If you want to protect the union, get back to Stormont
What a week.
A quarter century on, the Good Friday Agreement is centre stage. Major global figures are heralding a huge, historic, frankly wonderful achievement. What a momentous thing it was. What a momentous thing it has proven to be.
At the same time, the Assembly and Executive that are a huge part of that legacy are on the floor. Local politics remains divided and destructive. Northern Ireland is in a right state.
And, in the midst of the ongoing wreckage, the people choosing to maintain Stormont’s collapse are at risk of torpedoing their own political desires.
Scope wrote last week about the slow progress of the past 25 years. Since the collapse of Stormont, many of our articles have focused on one particular issue or another and, with great frequency, a regular, unavoidable conclusion is that the absence of an Executive and Assembly is making things worse. Where does Northern Ireland go now?
The starting point should be Stormont. Perhaps a greatly-reformed Stormont (although any reforms would need broad buy in; any imposition would be bound to fail) but nonetheless things need to begin in the House on the Hill.
A working Assembly and Executive feel very far aware, yet change can happen quickly. If a majority of unionist politicians come to think that taking their seats, on balance, serves their aims, then all things are possible.
Hardline unionists – meaning, for the most part, the DUP and TUV – have always been sniffy about Stormont. They find power sharing with Sinn Fein distasteful, to put it mildly.
Even the very concept of devolution is strange for people whose central political mission is to keep Northern Ireland’s relationship with the rest of the UK as close as possible. Westminster is the top of the pyramid and direct rule would represent the closest possible political integration.
But that’s just theory. An argument about the purity of abstract structures. The real world has more tangible interests.
Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey
Politics is played on grass, not paper. It is practice rather than theory – and the practical truth is this: the best way to curate Northern Ireland’s place in the UK is to make things work.
By doing that, you can make as many people as possible be as happy as possible with the status quo. Is that what’s happening right now?
Results from the latest Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey (NILTS) were published last week:
- 69% of respondents agree the GFA remains the best basis for governing NI
- 55% believe it needs at least some reform
- Only one in six (16%) say it should be removed altogether
Despite the support for the GFA remaining high, the picture is a bit more complicated. Participants were asked whether they trusted or distrusted (or were unsure) various institutions. The lowest level of trust was in the NI Executive (17%), which also had a high level of distrust (52%).
Westminster had the second highest level of trust (21%) and the highest level of distrust (60%).
It’s possible to squint at those findings and convince yourself there is no pressing need to get back to Stormont. Virtually no-one has any faith in it, expectations are very low.
That ignores the key point. This is people’s opinion of a dysfunctional Stormont. What are you expecting, chocolates and flowers?
In the absence of Stormont, Northern Ireland is breaking at the seams. Businesses, public services and the charitable sector are all struggling. It is true that Covid-19, the war in Ukraine and the rising cost-of-living are problems from outside our borders that have a huge role in all this pressure. Brexit, too - but both the DUP and TUV supported Brexit and deserve some of the blame for its consequences.
The numbers from NILTS show broad dissatisfaction. Dissatisfaction fuels the desire for change.
Per the findings:
- There has been a huge rise in support for Irish unification since the Brexit referendum (now 31%, compared to 14% in 2015).
- If there were a border poll tomorrow, 47% of respondents say they would vote to remain in the UK (down 6 percentage points from 2020), with 35% saying they would vote for a united Ireland.
Unionist politicians could kid themselves into thinking that they can do politics with eyes fixed on unionist voters only. That would be naïve.
The rise in support for Irish unification is not just based on changing green/orange/other demographics. Not directly, at least. A large number of people who were happy to remain in the UK are now not so happy about that. Some of them will be Irish nationalists, of course. Some will be political ‘others’. Some might even be unionists.
But the fact is a lot of them were happy with the status quo, and when they were happy the status quo was far more secure.
An article like this has to mention the Protocol. Unionist politicians didn’t like it, unionist voters didn’t like it, and the DUP made the decision to collapse Stormont in protest.
As always, the TUV stood diagonally behind the DUP and warned that any Lundyish acceptance of the Protocol would be met with fierce criticism. That is no doubt true. The TUV would then have been looking to take as many DUP votes as possible at subsequent elections.
That was obviously a worry for the DUP. Political parties like to win, winning allows you to do things, but Pyrrhic victories shouldn’t be celebrated.
Now we have the Windsor Framework, and (up until now) the DUP is locked into the same dynamic.
Does this really make sense? Losing votes to the TUV represents a significant, immediate risk for the party. However, their only tactic to fend that off comes with a hefty cost.
Not only has Stormont’s absence exacerbated and, in some cases, caused problems for NI’s economy and society, it is harming the DUP’s central mission.
Is a United Ireland likely tomorrow? Of course not. But it gets likelier and likelier – in the long-term, at least – the more that Northern Ireland fails to work.
Ian Paisley Jr seems to realise this. Speaking earlier this week, the North Antrim MP said: “The unionist community that I talk to is out of love with these institutions. And yet these institutions could be the only way to preserve the Union.”
Going back to Stormont represents a risk for the DUP. But sometimes politics requires risk, requires leadership and requires bravery.
Now, as we all look back to the momentous events of Good Friday in 1998, that should be obvious.
Frankly speaking, the two chief local architects of the Belfast Agreement paid a great price for their political bravery. But, if that’s the lesson someone takes from the careers of David Trimble and John Hume, public service just isn’t for them.
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