Radical Reconfigurations? Old and new futures in Northern Ireland

by | 15 Jun 2017

As the Conservative Party’s majority evaporated in the early hours of 9th June 2017, the new parliamentary power of the DUP quickly came into focus. With Sinn Fein resolutely abstaining from taking their seats, the Democratic Unionist Party find themselves in a position to enter a formal coalition or, more likely, a confidence and supply agreement with the Tories. On the straightforward arithmetic, there is no reason that such an arrangement cannot last a full five-year fixed term. Politically, however, it seems impossible. For the immediate future, however, it suits both Labour and the Conservatives to let the dust settle, make necessary internal changes within their parties, and allow new political distinctions to emerge in particular with regards to Brexit and the budget. There is little point in making concrete predictions about the future; the only thing certain is that it will be different from the past. Here, I offer some context to the present moment, and suggest some possibilities for renewed critical thinking and politics in Northern Ireland.

Inverting devolved power

With the DUP-Conservative pact, we are faced with an unexpected inversion of the structure of power between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. The Northern Ireland Act 1998 lists a fixed set of decision-making powers devolved to the local Assembly government at Stormont. Stormont has been suspended since early 2017, after the late Martin McGuinness resigned as Deputy First Minister in protest at the DUP leader Arlene Foster’s refusal to step aside as First Minister to await the results of an investigation into the perverse Renewable Heat Incentive subsidy. Foster was minister at the Department for the Economy in 2012 when the uncapped ‘cash for ash’ scheme was created, effectively paying people to operate wood pellet-fuelled boilers regardless of the circumstances. Over two thousand boilers were installed, many heating empty barns, and there have been allegations that people with personal connections to the ministry may have been advised to sign up before the scheme was cut off in April. An inquiry is underway and oral hearings will begin in the autumn. With Stormont still suspended, Northern Ireland is effectively in political stasis, at least institutionally speaking.

If Sinn Fein and the DUP, as the majority nationalist and unionist parties, cannot agree to form a new local government, then the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can re-impose direct rule from London. The whole devolved power arrangement thus assumes a priori that the government in Westminster is the centre of sovereign power, and Stormont the supplicant, exercising only the powers specified in the 1998 Act. For a British Prime Minister to rely on the DUP’s support within Westminster completely negates this assumption. Suddenly, unexpected political possibilities are open to the DUP: the Northern Ireland Secretary, James Brokenshire, effectively wields power only with their support. It is impossible to guess in advance what favours to the DUP the Tories now depend upon, but by definition, the government now lacks the authority required to act as a neutral broker.

The DUP will calculate how to extract concessions while minimising the risk of collapsing the arrangement altogether. Most likely it will involve money, perhaps funding some things their supporters approve of along with general things to allow the DUP, elected with only around 220,000 votes, to claim to speak for Northern Ireland as a whole, solidifying their vote amongst ‘soft’ unionists. More ominous rumours circulating on social media about abortion time limits and the Parades Commission’s control over contentious Orange Order parades are harder to predict. Whether or not there is any substance to such rumours we shall see, but it seems likely any nationwide issue like abortion would be so passionately protested that, from the perspective of stability, it would be idiotic for the Conservatives to agree. Parades are a different matter. Theresa May has already provided ample evidence that any problems that can be confined to Northern Ireland are of little consequence to her. Once the anterior issue of British neutrality has been abandoned, anything else might come up for discussion. But if this is a moment of destabilisation, a genuine political event, or even a point of dialectical inversion, what exactly is at stake?

Structure and silence

The structural problems of the Northern Ireland settlement have been festering for a while, even though the present stability has existed since 1997, and has always been relevant to what came before. Only in the mid-1990s did the British and Irish governments publicly position themselves as neutral arbiters in a Northern Ireland ‘peace process’. Before that, there were two broad phases of British strategy in response to the ‘Troubles’: first, the aggressive military suppression of republican political violence in the 1970s; second, the criminalisation and ‘normalisation’ of political violence in the 1980s, when the partisan police force, the RUC, took the lead. The first strategy exacerbated political violence; the second merely contained it to ‘acceptable levels’ through the temporary imposition of emergency policing and surveillance powers; now ‘normalised’ throughout the UK in permanent and myriad terrorist legislation. In both phases, the term ‘terrorism’ was used to delegitimise violence that the state did not approve of in public discourse. Meanwhile, the degree of collusion and co-operation behind the scenes can only really be guessed at. Killings of civilians by the security services were not properly investigated and, until the case of Lee Rigby, did not result in prosecutions. Collusion between paramilitaries and the security services are now well documented. Informants and double agents compromised the IRA; most notably the former head of internal security is an alleged Army agent now living in hiding. Talks between the intelligence services and combatants went on secretly for a long time. In very broad terms, the resolution of the violence in Northern Ireland required the integration of paramilitary violence into political discourse. Adrian Guelke calls this the strategy of ‘acceptance’. Rather than suppression and normalisation, acceptance relied on a mutual agreement to stop the violence, which had taken on a cyclic logic of its own, by bringing the protagonists into public discussion. Acceptance and legitimation created conditions to end political violence and thus dismantle much of the physical security apparatus from streets and towns, and thereby to try to grow a decimated local economy. It included acknowledging that political parties have integrated, formally or informally, groups and individuals that used violence, some of which maintain some paramilitary or gangster elements. This, it is said, is the ‘price of peace’ and stability.

