Stalemate in Northern Ireland – ISN

With deadlock in Northern Ireland, the Irish and British governments could override local institutions in a potentially-destabilizing maneuver aiming to make parties cooperate.

DUBLIN — A year after the Irish Republican Army (IRA) announced the end to its almost-40 year armed campaign against British rule in Northern Ireland, political progress remains piecemeal in the long-divided region.

The IRA’s ongoing reticence to disarm was a key constraining factor in Northern Ireland’s slow-moving peace-building process. But now despite the organizations’ disarmament, ongoing wrangles have prevented the revival of the regional political institutions, which give Northern Ireland significant devolved authority from London. These institutions remain core aspects of the 1998 ‘Good Friday’ peace agreement.

The British and Irish governments have stated their intention to put some of the institutions into ‘cold storage’ if a 24 November deadline for restarting devolution is not met by the political parties.

Both prime ministers have described the deadline is the last chance for politicians to restore Northern Ireland’s devolved government, suspended since November 2002 amid allegations of IRA espionage at the government headquarters in Belfast. Blair said “This is the last chance for this generation to make this process work.” However, looming behind this is an apparent willingness by the governments to impose an undefined form of ‘joint authority’ over Northern Ireland – effectively governed by both London and Dublin.

If this does come to pass, it will represent a fundamental change to peace-building in Northern Ireland. The 1998 peace agreement sought to institutionalize compromises on national affiliation, whereby Northern Ireland would remain part of the UK so long as the majority of its people remained in favor, but would attain significant autonomy based on nationalist-unionist co-operation in an elected assembly and executive body.

Six areas of formal co-operation between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, the independent Irish state which covers most of the island of Ireland, and to which Northern Ireland’s nationalists seek to unite with, were also part of the agreement. However, the imposition of some form of joint Anglo-Irish governance in Northern Ireland would represent a new departure.

Both aspects – the stated intention to put the institutions into cold storage and the unstated threat of joint authority – remain controversial. Increased Anglo-Irish co-operation will be fiercely resisted by unionists – the largely Protestant majority in Northern Ireland that favors retention of the ‘Union’ with Great Britain.

At the same time, it remains unclear how dedicated unionist support for the devolved institutions is. Certainly support for the peace process declined sharply among unionists in the years after 1998 – as the IRA’s reluctance to disarm and the continuation of its criminal network combined to alienate Protestants already wary of the deal.

Distrust of the general nature of the post-agreement Northern Ireland is exacerbated by a distrust of the London government intentions vis-à-vis Northern Ireland. Unionists do not feel that the British government is as dedicated to upholding the union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland as they are, and this is the key existential fear underlying unionist politics.

Meanwhile, of the nationalist parties, Sinn Féin’s public support for devolution is contingent on perceived electoral gains, particularly with a general election looming in the Republic of Ireland in 2007.

As things stand, Sinn Féin – which is linked to the IRA – is the sole party to contest elections in both Northern Ireland/UK and the Irish Republic. With a current opinion poll rating of 10-11 percent, Sinn Féin could end up holding the balance-of-power in Dublin by this time next year.

The current governing coalition in Dublin is looking increasingly unlikely to retain power, and the lead party Fianna Fáil – historically an offshoot of the old Sinn Féin organization that won independence for the Irish Republic in 1921 – will be looking around for potential coalition partners.

Polarization of political opinion in the region since the 1998 agreement lies behind the current stasis. At the time of the 1998 agreement, the two lead political parties were the so-called ‘moderates’ on both the nationalist and unionist sides – the Social, Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) and the Ulster Unionist Party. Now, both have been overtaken by Sinn Féin and the DUP respectively, ostensibly realizing a hardening of attitudes on both sides of Northern Ireland’s communal divide.

On the nationalist side, John Hume, the then-leader of the SDLP, was closely identified with the 1998 agreement, to such an extent that once the agreement was delivered, it was not always clear to nationalist voters outside the SDLP core just what the SDLP could deliver in terms of moving Northern Ireland towards closer alignment with the Republic of Ireland.

Sinn Féin has been a more cohesive and focused unit, at least up until 2005, with constant references to its ‘all-Ireland’ profile and an implicit message that it will deliver a unified Irish state more quickly than the SDLP.

However on January 2005 the murder of a Robert McCartney, a Belfast Catholic, by drunken ‘off-duty’ IRA men was widely reviled, winning the deceased family an audience with US president George W Bush and bringing condemnation on Sinn Féin.

