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The Northern Ireland Question

This was originally published on 28th June, 2017, and republished on 4th January, 2022.

“This is not peace. It’s an armistice of twenty years.”

Those were the words of Ferdinand Foch is response to the Treaty of Versailles, signed in 1919, and twenty years later, France and Germany were once again at war. After the results of the British general election this year, they words may not be relevant only to historians. With the Conservatives failing to win a majority in the British general election, instead having to rely on the support of the Democratic Unionist Party to form a majority in the House of Commons, the question of Northern Ireland will soon bubble up again. The idea that the country/region/area called Northern Ireland is now at relative peace is predicated on the continuing existence of and adherence to the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.

The problem? The two parties that initiated that agreement have been wiped out at Westminster, and have been replaced by two parties that would like to see it gone.

(Photo: Irish News)

Now, to be fair to the DUP and Sinn Féin, both parties eventually decided that they would support the agreement (after more negotiations), and have governed together in a power-sharing agreement since. But neither of them like it, and weren’t particularly bothered when Sinn Féin quit government this year. Since March, NI has been once again been governed by direct rule from London, with SF refusing to cooperate with the DUP as long as Arlene Foster is their leader.

That may change now that the DUP has been returned as comfortably the largest and most popular party in NI, as SF has indicated that they believe they can reach a deal. However, it seems this has only happened because of the surge in the DUP vote, which cut down the narrative SF had been promoting since the March elections for Stormont: nationalists were on the edge of outnumbering unionists, and it was only a matter of time.

The election result has forced SF to (quietly) acknowledge that they may have been getting ahead of themselves, which they’ve done by agreeing that a return to the power-sharing government is on the cards. Had they not done so, the DUP would have continued blowing raspberries at them while backing Conservative direct rule.

But there are deeper problems at play than the immediate governance of NI, all of which are intertwined and entangled and leave a multitide of options possible for both the near and distant future. I will attempt here to go through at least some of them.


1) The DUP stands for a disappearing Britain

This is not a comment on whether the policies of the DUP are right or wrong, but on the party’s existence being a shock to people in Britain, particularly in London. The DUP’s Britain is one that is conservative, family and community oriented, patriotic and unionist.

Though many Conservative Party members wish their own party stood for such things, the reality is that British politics has spent more than two decades chasing the mythical political centre, which is fundamentally liberal, individualist, globalist, and doesn’t particularly care about Northern Ireland remaining in the United Kingdom. Having spent most of their existence being ignored by London media, the sudden necessity of their votes in the Commons turned the media eye towards them, resulting in a lash of condemnation from the same media which has spent the past 18 months deriding Jeremy Corbyn for also not fitting the liberal mould.

The most important line in the wave of condemnation is not in the taunts of ‘homophobia’ or ‘sexism’ — they’re not even close to the only party holding such views in Northern Ireland or, for that matter, in the Republic — but in the idea that the DUP supporting a minority Conservative government will be a threat to the Northern Irish peace process. Their critics argue that in doing so, they are preventing the British government from continuing its role of ‘rigorous impartiality’ between the two sides. If this perception sticks, it will simply add to the sense among some MPs in Westminster that NI is more trouble than its worth, which the response to the DUP’s existence was an example of.

2) Sinn Féin is caught between worlds

Sinn Féin has done well to turn itself into the main nationalist party in NI. Once, when the Provisional IRA still officially existed, SF was seen as simply being their political arm, and the prospect of voting for them left a sour taste in the mouth of nationalists who disagreed with the methods of the IRA. However, there is in the terms of the Agreement a crucial section, which states that a power-sharing government will be formed from the largest party of each side, rather than simply with parties from each side.

This gave SF an incentive to soften their image in order to appeal to those who would only vote SDLP (and the same is true for the DUP being incentivised to take voters from the UUP). The modern Sinn Féin is found in its MPs, who skew quite young, and serve as a counterpoint to Gerry Adams. With the death of Martin McGuinness earlier this year, Adams is now the sole face of the old Sinn Féin, providing a link between the old and the new, and allowing SF to be all things to all nationalists.

