Province of Permanent Instability ‘Normalises’
 

On March 7, electors in the Six Counties went to the polls to elect 108 members of the legislative assembly (MLAs).1 The elections are unusual in the sense that voters are asked to elect representatives to a devolved institution whose future existence is conditional upon the approval of Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party - something far from guaranteed at the present moment.

The London and Dublin governments are attempting to resurrect the Stormont assembly and construct a power-sharing executive “to underpin the gains that have already been made and to provide the basis for long-term stability”2 and therefore normalise British rule in Ireland. Both prime ministers are working hard to achieve a breakthrough - Blair because he will be retiring this year and wants to go down in history as the one who ‘brought peace to Ireland’ rather than war on Iraq; Ahern because he has a tight election to fight before the summer.

The business community is also arguing that Northern Ireland needs its own stable government to help its companies and people compete on the world stage. Frank Bryan, chairman of the Ulster branch of the Institute of Directors declared: “Northern Ireland is now presented with an opportunity to turn a talking shop at Stormont into real government - and if our political leaders are looking for the key to a better future, let me offer this simple analysis: it’s the economy, stupid. As Northern Ireland competes to win vital new investment and open up new world markets, stable political institutions are a prerequisite.”3

The results were a triumph for the DUP and a spectacular defeat for the Ulster Unionist Party. The DUP now has 36 MLAs - a gain of six seats since the 2003 elections. In contrast, the UUP only succeeded in getting 18 MLAs - a loss of nine.

In its election literature, the DUP boasted that it had been successful in getting: “unionists setting the political agenda”; a “DUP veto over all major decisions”, including “cross-border relations”; and what it called “republicans jumping first” and their “support for the police, the courts and the rule of British law”. It promised “a unionist-dominated executive” and unionist first minister and that is would “keep republicans under pressure”. It also pledged genuine devolution, “which will mean that the party will be able to stop legislation such as the Irish Language Act”.

According to Henry McDonald, writing in The Observer the huge increase in the DUP vote leaves unionism stronger: “For more than a decade, one of the consistent ironies of the Irish peace process has been unionism’s inability to comprehend its own strengths ... Both the Good Friday agreement of 1998 and latterly the St Andrews accord are grounded in the consent principle. That is, that there can be no change to Northern Ireland’s constitutional status without the say of the majority: ie, the unionists.

 “Republicans used to call this the ‘unionist veto’, denouncing it as an undemocratic maintenance of partition by a ‘national minority’ on the island. Now, the very people who once were so vocal in opposing the principle of consent, Sinn Féin, embrace it. This is a historic 360-degree turn by the republican movement, which no amount of verbal gymnastics or over-emphasis on relatively weak cross-border bodies can contradict.

“The fall-out from last week’s assembly elections also leaves unionism stronger. Unionists now control a majority of the ministries should the

DUP choose to enter into a power-sharing coalition with nationalists, including Sinn Féin. They will hold six portfolios, compared to the four held by nationalists. By taking up Peter Hain’s offer to restore devolution, Paisley will also preserve, among other things, academic selection. Unionism’s middle classes are particularly fond of Northern Ireland’s renowned grammar schools; the DUP is tantalisingly close to saving them and claiming the glory for doing so.”4

With its increased share of the vote, then, the DUP is likely to impose even more humiliating terms on the Provisionals.

On the nationalist side, Provisional Sinn Féin increased its share of the vote, with 28 MLAs returned - a gain of four seats compared to 2003. Its rival, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, continued its decline, losing two seats and returning 16 MLAs.

If, however, the increase in DUP votes leaves unionism stronger, the same cannot be said for republicanism: “The more effective that Sinn Féin is as an electoral force, the more impotent it becomes as an ideological one. Every deal it strikes with Tony Blair legitimises the British presence in Northern Ireland. Every concession it secures that advances the economic and social standing of ordinary Roman catholics in Ulster weakens the argument that it is only through Irish unification that those material interests can be realised. With every step that Ulster takes towards becoming a ‘normal society’, what Sinn Féin officially regards as an ‘interim settlement’ becomes more deeply entrenched.

“This is the outlook for Republicanism. A larger and larger number of nationalists in both the north and the south will vote for Sinn Féin – but more because they regard it as the best vehicle for representing them in a divided Ireland than out of support for a united one. Nor will it make much difference if catholics finally outbreed protestants in Ulster. Even at the height of the troubles a substantial percentage of nationalists preferred the status quo to the upheaval of unification.”5

Or, as Anthony McIntyre puts it, “To claim that there are more republicans in Ireland today than ever before because of the electoral strength behind Sinn Féin is on a ludicrous par with the claim that there are moresocialists in Britain because of the Labour Party vote. Labour is as socialist as Sinn Féin is republican.”6 Nowhere is that better illustrated than by the fact that if is there is a power-sharing deal, Sinn Féin will go down in history as the party that put Paisley in power!

The big losers in the election are the traditional republicans. For the first time, six candidates stood for Republican Sinn Féin, who gathered an average of 1% of first-preference votes in the constituencies contested. Oppositional votes went mainly to Labourite ventures that ignored the national question. The People Before Profit candidate in West Belfast polled over 700 votes compared to RSF’s 437. In Derry, Éamonn McCann received over 2,000 votes, compared to 1,789 that went to Independent Republican Socialist candidate Peggy O Hara. The fact that oppositional politics are now reduced to what Connolly called ‘gas and water socialism’ is in itself an indication of how successfully normalised the north has become.

