North’s chorus of despair: Veneer looks as if it may finally crack

When a fiction-based resolution of a crisis starts to unravel it is not always easy to pinpoint the moment progress reverts to tribal retrenchment.

For the sake of neatness let us assume that the current escalation of tension in the non-politics of Northern Ireland began when Martin McGuinness resigned as Stormont’s deputy first minister in January of last year.

That walkout was a culmination of many issues, real and imagined. It was also the start of another cycle of never-never-never stonewalling and deepening distrust — if that were possible.

In the 15 months since Stormont made itself irrelevant and abandoned its electorate to Brexit, there have been disheartening examples suggesting that the veneer covering what passes for cooperation between the extreme wings of the North’s traditions — the occasionally democratic Democratic Unionist Party and their green shadow Sinn Féin — may be close to cracking.

That grim prospect, as the lunacy of Brexit intensifies, hardly bears contemplation.

The asinine social-media posting by sacked Sinn Féin MP Barry McElduff on the anniversary of the Kingsmill massacre was one example.

Suspending Senator Máire Devine over “unacceptable” tweeting of a remark about prison officer Brian Stack, who was murdered by the IRA was another.

DUP leader Arlene Foster added her tuppence worth to this toxic sledging last week when, on BBC TV, she said that in the eventuality of a united Ireland that “I’m not sure that I would be able to continue to live here”.

No matter how she intended it that provocative remark was, at best, gratutiously offensive to her southern neighbours.

Nobel peace laureate and former unionist leader David Trimble, a man who should know better, joined the naysayers’ chorus over recent days.

He warned that the Irish Government’s position on a post-Brexit border risked provoking loyalist paramilitaries.

Maybe because it’s been so long since the last tacit call to arms, the last tirade of Paisleyesque bullying featured in this discourse that this intervention seems so dangerously wrong-headed.

Is he suggesting those paramilitaries would be justified if they resumed their campaign? Is he suggesting the Irish Government should play second fiddle in Border talks?

Former Taoiseach Bertie Ahern joined in and criticised Britain’s increasing neglect of the North saying it is “more aloof than ever”. Mr Ahern is right but it is hard to imagine how Boris Johnson’s arrival in Belfast might lead to progress.

One of the saner voices of recent days was that of SDLP leader Colum Eastwood who criticised Trimble’s scaremongering. Apart from underlining the consequences of tailoring a peace deal to placate extremists rather than moderates Mr Eastwood showed that hope and Northern Ireland are not mutually exclusive.

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Later this year, just days before the Pope’s visit, we will mark another 20th anniversary.

Anyone who thinks this tribal point scoring is unimportant and irrelevant to their lives, or too young to know, should Google “Omagh Bombing” — because we may have forgotten what an awful price political failure exacts.

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