Gerry Adams (first from left) embracing his youthfulness (Photo: PA/Belfast Telegraph)

But where will this take them? Continuing on the modernisation path will, in time, force them to leave their aim of a united Ireland behind, as voters become more concerned about standard political issues. To some extent this has already happened, and forcing SF to push constitutional matters into the background from time to time. Conversely, halting or winding back the modernisation of the party will turn voters back to the SDLP, or indeed to Alliance or the Greens, neither of which will advance the nationalist cause. Choosing either option, then, comes with the risk of failure.

3) The Irish border; the Irish Sea

The Irish border today. (Photo: Getty Images)

Ireland is an island divided into two parts, and separated from Great Britain by the Irish Sea. The northern of those two parts is a constituent member of the same nation as Great Britain, which means the United Kingdom has a sea dividing one part of it from the rest. The border between the two parts of Ireland has flitted between being heavily guarded and being open, and since the GFA has been the latter. No political party wants the return of border controls. However, the southern part of Ireland is a member of the European Union, which the northern part is leaving. The EU guarantees freedom of movement between all its member states, which is part of the reason the United Kingdom has chosen to leave.

Irish border in the late 1980s (Photo: Pacemaker)

This is, to put it lightly, a bit of a pickle. If the border remains open, anyone wishing to get into Britain on an EU passport may do so, without checks, negating the point of leaving the EU. Closing the border entirely would be a red rag to the nationalist bull, while passport controls between Northern Ireland and Great Britain would be likewise to unionists. Indeed, it’s hard to see how a country could call itself united if it checks passports for domestic journeys. The DUP have been vague about what they expect at the border, but there doesn’t seem to be any viable solution that won’t upset someone.

4) Demographics and destiny

There is an underlying assumption to the way nationalists and unionists alike approach the long-term future of Northern Ireland, and it’s an assumption built on birth rate. Birth rates among ‘Catholics’ in NI is higher than amongst ‘Protestants’, has been for many years and will likely continue to be long into the future. The relevance is not in their notional denominational affiliation, but in their family history. ‘Catholics’ in NI are, as a rule, exclusively Irish, while ‘Protestants’ are descended from Scots, Irish, English and Huguenots alike. Given these backgrounds, it’s assumed that the former will grow up to be nationalists from nationalist families, while the latter will be unionists from unionist families. Given the higher birthrates of ‘Catholics’, this will one day mean that nationalists outnumber unionists, at which point Northern Ireland will join the Republic, never to return.

This assumption fails to account for the crucial factor of inertia, which is the single strongest force in the political world. The passage of time in a peaceful society creates a contentment with the status quo. The longer it goes on, the more ‘Catholics’ will be content with being a part of the United Kingdom. They may not be willing to vote for the DUP or the UUP, but that doesn’t mean that a referendum on joining the Republic will see them ticking the ‘yes’ box. Alliance, which courts both unionists and nationalists, is an easy place for them to put their votes, if they vote at all. Either way, not voting for a nationalist party means preferring the status quo, which is that of remaining in the union.

The idea that ‘demographics are destiny’ ended up costing the Democrats victory in the 2016 US presidential election. Nationalists should not assume it will be any different in Northern Ireland, and that assumption is the great risk that Sinn Féin runs in continuing its modernisation approach.

5) Good Friday Agreement

British Prime Minister Tony Blair and Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern signing the GFA. (Photo: Dan Chung/PA)

The terms of the GFA left Northern Ireland adrift from the nation it is supposedly part of, without giving it over to the other nation that wishes to have it. This is by design, for the agreement states that it “is neither the end nor the beginning of the peace process, although it is its major part. The main idea behind the Agreement is not to solve the conflict as such, but to establish democratic procedures and standards to deal with the conflict(s).” To sum: it is written in the terms of the GFA that the conflict is ongoing.