Meanwhile, one of Europe’s largest-ever bank robberies was carried out in late 2004, where the theft of €33million (US$42 million) was widely blamed on the IRA. And in late 2005, despite the IRA statement that its war had ended, 3 IRA men accused of training FARC rebels in Colombia escaped from custody in that country, resurfacing on Irish television news 3 months later.

The SDLP made a mini-revival in 2005, with a surprisingly strong performance at the Westminster elections seeing the party hold 3 seats, including a morale-boosting win for leader Mark Durkan.

On the unionist side, the UUP endured a slow decline after 1998. As the IRA refused to disarm and Sinn Féin became embroiled in a series of controversies related to political espionage, the UUP under David Trimble became cast as quasi-appeasers in the eyes of Protestant voters.

Concomitantly, the DUP – which opposed the 1998 agreement – began its rise to predominance in unionism, a victory completed in the 2005 UK general election when it won nine of Northern Ireland’s 18 seats at Westminster, while the UUP won just one.

Trimble, a joint Nobel peace laureate in 1998 alongside John Hume, lost both his Westminster seat and the leadership of the bedraggled UUP.

Since then the DUP has sought to make reforming the devolved government institutions contingent on IRA (and hence Sinn Féin) distancing itself from criminality. In the aftermath of IRA disarmament, unionists voiced the disapproval with the technicalities of the procedure, questioning the legitimacy of the Catholic witness to the destruction of IRA weaponry and demanding photographic evidence of disarmament.

Most Northern Ireland watchers believe the IRA to be disarmed – most notably the special monitoring body set up to report on paramilitary activity. Unionist paramilitary groups (known as ‘loyalists’ to distinguish them from mainstream unionist politics) are regarded as less disciplined than the IRA, prone to faction fighting, and more devoted to drug-trafficking than defending Northern Ireland’s place in the UK.

However, unlike Sinn Féin and the IRA, the 2 main unionist political parties have no direct paramilitary affiliation, and the parties linked to unionist paramilitary groups are inconsequential.

The DUP in particular has disputed the veracity of the British governments’ belief that the IRA has fully disarmed, and more recently, is not engaged in centrally-directed criminal activity. Regarding Sinn Féin and the IRA as synonymous, the DUP refuses to work with Sinn Féin in a devolved executive, rendering the elected legislature meaningless and prompting the governments in Dublin and London to intervene.

Thus the DUP overlooks a recent report sponsored by both governments stating that the IRA has disarmed and is no longer a threat to peace in Northern Ireland – an assessment that makes political sense given Sinn Féin’s sensitivities to public opinion in the Irish Republic, which could potentially drift away from Sinn Féin should the IRA remain active.

Just as the DUP remains strident in its opposition to forming a government with what it regards as barely-reformed IRA terrorists, the British and Irish governments are running out of patience with the ongoing political stalemate in Northern Ireland.

With Afghanistan, Iraq and the Israel-Hizbollah conflict occupying Tony Blair’s embattled final years of office, Northern Ireland – once a political success story for Blair – will hardly be allowed occupy too much of his time with pressing global problems at the heart of a controversial British foreign policy.

Bertie Ahern, his Irish counterpart, is presiding over Europe’s most dynamic economy, with decade-old growth rates of 6 percent per annum set to continue. Ahern, who gained international prominence for his negotiating agreement on the now-defunct EU Constitution in 2005 during Ireland’s EU presidency, is struggling in the opinion polls leading up to a 2007 general election.

Northern Ireland’s drip-feed political progress has long-since alienated a prosperous and economically-oriented Irish electorate. Thus, protracted negotiations with Northern Ireland’s parties will not represent a good public relations move on Ahern’s part between now and May 2007, the scheduled election date.

Cold storage may be the most viable option for the Dublin and London governments.

However it is not clear what signals an indefinite prorogation of the peace agreement institutions will have in Northern Ireland. Irrespective of whether or not Dublin and London work out any formalized joint control to replace or supplement the absent devolution, the perception will be that Dublin has an increased say in Northern Ireland, which will only harden the unionist-DUP resolve to resist co-operation with Sinn Féin, and undermine the ‘moderate’ nationalist SDLP which seeks to prove its policy credentials in the devolved government setting.

On the other hand, it may be that unionists will drift back toward the UUP, seeing the DUP as the obstinate cause of the increased Dublin-London cooperation over Northern Ireland and recognizing a need for moderation and compromise with nationalists.

However, opinion polls since 1998 show Protestants in Northern Ireland to be increasingly averse to the peace agreement and indifferent to the promise of devolution. Most likely the ‘cold storage’ option will be seen as undemocratic Anglo-Irish co-operation over control of Northern Ireland, led by a London government keen to ensure the IRA stays out of business.

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