Trying to find unity in Ireland

Northern Ireland has no functioning government and its main political parties are fighting

Published : 18 Dec 2022 09:06 PM

On Thursday evening, British Prime Minister Rishi Sunak flew into Belfast, his first visit there as the leader of the United Kingdom and the man theoretically responsible for holding the four separate nations together.

Scotland has already made the legal case — and lost — for holding a second referendum on its future, and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is preparing the groundwork to turn the next general election into a vote on her nation’s place in the UK.

In Wales, Plaid Cymru, the independence party is supporting the Labour Government in the Senedd in Cardiff, learning as it were what it takes to run a country.

But in Northern Ireland, as Sunak and politicians at Westminster are only all too aware, the stakes are far higher and the province is on the edge of an abyss.

Deep down, in the collective memories of those who recall the bombings and shootings, atrocities and brutality, imprisonment without trial, hunger strikes and rioting, there is a collective sense that Northern Ireland can never return to those darkest days of the conflict.

But Northern Ireland has a constitutional card that has yet to be played — a once-off “border poll” on whether it should remain part of the UK, or be allowed to join the Republic of Ireland to the south, a nation independent since 1921.

Since May, when Irish nationalists Sinn Fein became the largest party in the Stormont assembly, the DUP — the largest unionist party that is determined to maintain the links with the rest of the UK at all costs — has refused to share power, essential under the Good Friday agreement that ended those years of violence and bloodshed.

There is no effective government in Northern Ireland. That means that there is no one to take any decision over that to do with soaring energy costs. Or health services. Or doctors and nurses pay. Or ambulances that can’t unload patients at overcrowded hospitals. Nothing.

The DUP says it won’t participate until the Northern Ireland Protocol, the arrangement that treats the province as part of the European Union for customs and trade purposes, is ended. That was all part of the “over ready” Brexit deal negotiated by then PM Boris Johnson. It placed a customs border down the Irish Sea.

Sunak held informal talks with senior representatives of the main parties at a hotel near Belfast and met all the parties in the same room and spoke to them separately for around 10 to 15 minutes each.

The DUP has insisted it will not allow a return to power-sharing until radical changes to the protocol are delivered.

The region’s largest unionist party has blocked the formation of a new administration following May’s Assembly election and prevented the Assembly meeting to conduct legislative business as part of its protest over the protocol.

Undermining Northern Ireland’s place?

It claims the protocol has undermined Northern Ireland’s place within the UK by creating economic barriers on trade entering the region from Great Britain.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill, who is in line to become first minister of Northern Ireland if devolution is restored, was also present.

Afterwards, O’Neill said: “I was able to put it to him directly that what we need to see is a deal on the protocol, we need to find an agreed way forward, to work with the EU and to get that done speedily because that is the obstacle as we speak in terms of restoring the executive.”

One key issue that featured in the discussions in Belfast was the continued uncertainty over when £600 Treasury-funded energy support payments will be rolled out to householders in Northern Ireland.

But the clock is ticking. If a new executive is not formed by 19 January, the UK Government assumes a legal responsibility to call a snap Assembly election by 13 April.

While you might imagine that would play into Sinn Fein’s hands, allowing it to argue that it has stood ready to serve but was prevented from doing so by the DUP, that’s not quite the case.

Right now, Sinn Fein would much prefer if the spotlight was entirely somewhere else. Events in a Dublin courtroom, in the Irish Republic, are highlighting the rather shadowy past some members of the former political wing of the Irish Republican Army have walked in their path to electoral respectability.

While the party is the largest in the Northern Ireland assembly, it is currently the main opposition party in the Irish Republic, with not unrealistic hopes of a historic breakthrough at the next Irish general election.

But then there’s the small matter of a huge drug and murder trial underway in the Special Criminal Court — an institution set up to deal with terrorist cases four decades ago — involving high-profile drug lords. And the star witness is a former Sinn Fein councillor with links to the highest echelons of the party.

Gerry “the Monk” Hutch, 59, a prominent crime boss, is on trial for a 2016 murder that fuelled a feud between rival gangs that dotted Dublin with corpses. At least 20 hits sprang from the war that has ties to Colombia, Russa, the Netherlands, Spain, the US and Dubai.

The evidence, however, has shone a light not just on gangsters but Sinn Fein.

Banner headlines in Irish newspapers about the case have already taken a toll: Sinn Fein’s support has slipped from 36 to 31 per cent, and continues to head south.

While those memories of the dark days of violence pass with each year, Sinn Fein has tried to capitalise on a desire for Irish unity by young voters unaware or unaffected by its ties to the past.

The current developments, however, are providing an alternative view of the party and the price paid for its popularity now.

Mick O'Reilly is Foreign Correspondent at Gulf News. Source: Gulf News