What future for Northern Ireland as the political crisis deepens?

What future for Northern Ireland as the political crisis deepens?

Jeffrey Donaldson, leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) of Northern Ireland, House of Commons, London, May 17, 2022. (AFP)

Election results are supposed to tell us about the will of the people. Well, they used to, but not anymore. Today, we are left with a trail of clues wide open to interpretation at best, mainly because the results are becoming increasingly indecisive, reflecting a socio-political fragmentation that has gripped our societies, fueled by large partly by social media and poor leadership.
Of the various, mostly municipal, elections held in the UK this month, that for the Northern Ireland Assembly was probably the most intriguing. The emergence of Sinn Fein, the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army, as the biggest party in this British-controlled province – and with it the prospect of its vice-president Michelle O’Neill becoming prime minister – creates shock waves on both sides. from the Irish border, and in London too.
There is also a danger in over-interpreting the Northern Ireland results, as neither side won decisively. But with the municipal elections in Scotland, which were dominated by the Scottish National Party, there was a strong message of a wish to be freed from the domination of Westminster. Overall, these election results have also highlighted the question of whether people of different identities, whether from religion, ethnicity or history, and especially minorities, can be assured that they will not be forced to lose their identity, to be marginalized or, worse, to suffer discrimination. by the majority.
In the past, the answer was mainly division along religious or ethnic lines. The year it gained independence from the British, India was divided by partition between India and Pakistan along religious fault lines. Cyprus has remained divided since 1974 between its Greek and Turkish sectors. Yugoslavia disintegrated into several different countries. And in the case of Israel and Palestine, neither a one-state nor a two-state solution seems feasible in the foreseeable future.
All of these cases are dominated by identity politics, while two of the most notable experiences of political entities built on the basis of shared values ​​instead of ethnic, religious or class origins – the United States and the EU – are currently under strong domestic pressures due to such social divisions.
Returning to Northern Ireland, it is something of an anomaly, with an asymmetry between the strong desire of its Protestant Unionists to remain within the UK framework and the marked disinterest of the rest of the UK in whether or not he could join the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland is caught in a triangle between its difficult relationship with the UK and the Republic of Ireland and its own bigotry, a situation which has been further complicated by Brexit and its subsequent protocol on Northern Ireland. .
Demographic changes in this socio-political cauldron play a major role in how the winds blow over the future of Northern Ireland. More than a century after the partition of Ireland, Protestants have seen their majority in the north shrink from a two-to-one advantage in 1921 to less than 50% of the population. In a society whose main reason for belonging to the UK is the existence of a Protestant majority which considers itself British, this argument is rapidly losing credibility.
Additionally, in the Brexit referendum, Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU by a substantial majority, which had a direct and acute impact on the future of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. If the Good Friday Agreement succeeded in creating a kind of two-state solution in a one-state reality, where there is complete freedom of movement across the border between the north and the Republic in the south – when the two are EU members helped disguise that this was more of an Irish rather than a European arrangement – that claim has gone. Placing the border in the Irish Sea, and thereby calling into question Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom, is Unionists’ worst nightmare and gives nationalists hope and their dream of a future united Ireland.
Sinn Fein’s success at the polls could count for very little if the main unionist party, the Democratic Unionist Party, continues to refuse to take part in any new power-sharing administration in Stormont until the Northern Ireland Protocol be modified, as indicated. by its leader Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, reiterating his campaign promise. Under power-sharing rules, an executive can only be formed if the DUP appoints a deputy prime minister and other ministers, as per the Good Friday Agreement.
The DUP’s approach distorts both the original intent of the power-sharing mechanism, which seeks to give voice to both sides of the sectarian divide, and the will of voters as expressed in this month’s elections. this. However well-meaning those who designed the machinery of government in Northern Ireland to be respectful of all sectors of society, it is operated by a hardline minority, who are holding the country hostage and depriving it of of a functional government body to try to force the UK government to breach an international agreement that only came into force last year. Again, partisanship is willing to risk what is a peaceful but fragile coexistence; one that was achieved through blood, sweat and many tears.

Partisanship is ready to risk what is a peaceful but fragile coexistence; one that was achieved through blood, sweat and many tears.

Yossi Mekelberg

Is it true that a system of government based on power sharing should not remain in place indefinitely, because it will eventually become a tool to prosecute the conflict by other means? Stormont’s administration had previously been suspended for three years, and his suspension became leverage to extort political concessions, mocking the arrangement.
Northern Ireland has been an experiment in an (almost) one-state solution since the Good Friday Agreement, which has brought relative calm to the province. However, the establishment of a hybrid political system has given a veto to those who are not fully invested in healing the society from decades of bloody conflict, preventing it from becoming a society with a common goal. and deprived it for long periods of time of being governed in accordance with the will of the electorate.
More importantly, the system has so far failed to develop a Northern Irish identity that is inclusive of all its people, while celebrating the diversity of a heterogeneous society – a failure that leads to a paralysis of governance and prolongs the life of sectarianism and its threat to peace.

  • Yossi Mekelberg is Professor of International Relations and Associate Fellow of the MENA Program at Chatham House. He regularly collaborates with the international written and electronic media. Twitter: @YMekelberg

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