When David Cameron called his Brexit referendum, the potential difficulty of Northern Ireland was not uppermost in his mind. Nor does it seem to have worried Theresa May greatly when she announced a snap general election this week. Even before this fresh electoral battle, Northern Ireland’s politics were already — to paraphrase Sean O’Casey — in ‘a terrible state of chassis’. Perhaps May thought the existing chassis in Belfast couldn’t get any worse. On reflection, I’m not so sure.
The last Assembly election in March left the DUP and Sinn Fein, the two tribal behemoths, delicately balanced on 28 and 27 seats respectively. Unionists lost their overall majority. Six weeks later, the parties have yet to reach an agreement on forming a government. Dust is gathering on numerous in-trays, and urgent decisions are dangling in mid-air.
When the Stormont government is active, it is an extraordinary contraption, whose departments effectively operate as independent party fiefdoms. There is little concept of collective responsibility, a lack which allowed Sinn Fein to collapse the Executive in January, ostensibly over a DUP-administered renewable energy scheme: a hot mess that encouraged citizens to run wood-pellet boilers at a spiralling cost to the taxpayer.
Another factor decisively contributed: the serious ill-health of the late Martin McGuinness, who — endorsed with fierce joviality by the late Ian Paisley in 2007 — had spent nearly a decade as the one senior Sinn Fein figure the DUP could do business with. Now both Paisley and McGuinness have gone. To a small ripple of controversy last week, McGuinness’s headstone was unveiled. It was proudly inscribed to ‘Oglach Martin McGuinness’ — ‘Oglach’ being the name the IRA gives its volunteers. The time for public equivocation on when he left the IRA (1974, he always said, though no one else did) is clearly over.
James Brokenshire, the Northern Ireland Secretary, set the two parties a deadline for agreement and then another one or two. If they could seal a deal, he said, legislation for a new devolved government could be fast-tracked by early May. But what does everyone actually want? On that, the game has changed.
While the Brexit vote is far from the source of Northern Ireland’s disagreements, it has brought a whiff of structural fluidity to events, which Sinn Fein is instinctively keen to exploit. After a long spell mired in the administrative minutiae of Stormont, studiously consolidating its respectability, the party can suddenly feel the wind in its hair: an exhilarating, free-ranging sense of wider ground to be gained. In an article in the Guardian after the death of McGuinness, Gerry Adams was frank about his party’s motivations. ‘There was not a bad Martin McGuinness and a good Martin McGuinness,’ Adams wrote. Although there had been ‘a different strategy’, the objective of a united Ireland remained the same — and now that Sinn Fein had made dramatic political advances, it was time for ‘a necessary conversation on a new Ireland’.
The first aspect of that increasingly vigorous conversation is on what Adams has taken to calling ‘rights-based issues’, a progressive-sounding phrase which hides acrimonious wrangling on cultural and historical grounds. It involves Sinn Fein pressing a reluctant DUP to agree to a stand-alone Irish Language Act placing Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland alongside English (some unionists accuse Sinn Fein of ‘weaponising’ Irish). The party is also demanding a ‘Bill of Rights’ and an agreed approach to ‘legacy issues’ of the violent past. Michelle O’Neill, Sinn Fein’s new party leader, recently reiterated its line that there should be ‘no hierarchy of victims’, by which criterion an IRA member who was killed setting off a bomb would be officially regarded as a tragic victim of the Troubles in the same way as the civilians he blew up.
The second aspect is around Brexit. Sinn Fein wants ‘special status’ for Northern Ireland within the EU to avoid the return of a hard border with the Republic. Nobody, including unionists, either wants or expects the return of a hard border, although precisely how one monitors the passage of goods and people across a soft one will require ingenuity.
Mrs May’s general election has been seized by Northern Ireland parties as a form of referendum on Brexit, Irish unity and the seesawing balance of power between nationalists and unionists. The stakes this time are unusually high, and both the DUP and Sinn Fein will be tub-thumping louder than ever to get their maximum vote out. As Stormont softly rusts, outside it’s back to the old dance. They all know the steps.