Full steam ahead?

While Stormont has been restored, writes James Harvey, the old communal divisions remain firmly in place.

They’re back! After three years away all your old friends at Stormont are here again. Everyone slipped so easily back into their familiar roles, it was if they had never been away. Everything seemed reassuringly the same: the party leaders restated their traditional platitudes about ‘new beginnings’ and the British prime minister and Irish taoiseach recycled their appeals to ‘hope’ and ‘history’ amidst the rococo splendour of Stormont: it could have been 1998 and the Good Friday agreement all over again!

Except that it wasn’t. Although all sides tried to sound convincingly sincere and put on a good show for the cameras, this was in truth a rather tired performance and a rather perfunctory reading of a well-known script by a cast that had performed it so many times since Stormont was restored in 1998.

It would be easy and all too accurate to file this ‘moment of hope’ and ‘political breakthrough’ alongside all the other false dawns since the Good Friday agreement supposedly brought about an end to historical conflict and began a new era of reconciliation and peace in Northern Ireland. The political reality belies this rhetoric. The operation of ‘devolved government’ and the implementation of the agreement have seen a series of crises and interruptions since 1998: the Stormont assembly has been suspended on five occasions - nearly eight years in total - the longest being the latest one, which began in January 2017 and ended on January 11 2020.

The ostensible cause of this latest suspension was the Democratic Unionist Party’s handling of the renewable heat incentive (RHI) scandal, which brought forth allegations from Sinn Féin of corruption, clientelist politics and civil service mismanagement. Crises of this type are the small change of bourgeois politics, particularly in their parish pump form, the world over. However, the institutionalised communal politics of the Six Counties gave this scandal and the consequent political fallout its unique character. Sinn Féin’s withdrawal from the ‘power-sharing’ executive in January 2017 and the resulting March election only deepened the crisis. The DUP’s share of the vote fell, with the result that, although remaining the largest single party with 28 assembly seats, it was only one seat and 0.2% of first-preference votes ahead of SF.1

As if this was not bad enough for the DUP, in 2017 ostensibly unionist parties did not win a majority of seats for the first time since partition. This psychological setback, combined with a gain of four seats by SF, strengthened the latter’s negotiating hand.2 In the subsequent attempts to restore the executive SF added an Irish Language Act and equal marriage to dealing with the RHI scandal in its red lines in negotiations.

The situation was further complicated by the 2017 UK general election, which saw gains for both the DUP and SF - and a post-election pact between the Tories and the DUP, which kept Theresa May in Downing Street.3 To the despair of liberal commentators, hapless Tory secretaries of state for Northern Ireland, frustrated British prime ministers and the Irish taoiseach, by November 2019 a seemingly never-ending series of meetings and negotiations got nowhere. The December 2019 UK general election apparently changed all that: the stasis was ended, and, with one bound, we were all free. The parties were talking again, a compromise was being reached and, yet again, history was being made in Northern Ireland. The familiar show at Stormont, with some new cast members to freshen up the act and hopefully raise some applause, however faint, from a rather jaded audience, was back on the road again!

Both in the form of its delivery and its content, the deal that emerged on January 11 went over very familiar ground and offered very familiar ‘solutions’ to the issues outstanding between the region’s political parties. The key role in brokering the deal was played by the British and Irish governments, which managed, cajoled and manoeuvred the DUP and SF - along with the smaller players in the Social Democratic and Labour Party, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Alliance Party - into accepting their terms. This partnership between London and Dublin, although destabilised by the inevitable strains of Brexit, represents a key element in the strategies of both states and reflects their shared fundamental interest in preserving the political status quo in the Six Counties. Although they may pragmatically accommodate alterations and adjustments to meet changing pressures, in essentials the management of division and the containment of conflict through the structures of the Good Friday agreement remain the guiding aims of both governments.

Little new

As to the terms of the deal itself, there was little that was new within it. The 62 pages of New decade, new approach bore all the rhetorical and policy hallmarks of its immediate predecessor, A fresh start (2015), which in turn reflects the earlier rhetoric of the Good Friday agreement.4 As leading media commentator Suzanne Breen put it during the January negotiations: “New decade, new approach - old story”.5 In keeping with the best traditions of snake-oil salesmanship, the best way to sell this old, discredited product is to dress it up as something new and improved. There are plenty of promises to examine, enhance, explore and published strategies across a wide range of policy areas and contentious issues, but little of real substance or political change is spelled out clearly.