One of the terms of the negotiation was that devolved government in NI would have to include parties from both sides. In the short term, this was simple enough, as the parties which supported the GFA — the Ulster Unionists and the Social Democratic & Labour Party — were the largest parties in NI, and could work together relatively comfortably. But each was opposed by a party that was not so enamoured with the GFA, and those protest parties are now the two biggest parties in NI by a considerable margin. Despite this, both the DUP and Sinn Féin have been fairly happy to work together, but have been consistently pushed into their respective corners because of the way the power-sharing government functions in reality.

For example, Sinn Féin has been making a big fuss over a bungled renewable energy scheme that was overseen by the now-leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster, but it took until months after the scandal first appeared, and they were quite happy to continue governing with the DUP Why? Because the SDLP are not in government, freeing them to attack the government as much as they wanted to. In order to prevent the SDLP from gaining at their expense, SF had to go one step further, suddenly announcing that they were quitting government and forcing a new election. The power-sharing government leaves politics in Northern Ireland always coming back to unionism against nationalism, even as voters want to move away from it.

This is true of another part of the GFA, which states that referenda on NI leaving Britain for the Republic can continue to be held until there is a ‘yes’ result, at which point the decision is binding. There is no option for a final decision that NI will stay as part of Britain. Combined with demographics and the many of the compromises of the Agreement — no union flags, creating a new police force, amnesty for the IRA — this has left unionists feeling under siege, watching and waiting for any sign of Britain abandoning them, in order to make sure that such a thing can never happen. But they cannot ever truly win as long as the Agreement is in place.

Likewise, the nationalists are left feeling like they aren’t going anywhere either. Despite the reassurances of Adams, nationalism is no stronger or closer to achieving its goal now than it was twenty years ago. The terms of the Agreement prevent nationalism from being defeated, but they also prevent it from winning unless support for it is overwhelming, which it is unlikely to ever be. But very few people in NI want a return to the days of the IRA, and going against the wishes of so many voters would be the great risk for Sinn Féin if they decided to revert back to their prior party ethos.


1) Paralysis

The most likely future for the short-to-medium term is a continuation of the status quo. With the Good Friday Agreement designed so that neither side can win or lose, and both major parties beholden to voters who don’t want a return to conflict, the continuation of the paralysed status of Northern Ireland seems likely to continue. This could be argued as a victory for unionism, but if a devolved government is prohibited from openly expressing which nation it is a part of, it’s difficult to see how that is true. This option has flow-on effects to the way NI is governed, which will likely involve a great deal of gridlock as a result of opposing forces having to govern together without losing their respective constituencies. As soon as something slightly controversial appears, the government is thrown into question again. Alleviating the hardship of voters in the poorest region of the United Kingdom will not be made easier by the inability of governments to take radical action.

2) Back to the future

The return of that which is most feared is also that which is least likely. While there have long been murmurs of a surviving IRA, it would have anything like the strength of that of its pre-GFA variant. There is very little desire among nationalists for a restart of the Troubles, and unionists would have to be using an extraordinary mix of triumphalism and discrimination — which they have neither the ability or intent to do — to set off tensions again in the first place.

3) The inevitable

The narrative has for many years been that the integration of NI into the Republic is inevitable, and just a matter of time. This flows from two ideas: that nationalism/republicanism cannot be stopped, and that demographics are destiny. But both of these have to be true in order for it to actually happen, and given the current paucity of support for a united Ireland in the short-to-medium term (less than 20%), that doesn’t seem to be the case. Furthermore, while it may be more believable in the distant, far-off future, the steps to it happening in that future still have to occur within the near future, and a paucity of support now means that the chances of even that happening are unlikely.

4) The absent alternative

Of these three options, there is one missing: Northern Ireland as an unquestioned, uncontested part of the United Kingdom.

This is not impossible, but the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and the past century of conflict and consternation make it as unlikely, or even more unlikely, than a united Ireland. It may take generations before this is even accepted as an option, and even then, it may never truly happen.


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