Working towards Irish Unity



What is the future of Northern Unionism?

Lights out for ‘our wee country’

Journalist Sam McBride penned an article in which he stated that the north of Ireland is just over a month away from a ‘blackout crisis’. The Kilroot power station just outside Belfast is scheduled to move from coal to gas powered turbines. Ageing and inefficient, and no longer fit-for-purpose, it is euphemistically apt. The allegory continues. The failure to adequately prepare for this transitional process is what may lead to imminent blackout. Stormont, according to McBride, has known about this encroaching problem ‘for years’.

The department responsible for electricity is the Department for the Economy (DfE). He goes on to make the connection between the ‘cash for ash’ scandal, whose then minister was ‘responsible but not accountable’ for that episode, and the current electricity debacle. The connecting thread, of course, is the DUP who have held the DfE ministry since 2008. Currently on strike they are refusing to work with a Sinn Féin First Minister.

This is not to pin the blame entirely on the DUP, after all they are but one cog in the Stormont wheel. However, it raises deeper issues relevant here. Firstly, and glaringly obvious, is the necessity for detailed preparation and planning, as the above article highlights. Failure to do so can lead to significant real life consequences that leave authorities fire-fighting in order to catch up. Contingency planning makes for sound governance with varied scenarios anticipated in advance, mitigating against the unpreparedness of surprise. Secondly, the ineffectiveness of Stormont to deliver essential change. A mixture of political dysfunction and British government disinterest creates stasis. Issues such as infrastructural investment, adequate health care, public sector pay and so on, are dependent on budgetary allocations from Westminster that continuously fail to meet local need, with some gaps being increasingly filled by the Southern government. Decision-making on routine issues inevitably become bogged down in the political quagmire when the institutions are operational. The lack of a functioning executive at present render the efficacy of decision making ever more problematic from an understandably reticent civil service.

In the same week that McBride printed his story another arose that brings attention to the priorities of political unionism. With no comment on the imminent blackout which threatens the population of the north with zero electricity or heating, unionists instead requested financial support for the erection of ‘centenary stone’ to mark partition. The sculpture depicts the six counties appearing to be suspended in space, the missing jigsaw piece of many RTÉ graphics that has the waters of the north Atlantic lapping upon the mythical shores of Cavan and Monaghan. Cost of living pressures seemingly fall beneath dominance of the public space in order of importance. Inflated school uniform costs and household bills were not for discussion.

Despite a saturation of pro-British iconography on the Stormont estate the original bid received crucial support from the SDLP ensuring success. With no sitting assembly because of the DUP boycott, the financial request has been submitted to civil servant officials. From the outset the main unionist parties agreed that the cost of the stone would be entirely funded by MLA’s. It now appears that unionist politicians have refused to put their hands in their own pockets, reneging on initial commitments to self-fund the project. Perhaps unionist MLA’s now on reduced salaries because of the DUP strike view the stone as an unnecessary personal expense amidst this ‘cost of living crisis’? The request that Stormont foot part of the bill has been rejected by the SDLP who see the issue as ‘clear cut’, suggesting that their support may be withdrawn should unionists fail to meet the cost.

The two stories above provide an interesting contrast. In the first example, inertia and lack of effective preparation, from a departmental minister particularly, and the executive more generally, when it operates, have ensured crises such as the Kilroot example can bubble under the surface for some time and only come to the surface in the eleventh hour. RHI is a prime example. Non-delivery of key projects such as the Kilroot upgrade, as well as key agreements, allows a culture to develop where responsibility can lack accountability and effective oversight is reduced. What other crises are waiting to be revealed one wonders?

Underwriting all this is the British government with jurisdictional control. Ultimate sovereignty and power resides in London whose consistent ‘hands off’ approach allows stagnation to flourish. This fundamental fact ensures the north remains hostage to Westminster decision making and indifference. Liberal institutional reform does little to diminish the reality of an inherently flawed political construct based on a devolved system where actual power lies somewhere else. Moreover, should an ‘indirect direct rule’ intervention to keep the lights on be required, Westminster ‘altruism’ will ensure that the local tax payer will foot the bill most likely through further budget cuts.

Implementation failure on real and substantive issues that affect the everyday lives of people make symbolic issues a more prominent preoccupation, as the second article demonstrates, offering notable distraction. Indeed, a PSNI disciplinary issue over the mishandling of a massacre commemoration has now turned into a media furore that has galvanised political unionism. Awakened from summer slumber and on-going hiatus the DUP leader emerged to call for the resignation of the chief constable. Coincidentally Garda Commissioner Drew Harris, like Simon Byrne, faces motions of no confidence from his rank and file. Harris would be eligible to apply for any potential vacancy in the top PSNI role having served in an ‘outside force’. Is political unionism seeking to engineer PSNI recruitment?

Adverse living conditions for the general public are of less consequence. For unionism the cause célèbre is a substitute for real politics, flag politics are king, as culture wars appeal to emotion rather than reason. Axiomatically, flags provide zero nutritional value nor come quilted as the north currently faces winter electricity blackouts. Those advocating strongest for the commemorative stone seem less committed to paying for it with their own cash, preferring it come from a squeezed public purse. The ‘boom and bust’ nature of post-GFA politics where symbolism can trump partnership, and reality, may make a gravestone rather than a commemoration stone a more fitting metaphor, the passing of a parent where none of the children wish to pay for the funeral as the lights go out actually and figuratively.