Northern Ireland at the polls - Decades of real progress in jeopardy

FANTASY has all but achieved parity of esteem with reality in political debate, so maybe it’s possible to use it, even if a nightmarish kind, to make a point.

Imagine the morning, and this is more a ‘when’ than an ‘if’, when the airwaves come alive with reports of terrorist attacks in London’s Underground. “The first explosion was at Waterloo just before eight o’clock. Casualties unknown,” and, a few minutes later, “a second explosion has been reported, this time at Liverpool Street. Heavy casualties... ”

This dreadful scenario moved beyond the realm of possibility yesterday when Britain’s new terror watchdog warned that terrorism represents a threat not felt since the IRA campaigns of the 1970s. The agency warned that Islamic State was planning “indiscriminate attacks”. Imagine, then, if it was established that the bombers reached Britain via the North? Via the EU’s backdoor to post-Brexit Britain?

The security crackdown would be immediate and forceful. It would re-energise latent hatreds still dividing the North. The economic impact would be unprecedented; the border would not be “frictionless”.

Now, imagine a second fantasy-cum-possibility.

Sinn Féin wins more seats than the Democratic Unionist Party in Thursday’s Stormont elections and use that advantage to press for Irish unity. Such a possibility would make the violence of the Troubles seem as harmless as tag rugby. Sinn Féin’s Northern Ireland leader (unelected), Michelle O’Neill, has expressed her hope that Ireland will be reunified during her tenure as Sinn Féin’s Stormont leader, so a pincer movement of opposing forces converges. Even if there is a vote for Irish unity, it is impossible not to fear violent opposition. In that situation, it is not easy to imagine Britain, especially under a Tory prime minister, standing idly by.

There is a third nightmarish possibility, though this one is based on probability. Imagine if Thursday’s election throws up an as-you-were result. Sinn Féin insists Mrs Foster cannot be First Minister while the cash-for-ash scandal is investigated. Mrs Foster protests her innocence and insists she will be nominated if the numbers stack up.

In that eventuality, one more expected than any alternative, deadlock ensues. Stormont and even the optimism that it could have represented is set aside. Embittered deadlock and stasis follow. Tensions mount, while some House of Commons committee, disinterested and under-resourced, administers the North by remote control as if it were a troublesome, loss-making tea plantation from the long ago. That is the best-case scenario. As the rigours and tremendous cost of Brexit are better understood, the concerns of the North and its Remain voters slide to the end of a very long and lengthening queue. The option of a White House shoulder to cry on no longer exists.

It is a tragedy, a very real and present one, but the stability of the North and all of the progress made under the hard-won Good Friday agreement are in grave jeopardy. No-one on these islands can greet that prospect with anything other than the darkest apprehension.


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