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Arlene Foster, Northern Ireland and a politics of permanent crisis

Originally published on spiked. Does Arlene Foster’s resignation signal the beginning of the end for power-sharing or just another spin of the wheel?

Northern Ireland’s political hamster wheel once again turned full circle, as Arlene Foster announced her decision to quit the political stage this week. Foster had been handed the role of acting First Minister in autumn 2015, in the midst of the political crisis that had forced the resignation of her predecessor Peter Robinson and taken the power-sharing administration to the verge of collapse. Although triggered by two high profile IRA killings, the 2015 crisis was largely fuelled by earlier crises arising from the stand-off between the two parties over the issue of implementing welfare cuts. Following a lengthy talks’ process brokered by the Northern Ireland Office and Ireland’s Department of Foreign Affairs – and soothed by the promise of a £500 million transfer from the UK Treasury – First Minister Arlene Foster and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuiness agreed to make a fresh start [https://www.gov.uk/government/news/a-fresh-start-for-northern-ireland]. The ink was barely dry on that agreement, when Foster was embroiled in a new crisis. Ostensibly triggered by a botched ‘green energy’ initiative, the cash for ash scandal provoked the mother of all crises that ended a decade of joint-rule between Unionist and nationalist parties. After three years without a functioning government, power-sharing was restored in January 2020. However, as I argued at the time, beneath the carefully worded performances of reconciliation and getting back to business, the manner of the DUP and Sinn Féin capitulation to Britain and Ireland’s lacklustre take it or leave it deal, ‘New Decade, New Approach’, suggested that the old political forces of Unionism and nationalism were running out of steam.

This week’s resignation might be read as simply the latest in a long line of political crises now entrenched as a permanent feature of Northern Ireland power-sharing. The instability arises from the contradictions of the Good Friday Agreement, which recognises nationalists’ right to self-determination in an independent Ireland but only on the basis that unionists retain the right of veto. Dressed up in ambiguous language to make it palatable to both sides, the agreement copper fastens the existing reality of Partition, while destabilising the Union with Britain and deferring the promise of Irish re-unification into the indefinite future. As partners in a mandatory coalition, unionists and nationalists have consented to relegate their old political goals of Ulster Unionism and Irish re-unification in favour of the joint project of managing a form of zombie government. The rhetoric of reconciliation and responsibility provides moral coherence and a sense of political purpose. However, in relinquishing their distinctive political goals, politicians on both sides inevitably stand accused of betrayal and abandonment of their traditional constituencies.

In this way, unionist and nationalist constituencies are mobilized through mutually re-enforcing culture wars that literally flag up cultural differences as a rallying call against the enemies from across and within the community. This mutual need to mobilize support under the banner of cultural particularism pervades Northern Ireland’s political parties and cultural institutions in ways that constantly thwart attempts to build a common culture of citizenship. This is the destructive dynamic in which Arlene Foster twisted and turned, forced to project a conciliatory and business-like persona as a responsible coalition partner, while playing to the unionist gallery by mouthing its most reactionary values. It should be no surprise that Arlene Foster’s resignation was precipitated by her principled decision to abstain on a motion to ban gay conversion therapy, seized upon by her enemies as a betrayal of traditional unionist values.

The contradictions of power-sharing and the DUP’s ambition to shore up its position as the dominant voice of Unionism are likely to drive a further tendency towards reviving the sectarian spirit of its founding father, the Reverend Ian Paisley. This may prove self-destructive as growing numbers of unionist voters continue their journey towards an identification with Northern Ireland, based on post-nationalist values of ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect’. Given the tendency towards upping the ante in Northern Ireland politics, it is possible to envisage further divisions and violent disturbances in the run up to next years’ elections, leading to the collapse of the Executive and suspension of the Assembly. However, it is much harder to see Boris Johnson’s government summoning up the will or the capacity to implement direct rule should the crisis take that form. Any future crisis will undoubtedly follow a familiar choreography, with calls for London and Dublin to roll up their sleeves and get the two sides back together. A new round of peace talks might even provide opportunities for the two governments to mend their fractured relationship, in partnership with Brussels and under the watchful eye of the new administration in Washington. However, whether at regional or international level, all future crisis talks will take place in an altered economic and political reality.  

Britain’s decision to leave the EU placed the question of Partition and the legitimacy of British rule in Ireland back on the political agenda. In doing so, it has opened the door to a radical rethinking of the relationship between the citizens of Britain, Ireland and Northern Ireland. The fractious nature of the negotiations leading to the Withdrawal Agreement have not only strained those relationships, but have called the integrity of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland into question. The decisive moment occurred in October 2019, when Prime Minister Boris Johnson and Irish Taoiseach Leo Vardakar broke the impasse on the Irish backstop by drawing the EU’s new customs border around the island of Ireland. Having been pivotal to the Brexit negotiations during May’s minority government, the DUP had fallen into the old trap of believing that Unionism held the whip hand over British policy in Northern Ireland. Rather than confront the reality of their own historical position as dependants on and instruments of British rule – now surplus to requirements – the DUP is lashing out against the NI Protocol, attempting to pin the blame on Arlene Foster’s failure to take a tough stand in defence of the precious Union.

There is justification in unionist opposition to the NI Protocol. Apart from creating logistical problems for trade within the UK single market, the NI Protocol represents a barrier to the exercise of democratic control over economic decision-making in NI, affecting the people of Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales who share public goods and services – from universal health care to pensions and unemployment benefit – within a common political and regulatory framework. The Protocol is an undemocratic imposition on social, economic, community and family ties that bind the people of Britain and Northern Ireland together. However, the Protocol is entirely in keeping with the semi-detached nature of Britain’s relationship to Northern Ireland, an extension of its age-old history of irresponsible government through managing internal relations and keeping the regional conflict at arms’ length. Drawing a border through the Irish Sea simply gives concrete shape to the undemocratic nature of British rule in Ireland after Partition.

The most compelling argument for Brexit turned on the democratic principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK. In other words, the democratic principle that citizens be fully empowered to exercise control over political decision-making and to hold elected politicians to account. The NI Protocol is an affront to this principle, but so too is Partition. For radical democrats, political power is not simply the power to change governments – important as that is – but the power to change the way we are governed.  This raises the possibility of choosing whether to assert the integrity of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland and stand in opposition to the Protocol or whether to stand for Irish reunification and an end to Partition.

As a British democrat, I support the latter through a call for Britain to signal its intention to make an orderly departure from Northern Ireland and lend generous support to a peaceful reunification through an all-Ireland process. Whatever difficult questions that process may raise, and whatever shape the future might take, it is clear that a return to the past offers nothing but continuing political impasse and deepening communal polarisation.