What was striking about the election campaign was that, contrary to the claims of international media that it was ‘historic’, it “has been one of the most low-key in living memory”.7 Late in February, The Irish News noted: “The election campaign which should now be reaching a climax has actually become one of the most low-key in recent memory ... no single new issue has emerged over recent weeks which has the potential to capture the imagination of the wider public.”8 Only 63% of the electorate bothered to vote - a turnout lower than 1998 and 2003. The BBC Northern Ireland political editor claimed that an election campaign had never been “so  dull”.9

Also, significantly, “the border question - for so long the only issue that mattered - has for the first time disappeared from the electoral agenda”:10 “Politics now seem to be about how much additional expenditure party leaders can jointly secure from the treasury ... A new politics based on butter, not guns, in Ulster is a massive improvement.”11

These two facts prove how successful the British state policy of normalisation has been: “The result is a kind of hyper-normality, in which there can be no real policy disagreements because everyone is going to endm up on the same side, governing together. It means Northern Ireland ism about to jump from civil war to soggy consensuality, without ever passing through democratic, adversarial politics.”12

That is because all parties elected to the Stormont assembly adhere to them same neoliberal agenda: “Sinn Féin’s original aim of a 32-county socialist republic now appears closer to a six-county capitalist monarchy. Those who included the ‘Labour’ in the SDLP’s title have long since gone ... The DUP’s christian influence might have led it to oppose society’s more obvious inequalities. But poverty could never quite stir the faithful to the same degree of indignation as homosexuality. The UUP has always been unashamedly capitalist. It opposed the introduction of the welfare state into the north”.13

Even worse, from a UK point of view, by arguing for an all-Ireland tax rate of 17.5%, “Sinn Féin is standing slightly to the right of the Conservative Party and the Confederation of British Industry in wanting the north’s rate for this tax slashed.”14

 The DUP and the Provisional movement are now supposed to reach an agreement, following which a devolved power-sharing government will be restored on March 26. The British government has told them that their choice is devolution or dissolution by that date. Which means that the DUP is caught between two imperatives: “Political deadlines have been missed, rather than met, in Northern Ireland. And, in the past, republicans frequently failed to step up to the mark. This time, things are different.

The IRA has disarmed and Sinn Féin, in the words of Martin McGuiness, has declared ‘wholehearted support for the PSNI’. The party desperately wants to enter government. But the DUP appears determined to impose a period of, political quarantine. Nothing but ritual and humiliation can be served by such an approach.”15

On the one hand, ritual humiliation of nationalists has been central to DUP agenda. But on the other, as Dean Godson, the shrewdest analyst of unionist politics noted, Paisley’s agenda has always been about his own personal power which might motivate him to secure a deal with the Provisionals by March 26.16

The concluding words go to Ed Moloney, whose analysis written six months ago is more relevant than ever: “As I write this, the peace process, its beginning dated by the first ceasefire of 1994, has lasted nearly three times longer than World War I, almost twice as long as World War II, and virtually as long as American involvement in Vietnam. Not only is the peace process in Northern Ireland one of the longest in human history, but the political stability it promised is as far off as ever, and in its stead extremism has triumphed.

“Moderate unionist trust in the process has evaporated, and protestants have flocked to support a party whose founder and everlasting leader combines the worst elements of religious and political extremism - one who built his career on bigotry, division, fear and conflict and many of whose apparatchiks behave like mindless, loyal bullies.

“The majority of nationalists now support a party that is morally bankrupt, whose leaders lie outrageously and who stand accused of the most heinous deeds - from disappearing a widowed mother to contriving the deaths of hunger-striking comrades - to advance their own political ambitions. Each has grown fat on the back of community division spawned by a peace process that seems never to end, spurred on by two governments whose leaders behave as if they care less for the sort of society they are helping to create, and much more about their own place in the history books.

“Fundamental to the political prosperity of Sinn Féin and the DUP has been the failure of the peace process to produce political stability. The pattern has been repeated endlessly, to the benefit of both.”17

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Notes

1. For detailed election results check http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/shared/vote2007/nielection/html/main.stm.

2. David McKittrick The Independent March 7.

3. Nigel Tilson Belfast Telegraph February 9.

4. Henry McDonald The Observer March 11.

5. Tim Hames The Times August 1 2005.

6. Anthony McIntyre The Blanket http://lark.phoblacht.net/AM280107.html.

7. Editorial The Irish News March 6.

8. Editorial The Irish News February 26.

9. Mark Devenport, BBC, March3,

http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/northern_ireland/6414717.stm.

10 David Sharrock The Times March 5.

11. Editorial The Times March 5.

12. Jonathan Freedland The Guardian March 7.

13. Patrick Murphy The Irish News December 23 2006.

14. Marc Coleman The Irish Times March 6.

15. Editorial The Irish Times March 10.

16. Dean Godson The Times March 13.

17. Ed Moloney The peace process and journalism in Britain and Ireland:
lives entwined Vol 2, London 2006, pp77-78.