Gerard Howlin: Can the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain survive?

Gerard Howlin: Can the union between Northern Ireland and Great Britain survive?
The SDLP's Clare Hanna Colum Easwood and Nicola Mallon speaking to the media after talks to restore the Northern Ireland Powersharing executive at Stormont House in Belfast. PA Photo. Picture date: Tuesday December 17, 2019. Picture: Niall Carson/PA Wire

The political ground has shifted in the North since last Thursday’s election. The DUP-Sinn Féin duopoly took an electoral hit. For the first time in years, others are back on the main stage in the North.

Both larger parties have pressing reasons to re-establish the Stormont Assembly as a priority. There is as fair a wind for this now as there has been since an almost-done deal between the two was collapsed by the DUP in February 2018. The Assembly hasn’t functioned since Sinn Féin walked out in January 2017. Northern Irish voters rewarded both parties with the back of their hand.

There is a different dynamic now. The SDLP is back from the dead. It has two potentially impressive MPs going to Westminster — Colum Eastwood and Claire Hanna. The Alliance’s Stephen Farry in North Down, with the SDLP members, offers not just a counterpoint to a diminished DUP in the House of Commons, but an alternative voice to the abstentionist Sinn Féin. They will receive the oxygen of publicity too.

It is too much to say that the DUP-Sinn Féin duopoly has been broken however. But there is again an alternative. This is at a moment when the two are post-peak in electoral reach and in political capacity. In one sense, the duopoly was artificial. It could never be sustained indefinitely.

This is simply a move-on to some normalcy. But in politics, it’s always about momentum. Momentum has moved. Sinn Féin will want to be in office in the North before an election in the south. They must burnish their credentials as doers, not naysayers.

The House of Commons is now a cold house for the DUP. Nigel Dodds, now the ex-MP for North Belfast, was instrumental in undermining the almost-done deal of early last year. His wife is soon to be an ex-MEP. He bet the house on a Westminster-only strategy, imitating James Molyneaux and Enoch Powell in the lead-in to the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

The result was predictably the same, but with a difference. Neither that then nor the Good Friday Agreement since was a fundamental threat to the union. Both offered a broadening of the political base within a polarised community. They set the limits, as much as set out the aspirations of the Dublin government. They are the missed opportunities of unionism.

The bigger loser is clearly the DUP. If constitutional nationalists saw a reason to have an SDLP voice at Westminster, part of the unionist community baulked at the hard Brexit position of the larger unionist party. Worse, their incompetence has deeply damaged the union. The die is now cast. The remain game is over.

Brexit will be done. At a fundamental level, that will be one ultimate outcome of Brexit. The question is whether the union of Great Britain and the North can survive. Specifically, can the union of England and Scotland continue as the common entity called Great Britain?

Scottish nationalism fell short at the last referendum because of fear of the unknown, questions about economic viability and residual loyalty for many still to a 416-year- old union of kingdoms.

If Boris Johnson walks out of Downing Street across the main thoroughfare of Whitehall, the name of the sprawling palace that covered everything from there to the Thames, he immediately sees Inigo Jones’ Banqueting House.

Built by James VI and I, the first Scottish king to rule England, it is all that remains of the palace and was the first great neo-classical building in England. It represented modernity and James’ pretensions for a European role.

After his death in 1625, his son Charles I commissioned Peter Paul Rubens to paint a series of ceiling paintings which remain. One depicts ‘The Union of the Crowns’, another ‘The Apotheosis of James’, attended by the allegorical figures England and Scotland. Then this was the imaging and projection of a political project still in infancy. Now it is 400 years of history threatened with being redesignated as a memorial.

Containing Scotland, fending off a referendum and winning one ifit must come to it, is essential for Johnson. To lose Scotland would mean his immediate end. There was a reason, and as a classicist Johnson will know it, why as a Roman general processed in triumph, a slave stood in the chariot with him, whispering “memento mori” — thou art but mortal.

A Franciscan friar performed the same office for popes at their coronation. Triumph contains its own nemesis. This, now, is the issue for unionism. For Dublin, undoing the damage done to the British-Irish relationship of the past few years is essential. Since Taoiseach Leo Varadkar met Johnson on the Wirral on October 10, that is work in progress.

Varadkar was essential to Johnson, in allowing him square circles, and proceed on victorious to the early hours of last Friday morning. States, of course, have interests, not friends. It may be ultimately that Jonhson has neither.

The deal worked on the Wirral likewise reframes the North’s relationships with Britain and the EU. It means that, after Brexit, the channel between Belfast and Brussels runs through Dublin, not London. This is an opportunity to build bridges.

It requires, if only slowly and over time, that the DUP accept Dublin’s commitment to the spirit, as well as the letter, of the Good Friday Agreement. It underscores, too, the Farage style and scale of dislocation and distrust that would come from a border poll in the foreseeable future.

The Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil duopoly, too, is coming to an end. There is a simple decision for the Taoiseach. Does he wish, statesmanlike, to take the Government to an orderly conclusion with Fianna Fáil support, if he can? Or will he succumb to a misplaced sense of opportunity and call an election before an agreed date is arrived at?

There is the certainty of an election soon. The only variable is, firstly, who causes it, and, secondly, what events arise before it happens. The numbers in the Dáil mean that even if Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil agree, continuity to after Easter is not certain. Still, unlike the confidence vote in Housing minister Eoghan Murphy, the next one may have immediate and lethal consequences.

It would be brave for independent or left TDs to sign the execution warrant. If it happens, it is an event beyond control. What should be controlled is premature carelessness with the confidence and supply arrangement. If that happens, whoever bears the blame, will bear a consequence.

It is unclear whether Varadkar understands the toil and sweat Micheál Martin has put in in Fianna Fáil to keep the show on the road. Martin has his own vested interests, of course, and interests are never friendships. The finale of this Dáil, in the aftermath of Brexit,will be the last test of whether the centre can hold here, before an election.

The manner of its ending, will influence the public’s judgement in electing its successor.

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