A Northern Ireland government is collapsed this week and no one really cared. Although RTÉ despatched Bryan Dobson to Belfast, the latest crisis didn’t sustain interest: Dobbo was back in the comfort of the Montrose studios the following day. The paltry turnout in the House of Commons for a debate on it shows that the British are no longer interested.
We might interpret this as a good thing. It’s a sign that Northern Ireland is a bit like politics in ‘normal’ places. No one expects a return to violence and the collapse was ostensibly about the reaction to the Renewable Heating Initiative policy. This appeared a crisis of the common-or-garden variety, a far cry from the usual crisis subjects: flags, marching and guns.
But in reality this was about what every crisis in Belfast has been about for the last two decades – a lack of trust between the parties and the protection of each party’s electoral base.
Even so this is potentially a more serious crisis because there is no obvious solution. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin are talking themselves into corners. It might be the beginning of the end of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). Only one of the two parties should welcome this, and it is not the DUP.
Sinn Féin never saw the GFA as a ‘settlement’, for them it was always a ‘process’ towards a united Ireland. The only way the gunmen could be brought along was if they were convinced power-sharing in Stormont wasn’t a destination, rather it was a stepping stone. Periodic crises are needed to maintain the sense that it is a transitional arrangement. If things appeared to work too well, people would question the need for change.
Although Sinn Féin has known about the problems with the ‘Cash for Ash’ policy for at least a year, it was only at the end of 2016 that it became a fully-fledged crisis. Ongoing revelations made it harder and harder for Sinn Féin to maintain support for Arlene Foster. It was harder still because the SDLP is now in opposition, and so it could be fully critical of the government. Normally all the major parties were part of the government, and so all the major parties shared the blame. For the first time Sinn Féin was being exposed as softer on unionists than the more moderate nationalist SDLP.
Sinn Féin had tried to get Arlene Foster to stand aside to keep the institutions running. They can reasonably claim to have been pretty patient with the DUP. Foster’s reaction was strategically inept. When she was short on friends, she chose to make a snide remark about Martin McGuinness’s health and Sinn Féin’s internal struggles. As the veteran observer of Northern Irish politics Éamon Mallie noted, she lacked grace.
While the DUP base might like the idea of picking fights with Sinn Féin, it only creates problems for the party and unionism in general. It is sitting on a demographic time-bomb that means Catholics will outnumber Protestants within the next two decades. With the likelihood of a hard Brexit and the possibility of another Scottish independence referendum Northern Ireland’s position in the union is more uncertain than ever before. The prospect of a united Ireland is now being talked of as a real medium-term proposition by serious people, not just dreamy green-field nationalists.
The DUP’s job should have been to make the GFA work so well that there was no demand for more ‘process’. They should have made it such that the border barely existed, so moderate nationalists would be content with the North’s status quo position. If the DUP facilitated normal relations, Sinn Féin’s demand for further changes would have appeared unreasonable.
Brexit could have been an issue that pushed the DUP and Sinn Féin together – neither have an interest in a hard border – but Foster seemed to delight in the uncertainty Brexit brought. The DUP was either tone deaf or deliberately provocative in cutting funding to a tiny Irish language grant, especially in the context of the DUP wasting up to £500m on its Cash for Ash scheme.
The DUP has since back-tracked on that grant, and Foster is now offering a full inquiry. But Sinn Féin has already moved on. If Sinn Féin ever had a problem with the handling of the RHI, and it appears it only did when others made it an issue, the party was already in election mode when Martin McGuinness resigned from the executive. The executive collapse was because the DUP didn’t respect the nationalist community, it said. Parity of esteem, equality, it said. These words are dog whistles for nationalist (and unionists) to get back into the Green (and Orange) corners again.
So there will be an election, and the result is likely to see the DUP and Sinn Féin returned as the top two parties. Now that Sinn Féin has made the election ethnic again, unionist voters will likely forgive Foster her incompetence as they’ll see the DUP as the best protector of their community’s interests.
According to the rules of the Good Friday Agreement these will be the parties then mandated to form a new executive. If they can’t, the rules stipulate a further election, which would only harden positions further. What’s more likely is a period of direct rule, with a barely interested British government trying to get the institutions back together. They’ll probably manage a compromise because they always do, but it will only add to the sense that the Good Friday Agreement is not working.
The current institutional set up doesn’t encourage either side to work together. Ministers are dictators within their own portfolios. Cabinet is meaningless there. There are mandated coalitions, but there is no mechanism to make them work. So crisis and the threat of collapse is the only way to make your point. Perhaps it’s time to move to voluntary coalitions, which would allow the DUP coalesce with the SDLP, or Sinn Féin with the UUP. Some change to the Good Friday Agreement will be needed to keep the Good Friday Agreement going.
It’s not clear the DUP would agree to that. It’s not clear the DUP knows its own interests.
As for Sinn Féin, its day will come.
This was originally published in Sunday Independent 15/1/2017