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A View North North power sharing has been no panacea

February 16, 2011

By Staff Reporter

By Jack Holland

When the political process ends up in the courts, then it is a sure sign that something is going wrong. It is not only the United States that is currently realizing this. In Northern Ireland, the process initiated by the Good Friday agreement has landed in the courts, thanks to a ban imposed by First Minister David Trimble on Sinn Fein delegates to prevent them attending meetings set up under the North-South Ministerial Council.

Sinn Fein’s two ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brun, who sit in the power-sharing executive, are bringing the actions against Trimble, questioning the legality of his move. But unlike the court hearings about the U.S. presidential election, the legal actions in Northern Ireland highlight a fundamental problem with that state and its institutions. It is simply that devolved government has become a source of instability that threatens the survival of the whole Good Friday agreement. It has proven to be so unstable — with one suspension of government already and another one threatened — that it must raise the question as to whether having a separate regime at Stormont is worth the trouble.

The truth is that the only time devolved government in the North proved stable was when Stormont was under Unionist control, from 1921-72. Any attempt since to restore devolved powers to the local politicians has proved disastrous. In 1974, it brought Northern Ireland to the brink of civil war.

While the situation today is less threatening than it was 26 years ago, the fact that even with cease-fires, concessions, and a host of elaborate compromises in place, the Northern Ireland government is still in a perpetual state of funk surely suggests there is a deep-seated problem with the whole exercise of devolving powers.

The 1921-72 experiment does not provide a model for the future, except to those who have failed to grasp the significance of the past. Its stability lasted only as long as the Nationalist minority was prepared to put up with the kind of discrimination on which Unionist rule depended. It can safely be said that it is an experiment that will not be repeated. In any case, the conditions now prevailing in Northern Ireland have changed so drastically that a stable, one-party government is something of an oxymoron.

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Coercion having failed, can a government based on persuasion work? That is the question.

Experience suggests not. Circumstances in 1974 worked against the first power-sharing government. Circumstances from 1998 onward should have favored the successful outcome of the repeat experiment, but so far they have not.

The Provisional IRA has ended its armed campaign. The Provisionals have accepted Stormont. Most Unionists have accepted power sharing with Nationalists as the basis of devolved government. Despite their doubts, many Unionists (if opinion polls are to be believed) continue to be in favor of devolved government and wish for it to continue. New Labor is eager to devolve power to the "fringes" and has set up local governments in Cardiff and Edinburgh. Dublin is a keen participant. Even the powerful influence of a United States president has been brought to bear on the situation. Still, since the fall of 1999, the effort to restore power to Belfast has produced one crisis after the next, creating instability. And it has now ended up in court, threatening a legal battle between Trimble and two of his ministers.

The problem is that the terms on which the IRA has ended its campaign of violence are not acceptable to some members of the Ulster Unionist Party, and have been more or less rejected totally by the more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party of the Rev. Ian Paisley. Ending the war is not enough to persuade these Unionists that Sinn Fein can be a legitimate partner in government. They want a more overt signal, i.e., the handing over or outright destruction of weapons.

The IRA, for its part, is not prepared to do this, and has never misled anyone into thinking the contrary. As far as it is concerned, the declaration of intent to uphold the peace process, plus the arms dumps inspections, is demonstration enough of its good faith. It will not take the next step just to ensure that Sinn Fein stays in government.

This means that the basis for stable partnership between Nationalists and Unionists does not really exist. The attempt by the British and Irish governments to create it has actually only succeeded in bringing out the differences that still exist between them, founded on deep-seated suspicions. Six years of the peace process have not made those suspicions go away. So it is that the efforts to create a stable, power-sharing government in Belfast has become, in fact, a source of continued instability. The logic of the Unionist and republican position makes that inevitable.

Republicans, of course, have never really wanted devolved government. Many within the Ulster Unionist Party are at best lukewarm to the idea, which has waxed and waned over the last three decades. The SDLP has been the most enthusiastic, but only if certain conditions are met.

The real force behind Northern Ireland devolution is Britain. That has been the case since about 1920. Giving the recalcitrant and troublesome Protestants their own parliament was one way of keeping them and the Irish problem at arm’s length. Even when that parliament was clearly making a terrible mess of things, Britain was reluctant to intervene, placing its hopes in Unionist moderates and common sense. It was only when Northern Ireland was on the verge of a complete breakdown that London allowed itself to be dragged kicking and screaming back into the Irish situation, and imposed Direct Rule in March 1972. Since then, it has been trying to create the circumstances whereby it can decently withdraw to a safe distance, and leave the locals to run their own show. The current peace process, Britain hoped, would provide the opportunity.

There was reason for hope. The IRA was prepared to settle, but on certain terms. The Unionists were prepared to settle, but on different terms. Word spinning glossed over the differences. But they keep reemerging around the matter of governance, which crystallizes them very neatly. Perhaps if governance were not an issue, a prolonged period of direct rule, with the cease-fires intact, would produce the conditions whereby equality and mutual trust would grow between the communities and allow for a permanent settlement to evolve.

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