP did, citing a breakdown in trust. Not to be outdone, the DUP too withdrew from the government, leaving Finance Minister Arlene Foster as a gatekeeper to prevent controversial decisions from being made in their absence.
Stormont is in a state of semi-collapse, although the DUP has now returned to the Executive in the interim. Peace was secured in 1998 because great leaders—people who were willing to sacrifice their own political careers for the peace of a nation—led the then-dominant nationalist SDLP and unionist UUP. No such great leaders are at the helm of any of the parties now. Peter Robinson is too afraid of an electoral challenge on his right to make any commitments to peace; Martin McGuinness is bound by Sinn Fein’s political ambitions in the Republic; the SDLP is embroiled in a leadership election at a time of crisis; and the UUP isn’t willing to engage in the latest talks. This weak leadership has allowed the polarization of the last five years to carry on unabated, pandering to extremist voices in their own communities to secure more votes. It took the committed, coordinated efforts of the United States, Britain, and Ireland, as well as the political courage of parties in Northern Ireland to reach a substantial agreement in 1998. With the current lack of leadership pushing the fragile structures of the Northern Irish Assembly closer to the tipping point, a resolution to the latest in a long line of crises could be a long way off. In a worst-case scenario, it may not come at all.
Image source: Rebecca Connolly // Flickr // Titanic Belfast

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