The Assembly at Stormont was designed as a consociational legislature and government. Formally, all Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs) and their parties must declare as pro-unionist, pro-nationalist, or neutral. Measures can only pass in the Assembly with the support of a majority vote within both the nationalist and unionist factions. In theory this rewards centre-ground policies that a majority from both sides can agree on, because the other side will reject partisan measures. In practice, it entrenches the sectarian nationalist/unionist distinction and means that communitarian parties need only appeal electorally to their own people, rewarding extreme parties that can simply accuse centrist compromisers of irrelevance, or selling out. Hence while the larger ‘moderate’ parties of the 1990s, the UUP and SDLP, forged the Agreement, the DUP and Sinn Fein have now practically wiped them out as electoral forces. This in itself is not necessarily a failure of the consociational system, because it integrated opinions and perspectives that were previously channelled into political violence. But a guaranteed turnout practically guarantees conditions under which electoral accountability is effectively non-existent. Hence when Sinn Fein suggested Arlene Foster step aside at least until her name has been cleared of the whiff of corruption, she replied that she does not take orders from Sinn Fein. It has also recently emerged that before the EU referendum, under the auspices of the financial secrecy rules designed to protect donors to Northern Irish political parties from violent intimidation, the DUP received £435,000 from the ‘Constitutional Research Council’, run by a Scottish Tory with links to a former Saudi head of intelligence, most of which it spent on campaign ads in England.

But rather than focus on any particular corruption scandal – there are more – the point to note is that the Agreement did, for a while, enable a mutual second-order silence to be deployed in the name of stability. In other words, the always-temporary stability of Northern Ireland depended on silence; more precisely, on the careful deployment of structured silences. Within their communities, politicians were free to express their views about the others in order to achieve votes; but within the Assembly itself a set of selective silences over contentious and unresolved issues were (silently) agreed upon. These silences included the border to some extent, but are more keenly felt by the many people in Northern Ireland who would prefer to engage in progressive politics. There are plenty of issues simply excluded from the agenda: reproductive rights, housing and social care, income inequality, and so on. A few years ago, the much-derided rhetoric of a ‘shared future’ agenda summed it up: Sinn Fein and the DUP tried to engage in some hopeful technocratic realpolitik ended up exposing themselves as hopelessly unable to say anything at all. This is not because no one was there to say it. The Green Party, for instance, has been a notable voice of progressive politics in Stormont since 2011. It is because no one really wants to listen or ask questions.

New Futures

An unexpected casualty of the silent agreement to remain silent has been a paralytic effect on the ability to imagine politics beyond the frame of a sectarian binary. With a few notable exceptions, political discourse within the Assembly evolved into a binary of nationalist/unionist politics that reacted only to the aims or objections of the opposite side. The sectarian binary was institutionalised, financially and electorally rewarded, and endlessly reiterated, even by younger politicians. In short, the extra-political problem was solved only through political institutionalisation. As sociologist Katy Hayward points out, this institutionalisation of one set of distinctions enforces and reproduces a negative silence that prevents any articulation of a difference in the future. Without the future, what is left of politics?

Three major signals in the past year show how things have changed. The Tory deal with the DUP is the third and most recent, whatever it is and however long it holds. That the British government is prepared to do this in the name of Brexit is no coincidence; Brexit was the first signal. I need not reiterate here the technical and political reasons that the Irish border has, almost from nowhere, become a live issue as a consequence of the Brexit fantasy. It is not yet high on the agenda; there are too many unanswered questions on all sides. But Britons belligerently fantasising about isolated splendour free from Europe should beware: the Irish fantasy of independence and unity is far older, runs far deeper, and has a richer roster of legends and martyrs to call on. The silence has been broken on that front, and although the EU referendum, the NI Assembly election of March 2017, and the General Election of June 2017 have all saw the DUP come out on top, in each case the total unionist vote was less than 50% of the NI electorate, for the first time since the state was founded on 3 May 1921. The DUP will be aware of this, and concerned ahead of the centenary. The final signal to consider is the demonization of Jeremy Corbyn for speaking with Sinn Fein in the 1980s and 90s, during the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign. It was not really about Ireland but rather about painting Corbyn as anti-British and/or naively incapable of maintaining the anti-politics of our generalised and permanent state of emergency. Nonetheless, it represents a staggeringly reckless attitude towards the stabilising silence of the Northern Irish arrangements, and has been duly noted in Northern Ireland.

Those on the left who now triumphantly refer to the DUP’s connections to loyalist paramilitaries are right to highlight Tory hypocrisy over Corbyn, but they miss the bigger point. As the result of a series of political accidents, the Tories have taken the DUP out of the carefully designed anti-political containment tank of Stormont, and invited them into Downing Street. Consequently, politics is about to break out in Northern Ireland, as I suppose it has done everywhere else in Europe in recent years. As the dialectic unfolds, space is opening up for a radical reconfiguration. For once, some other future in Ireland is not only imaginable, but must be urgently imagined.


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