The basic approach is what Queen’s University Belfast academic Katy Hayward describes as a “type of green/orange bingo” - a product of a “shared out” society, in which unionists and nationalists each get “one for me, one for you”.6 So an Irish language commissioner, which goes some way to meet SF’s demands on the recognition of the Irish language, is balanced by an Ulster Scots commissioner as part of a wider commitment to protecting “identity and cultural expression”. Changes are also promised to meet nationalist criticisms of the operation of the Petitions of Concern - a provision of the Good Friday agreement designed to give a communal veto in the operation of the assembly, but which was largely used by the DUP to block socially liberal legislation. In practice these concessions are now largely symbolic, since the DUP no longer has the necessary majority to act in this way and the electoral arithmetic is unlikely to swing back in its favour in the foreseeable future.7

The main focus for the headline writers, both in Britain and Ireland, was not this balancing of communal concerns and the careful management of political division, but the spending commitments made by both London and Dublin. These were both eye-catching and suitably vague in scale. The promises included new funding for the health service, education, infrastructure development and housing. However, despite Boris Johnson’s warm words and pledges, he was characteristically evasive when questioned at Stormont about the exact amounts that would be available.8 As the Financial Times noted, the stability of the region turns on the battered state of its economy.9 It will be the fulfilment of these promises, along with the wider issues of Northern Ireland’s dependence on the British treasury subvention and the degree to which the region’s economy can cope with the impact of Brexit, that will determine how far this ‘historic agreement’ will work in practice.10

In commending the Stormont deal, Johnson suggested that he felt “the hand of history beckoning us all forward”, before going on to praise the Northern Ireland politicians, who “have put aside their differences, stepped up to the plate and shown leadership”.11 As with much else about this deal, his encomium is nothing but smoke and mirrors. The political parties in the Six Counties were forced into this agreement by a specific set of immediate circumstances and political calculations.

The outlines of this deal have long been known and could have been reached in February 2018, if the DUP could have sold it to its activists. Then it was riding high, with a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories at Westminster. After December 12 all was utterly changed: for both the DUP and Sinn Féin, a terrible disaster was born. Both parties lost votes and politically symbolic seats in Belfast and Derry; both were under renewed electoral pressure, with the DUP losing votes to the UUP and Alliance, whilst SF suffered at the hands of the SDLP.12 The threat to call an assembly election, made by secretary of state Julian Smith, increased the potential for further political reverses, and concentrated the minds of both the DUP and SF wonderfully during the negotiations. Furthermore, Boris Johnson’s secure parliamentary majority ended the DUP’s ambitions to continue as kingmakers at Westminster: it was forced to refocus on its only realistic chance of some political power in a restored Stormont. For Sinn Féin, a restored and functioning executive and assembly would give it a platform to demonstrate its political responsibility and strengthen its electoral appeal south of the border.13

Along with meeting these electoral considerations, both leaderships required an agreement that dealt with the challenges of national health service strikes and public-sector finance, and which they could sell as some type of victory to their supporters and activists. Thus, for both the DUP and SF, politically symbolic gains in areas such as language and culture were perfect for managing their respective bases, whilst the promised financial package appeared to bring some respite from austerity.

Most commentators welcomed the deal and were optimistic to varying degrees that it could stabilise politics in the Six Counties.14 However, for Marxists the fundamental political and communal divisions remain as strong as ever: indeed, the region’s politics and the institutional structures established by the Good Friday agreement actively reinforce these conflicts. The constitutional status quo in Northern Ireland rests on such divisions and was indeed created by them in the first place. Despite the pious rhetoric of transformation and reconciliation, any deal, whether ‘historic’ or otherwise, that maintains these structures will only serve to continue to reproduce the politics of communal conflict and division - the ‘carnival of reaction’ that has been the hallmark of Northern Irish politics and society in the hundred years since partition.

  1. www.ark.ac.uk/elections/fa17.htm.↩︎

  2. Ibid.↩︎

  3. www.ark.ac.uk/elections/fw19.↩︎

  4. Belfast agreement: www.gov.uk/government/publications/the-belfast-agreement; New decade, a new approach: https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/856998/2020-01-08_a_new_decade__a_new_approach.pdf.↩︎

  5. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/opinion/columnists/suzanne-breen/suzanne-breen-new-decade-new-approach-old-story-38851143.html.↩︎

  6. www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/14/stormont-northern-ireland-hope-dup-sinn-fein.↩︎

  7. www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/jon-tonge-commissioners-at-every-turn-but-is-this-a-deal-for-a-lasting-assembly-38852012.html.↩︎

  8. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/13/boris-johnson-deflects-questions-of-funding-on-stormont-visit.↩︎

  9. www.ft.com/content/3f3754ac-3607-11ea-a6d3-9a26f8c3cba4.↩︎

  10. Even before the ink was dry on the Stormont deal, both unionist and nationalist politicians were arguing that the amounts of public spending on offer were “inadequate”. See Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill’s joint letter to Boris Johnson (January 15): www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-northern-ireland-51124698.↩︎

  11. www.theguardian.com/uk-news/2020/jan/13/boris-johnson-deflects-questions-of-funding-on-stormont-visit.↩︎

  12. www.bbc.co.uk/news/election/2019/results/northern_ireland.↩︎

  13. Immediately following the Stormont deal, Leo Varadkar called an election for February 8: www.irishtimes.com/election2020/sinn-féin-not-underestimating-challenge-of-election-says-mcdonald-1.4139768.↩︎

  14. For some examples, see Jon Tonge (www.belfasttelegraph.co.uk/news/northern-ireland/jon-tonge-commissioners-at-every-turn-but-is-this-a-deal-for-a-lasting-assembly-38852012.html) and Katy Hayward (www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jan/14/stormont-northern-ireland-hope-dup-sinn-fein).↩︎