Brexit isn’t the only issue stoking the tensions in Ulster
Northern Ireland rarely gets much coverage from the mainland British press. Riots generate a fraction of the coverage that a similar one in England or Scotland (never mind London) would get; the recent Harland and Wolff closure was only of interest because of a ship that sank 107 years ago; its sporting competitions are, like its politics, a different world. Here be dragons.
For once, however, Northern Ireland can’t be entirely ignored by the GB political press, due to both the chance result of the 2017 general election that propelled the DUP into such a position of power, and to the intractable Brexit Backstop issue that might well have caused a great deal of trouble even if it didn’t threaten an existential point of identity for the Conservatives’ allies in government.
For all that, both the Con-DUP alliance and the Backstop are still seen through Westminster lenses. Northern Ireland is (or its representatives are) only important to the media because of their ability to make or break ministries.
Except of course there’s far more to it than that. Two stories that should have received far more attention from our Brexit-obsessed media are the rise in violence from dissident republican terrorists in recent months, and the open near-threat of more to come; and the continuing shut-down of Stormont.
It’s perhaps telling that while the British media and political class has gone into meltdown over a proposed 5-week shutdown of Westminster, Stormont has been shut down since January 2017 – so long ago that the breakdown came before the government triggered Article 50 and when the Tories still had a majority.
However, these two stories are not unrelated. Much time and energy has gone into arguing over whether the Brexit deal undermines the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), or whether a No Deal Brexit would do so. Curiously little attention has been paid to the fact that the Agreement isn’t actually working very well at the moment.
When the centrepiece of that Agreement – the Assembly – hasn’t sat for a quarter of a decade, it’s unsurprising that some feel that the Peace Process itself has failed and are resorting to the methods that the Process was designed to get away from. That absence is made all the more acute by the happenstance of the 2017 election, which magnified the Unionist voice at precisely the moment when the nationalists were muted.
Taking a logical approach, it’s easy to say that the nationalists muted themselves: they chose to vote for an abstentionist party at a time when Stormont was already not sitting, Sinn Fein chooses not to take their seats (what a difference it would make if they did – or if the SDLP sent 7 MPs rather than Sinn Fein), and so on. But this is of little practical benefit.
In truth, any permanent resolution at Stormont must involve an end to the current rules which effectively give both Sinn Fein and the DUP a veto on devolved government. That veto can’t be particularly troublesome for the DUP who were originally opposed to the N Ireland Assembly and who it’s hard to believe don’t still harbour some ambivalence, especially when the alternative is direct rule from Westminster which gives them both the close union that they prefer (other than on social issues, where N Irish legislation is still stuck somewhere in the middle of the last century), and also rule by a government they have a disproportionate but indirect hand in. Whether they’d rediscover the joys of devolution were Jeremy Corbyn to become prime minister is another matter.
Or maybe not another matter. Both Brexit and the absence of devolution put the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland under strain. That strain would be lessened were not the DUP occupying such a key role at Westminster, one which makes any attempt to revise the devolution settlement impossible (even if there were time and space for the government to devote to it) and which has placed the Backstop in such prominence – and if there is a general election within months then it’s likely that whatever the result, the DUP’s brief moment in the sunshine will indeed pass.