Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions


The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council’s fourth Peace Monitoring Report, written by Robin Wilson, was published in September. Brian Walker offers an overview of a wide-ranging report in which it is concluded that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but that too little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions.

‘It was all going so well’, lamented an anonymous Northern Ireland civil servant in response to the Brexit referendum result, fearing for the cohesion of the power sharing partners in government who had just been presented with a new theme to divide them.  While the DUP supported Leave and Sinn Féin were for Remain, the region’s voters had breached the sectarian boundaries to support Remain by 56 per cent to 44 per cent. But with the overall result for Leave, the Irish border was suddenly thrust back into politics, just after an Assembly election in which the constitutional issue had barely figured. Now external threats of as yet uncertain severity are looming for the province, as they also affect the future of the Irish border and the British Union.

The outworking of Brexit is one of the causes of potential instability identified in the compendious fourth Peace Monitoring Report published by the NI Community Relations Council. Written by erstwhile Constitution Unit associate Robin Wilson, who contributed regularly to our devolution monitoring reports in the first decade of devolution, it ranges far more widely than purely ‘peace’ issues to constitute a uniquely comprehensive ‘condition of Northern Ireland’ report from 2014 to the present. As such it provides indispensible background. The report is more analytical than prescriptive, much less prophetic, but the direction of travel is clear. For inspiration it relies heavily on comparisons with international best practice which are generally locally ignored, but on which the author is an acknowledged expert.

Real progress can be reported, including surprisingly high levels of ‘well being’; lower reported crime; greater equality between unionist and nationalist identities and a higher sense of belonging to Northern Ireland than either; and greater tolerance of sexual difference particularly among the young, resulting in continual pressure for change. But the legal ban on abortion including for cases of rape, incest and fatal foetal abnormality remains in force and Northern Ireland is the only region in these islands not to permit same-sex marriage. Positive trends are partly offset by chronic economic inequality which is likely to be progressively less eased by a shrinking block grant and a reluctance to raise extra revenue locally. While internal threats from dissident republicans are contained, gangland activity from both loyalists and republicans still persists.

Although the report concludes that Northern Ireland has become more politically stable to withstand internal and external shocks, it also identifies too little progress in overcoming the underlying divisions. The question of whether repeated opinion poll findings in favour of greater social integration can be translated into active political support is left for discussion elsewhere.

Two mediation efforts by the British and Irish governments, the first of them unsuccessful, were needed to reach the present stability. In mid-2013, DUP–Sinn Féin relations had soured when the then DUP First Minister, Peter Robinson, withdrew support under party pressure for Sinn Féin’s  iconic project for a ‘peace and reconciliation’ centre at the former Maze Prison, the site of the 1981 hunger strike. In early 2014, the parties failed to agree a new framework of investigation and disclosure for the Troubles legacy proposed by the American mediators Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan.

Moreover, Sinn Féin did not like what they were hearing about welfare reform from Whitehall. Although a Stormont House Agreement was struck at Christmas 2014 to tackle these issues, Sinn Féin withdrew support when they realised the extent of the cuts entailed in the early iterations of welfare reform.

In 2015 relations went from bad to worse. Sinn Féin refused to pass the budget. Robinson demanded the suspension of the Assembly for a fundamental breach of the Good Friday Agreement after the Chief Constable declared that two tit- for- tat killings in Belfast were the culmination of an internal IRA  feud. When the British government refused to suspend, he ‘stepped aside’ temporarily in favour of his eventual permanent successor, Arlene Foster, who had no personal involvement in the politics of the Troubles. By contrast with earlier breakdowns however, the public response to these manoeuvres was more exasperation than alarm. Consequently, with an election imminent, a Fresh Start agreement was reached mainly on  future  political process and only between the two leading parties. Legacy issues and controversial parades were once again farmed out for further consultation by arms- length bodies. Sinn Féin swallowed welfare reform after local mitigation measures were introduced, helped by fresh subsidy from London. Both parties promised better behaviour in government and approved plans to allow the minor parties to form an official opposition. The number of Executive departments was reduced from 11 to nine.

During the election campaign last spring, it became known that the DUP and Sinn Féin were collaborating privately on a new-style programme for government based on outcomes rather than history. Since then the first and deputy first ministers have regularly promised to ‘get on with the job’ of managing a ‘normal’ agenda of health and education reform and a planned programme for new infrastructure.

But behind the positive rhetoric from ministers, the Peace Monitoring Report finds that plans for the professed aim of building a united community are too tentative, being more permissive and depending on sectoral initiatives rather than proactivity on the part of government. ‘It has remained impossible to produce a policy on intercultural integration which has the philosophical “glue” to make it greater than the sum of its individual project parts’, says the report, adding endorsement of the view that ‘the Northern Ireland system promotes parallelism and not integration.’

In a key area of hard policy the activist Sinn Féin Finance Minister is expressing doubts about the promised devolution of corporation tax at the 12.5 per cent level to match the Republic’s, in view of a likely reduction of the GB rate to 15 per cent and a smaller block grant.

Important progress will be made in dealing with residual paramilitarism if a recent report is implemented. Sinn Féin have backed more active police involvement inside Belfast working class areas and along the border, accompanied by financial support for community development (often organised, it must be said, by former paramilitaries), and by lifting of the ban on public sector recruitment of convicted paramilitaries. These measures would probably be accompanied by a final stage of arms decommissioning by those who have been tacitly allowed to retain weapons against the possibility of attacks by rivals and – even more tacitly –  in recognition of their authority on the ground against dissident republicans.

On the tortured question of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, the report points to a number of Truth Commissions in other parts of the world. But this idea had failed to find favour locally and an amnesty is still ruled out. Despite general protestations of willingness to come forward if only the other side jumps first, further major disclosures and acknowledgment of gross human rights violations during the Troubles seem unlikely, as they are in no side’s political interest, including that of the British government. Omerta is not limited to the IRA.

Although the report does not reach firm conclusions – wisely no doubt – the dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin will continue indefinitely, regardless of the change from a multiparty to a two-party coalition. Under energetic new leaders the once dominant Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, acting as an official opposition, may help deliver greater accountability in the plenary and committees of the Assembly. But the possibility of their creating an alternative coalition is remote and would probably require them to form a pact for cross community voting – a risky development in a system where the sectarian divide is still definitive.

What of our anonymous official’s fears about Brexit? For the North the external threats now appear to exceed the internal. While the DUP and Sinn Féin may openly diverge politically, at a practical level they told the Prime Minister in a joint letter sent in August that they want to be fully engaged with both governments ‘on all the border issues of trade, employment, energy, and potential criminality that are of such high significance to us.’ So good luck with that.

It is a measure of progress that the actual border is no longer a subject of bitter division between the two Irish traditions. The paradoxical effect of a new border issue may be to provide essential glue to hold the system together and strengthen the strands of the Good Friday Agreement – subject to the final terms of Brexit and EU rules.

In domestic affairs it remains to be seen if the claims of Executive solidarity will deliver more than lowest common denominator results. Rather than comprehensive solutions, such progress as is available may continue to rely on small improvements under repeated applications of sticking plaster. But the ‘normal’ challenges of inequality remain as a constant reproach. That is the implied verdict of the Peace Monitoring Report.

About the author

Brian Walker is an Honorary Senior Research Fellow and media adviser at the Constitution Unit. He is a former political editor for BBC Northern Ireland.

One thought on “Northern Ireland has become more politically stable but little progress has been made in overcoming the underlying divisions

  1. Pingback: The Irish government is pursuing Northern Ireland’s interests more actively than the UK government | The Constitution Unit Blog

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