As it celebrates a century of existence, is Northern Ireland beginning to run out of road? Is it finally about to become the failed political entity that Charles Haughey once famously said it was?
Northern Ireland is now a jurisdiction that can only be governed one way — through power-sharing. Power-sharing depends on the ability of people to work together, even through gritted teeth. That ability, it seems, is about to be tested to the point of destruction.
Arlene Foster fell out with her own party’s grassroots at least in part because she hadn’t taken a strong enough position in support of conversion therapy. Conversion therapy is rooted in the conviction that any sexual orientation that isn’t heterosexual is a curse or a disease. There can hardly be another democratic party in Europe (let’s not mention the Bible Belt in the US) that seriously believes in this homophobic notion.
But there you are. Throughout Europe — and Ireland led the way — constitutions and legal systems are recognising the right of gay people to marry and to live their lives as full and equal citizens. In Northern Ireland, there is a political party that still wants to dabble in conversion therapy.
And it is now led by a man who believes the Earth is probably no more than 4,000 years old.
Here’s the thing. Edwin Poots is entitled to his religious beliefs. Those who supported his leadership challenge went to great pains to stress that, in his work as a minister, he leaves his religion at the door. He wouldn’t be the first person of faith to rise to the top in politics and, until he proves otherwise, it would be profoundly unfair to assume that he is going to follow the dictates of any religion in carrying out his public office.
Nevertheless, it seems clear that we are now about to enter a period of political instability in Northern Ireland. Poots has promised to make the removal of the Northern Ireland Protocol his number one priority. That way lies division and disaster.
Because one part of this island is part of Europe and the other one isn’t, sooner or later there has to be a moment of reckoning. For as long as Northern Ireland remains part of the UK, there will have to be a border between that jurisdiction and the European jurisdiction sooner or later. It will have to be on the island of Ireland, or (metaphorically) in the Irish Sea.
A hundred years ago this month, with the coming into law of the UK’s Government of Ireland Act, the border on the island was created. It was actually thought at the time by the powers that be in London that a division of the country, and a border on the island, would contribute to peace.
It never has. For a good deal of that time, as everyone knows, partition contributed to division. Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, if you crossed the border going north you knew that you were heading into risky country. In those years, the border was manned by heavily-armed soldiers, who seldom approached a car with an Irish registration without their rifles at the ready. I can still remember the intense anxiety of being questioned by a British army officer because I had forgotten to bring identity papers with me.
I know Poots isn’t actively advocating that we return to that. But if he succeeds in upending the Northern Ireland Protocol, there will be no alternative to the development of customs and taxation barriers all along the now invisible border. And they will be sitting ducks.
Apart from all that, there can’t be any going back. The man who founded Poots’ party, Ian Paisley, found accommodation with Martin McGuinness — and it was one of the most remarkable political developments of all our lifetimes. It seems now as if the successors to Paisley — Robinson, Foster, Poots — all want to go back to the time before Ian and Martin would chuckle together. The difference between the successors seems to be one of degree: Robinson presented a much harder edge than the now cuddly Big Ian; Foster wanted to be seen as tougher even than Robinson; and now Poots seems to want to drag the party right back to its ‘Ulster Says No’ roots.
If the world stood still, the tactic of forcing the pace on the protocol might work. There are some signs now that (probably for short-term reasons, since they’re the only ones that ever appeal to Boris Johnson) the British government might be willing to hitch its wagon even tighter to an anti-protocol star. Giving Poots a victory, if it could be engineered, might be one way of enabling him to settle into a power-sharing arrangement.
And Johnson never seems to mind upsetting Brussels.
But the world is not standing still. All around Johnson, the plates are beginning to shift. Nicola Sturgeon won enough of a mandate in the recent elections to begin putting together the basis for another Scottish referendum. Right now, all the signs are that if she gets it, she’ll win it.
If that happens, the word ‘union’ which is key to the name ‘Democratic Unionist Party’ will have a rather ragged look to it. The immediate reaction to that outcome from Sinn Féin and others will be to push as hard as possible for a plebiscite on this island. I know they talk about it constantly, but a change in the relationship between Scotland and the UK would represent a huge upping of the ante.
I’ve written here before that I don’t know what the people of this island would say if we asked them about a united Ireland — an Ireland where northerners wouldn’t be guaranteed access to the NHS, and southerners would find there are huge bills to pay. But that could be where we’re headed.
I never bought Haughey’s line about a failed political entity. But for most of its 100 years, Northern Ireland was a deeply troubled political entity. In the first half of its existence, it lost most of its industrial strength and became ever more dependent on the UK taxpayer — to the point now that, if that subsidy was withdrawn by Westminster and not replaced by someone else, it could effectively shut its doors.
And, for most of the second half of its existence, Northern Ireland was torn apart by sectarian strife and bloodshed. Ironically, perhaps the only time Northern Ireland could claim real success was when it discovered the benefits of a peace process and democratic ways of sharing power.
For all sorts of reasons, Edwin Poots could turn out to be the last leader of his party to have a chance of really leading Northern Ireland into a period of reconciliation and progress. He would have to swallow hard, I suppose, and reach out in a way that only one of his predecessors ultimately managed. With that would come new prosperity and a better future, I believe.
But if he goes the other way, and decides that only a hard line will serve, then he may well end up proving Charles Haughey right.