Thursday, 31 December 2015

Would a Sinn Fein election victory really be disastrous for unionism?

Martin McGuinness 2009.jpg
"Martin McGuinness 2009" by Jaqian - Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as First Minister has trapped unionists in a self-destructive cycle.

The news from Stormont in 2015 was dominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin finally cobbling together a deal, but in 2016 preparations begin for an Assembly election. 

The two parties concentrated on attacking their smaller rivals, after the announcement of the ‘Fresh Start’ document.   They talk up their shared achievements and claim they’ve taken hard decisions in order to make progress for people in Northern Ireland.
However, the spirit of cooperation is unlikely to last very long, before we’re plunged into another bitter campaign, which will revolve around whether Sinn Féin becomes the largest party in the Assembly.

The threat of Martin McGuinness as Northern Ireland’s First Minister remains the Democratic Unionists’ electoral ‘trump card’.  After Peter Robinson’s retirement, Arlene Foster will be charged with keeping Sinn Fein out of the top job.  The DUP will look to shore up support by claiming it is the only party that can stop Sinn Féin topping the poll.  

It’s an effective tactic, aimed at fending off unionist rivals, but it also encourages negative campaigning and deflects attention away from important issues, which affect voters’ everyday lives. 

Under the original Good Friday Agreement the First Minister was drawn from the largest designation in the Assembly, unionist or nationalist.  In 2006 the St. Andrews Agreement changed the system, so that the largest party at Stormont now has the right to nominate a First Minister.  Opponents complain that the new rules were designed to frighten unionists into voting for the DUP, by raising the possibility that republicans might take a symbolically significant post.

That could be how things work out next year too, but, alternatively, maybe a Sinn Féin win is just the type of shock that politics, and unionism in particular, needs in order to shake it out of its negativity and complacency. 

A recent opinion poll commissioned by the BBC and RTE confirmed that support for Northern Ireland remaining part of the UK is higher than ever before.  Only 13% of people here want to see a United Ireland in the short to medium term.  Majority backing for our current constitutional position, or the alternative of direct rule from Westminster, extends right across the community, among people from both Catholic and Protestant backgrounds. 

In other words, the Union is perfectly safe for the time being, and unionists have no reason to fear for their futures within the UK. 

For the most part, though, unionist politicians reacted to the poll by gloating, rather than asking why their electoral strength doesn’t match the public’s constitutional preference.  The tone unionism sets is still often petulant and defensive, rather than confident and outward-looking.   

If the DUP runs a negative campaign next year, focussed on keeping Martin McGuinness out of the First Minister’s office, and it fails, unionists may be persuaded that a change of strategy or even realignment is necessary.  After all, there are examples of politicians across the unionist parties, and indeed right across the Assembly, who have more in common with each other, than with traditional elements in their own parties.

They aren’t as fixated on cultural, religious or social hang-ups.  They might even recognise, for instance, that same-sex marriage is inevitable, and would rather get on with passing the necessary legislation, rather than allowing that debate to derail other Assembly business repeatedly.  They’d prefer to discuss policies, as opposed to flags or emblems and they’re driven by ambition to succeed in their chosen career, rather than profound attachments to ideology.

In simple terms, the world would not stop turning for unionists if Sinn Féin became the largest party.  Unionism would almost certainly still form the biggest designation in the Assembly, and a majority when it came to important votes.  Unionists would still likely occupy the greater share of Executive posts. 

If a unionist party were to miss out on top spot, it might also prompt some hard-thinking about how to turn wide-spread contentment with the political status quo into votes at the ballot box.  It might get unionism thinking about how it could be more constructive, more confident and extend its appeal to voters who are happy politically to remain within the UK, but still feel culturally Irish. 

It might mean focussing less on ostentatious displays of Britishness, and more on the modern and inclusive aspects of being part of the United Kingdom.  It would certainly involve explaining how Northern Ireland could become an increasingly safe, stable and prosperous place to live. 
Defaulting to a hostile attitude toward things like the GAA and the Irish language would no longer be acceptable.

Perhaps most importantly, unionists couldn’t allow small, symbolic issues to continue to affect a vast, silent majority of people, who are more worried about jobs, services and the futures of their families.  It would mean much less grandstanding over issues like flags or parades, and it might involve some hard conversations with traditional colleagues.  Ultimately, though, it could revive unionism as an electoral force and make Northern Ireland a better place to live.

Neither would the fall-out necessarily affect unionism alone. If Sinn Fein were to become the biggest party, it might cause the SDLP to take a serious look at its future. 

Its leadership contest produced a younger leader, with Colum Eastwood taking over from Alasdair McDonnell, but it focussed on personalities and style, rather than interrogating the party’s underlying philosophy.  The SDLP will still go into the next election emphasising its nationalist credentials and competing with Sinn Féin for the United Ireland vote. 

If the party is still substantially behind its main rival in 2016, it would have reason to reassess that strategy.  Even voters who eventually want to get rid of the border see a United Ireland as a distant, long-term goal.  The SDLP has an opportunity to allow the prevailing mood to shape its message and put nationalism on the back seat, in order to prioritise jobs, health, education and combatting poverty, in Northern Ireland.         

It’s pretty depressing, but almost inevitable, that the Assembly election will be dominated by the identity of the First Minister, rather than debates about everyday issues.  The parties show no sign that they’re prepared to back the legislation needed to appoint joint first ministers, rather than the current system of first minister and deputy first minister.

If Sinn Fein tops the poll, it will be a seismic shock, but ultimately it won’t affect the constitutional position one jot.  With a little vision from rival politicians, it might even force a change in political thinking which would benefit Northern Ireland in the longer term and copper-fasten our place within the UK.  


Wednesday, 23 December 2015

Northern Ireland's past is republicans' new battleground

The story of Northern Ireland’s violent past continues to be redrawn, as the republican movement seeks to cast the British state as an aggressor and campaigns to incriminate soldiers and policemen, while obscuring the deadly role played by the IRA and other terrorists.  It’s a process achieved by describing counter-terrorism and intelligence operations as ‘collusion’ and focussing on the proportionally small number of incidents during the Troubles perpetrated, or allegedly perpetrated, by members of the security forces.

In November, the DUP and Sinn Fein agreed the Fresh Start document at Stormont, following ten weeks of negotiations.  It became easy to forget, after all the ensuing self-congratulations, that the crisis which prompted those talks was created by the IRA’s suspected involvement in a murder and Sinn Fein’s links to its Army Council.

Some passages of the Fresh Start agreement addressed paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, committing resources to fight cross border crime and requiring MLAs to make a hazy promise to ‘rid society of all forms of paramilitary groups’.   However, Sinn Fein pulled off something of a conjuring trick, by switching the focus of negotiations quickly to welfare reform and financial assistance from Westminster.

Progress on 'dealing with the past', which the Stormont House Agreement had made a year previously, was reversed and the new Historical Inquiries Unit (HIU) and Oral History Archive were put on hold indefinitely.  True to form, Sinn Fein blamed the Conservative government, citing its reluctance to reveal details which might compromise national security.

The party continues to portray the state’s reluctance to grant unqualified access to its records as the main obstacle to dealing with the legacy of the Troubles.  Sinn Fein is able to bolster its case using the sentiments of victims’ groups whose focus is, understandably, on the misdeeds of some members of the security forces.  

This emphasis suits perfectly republicans’ narrative.  A democratic government, its soldiers, intelligence officers and policemen can be held to account in a way that shadowy paramilitary organisations cannot.  Sinn Fein can demand full disclosure from the state, secure in the assumption that the IRA will never be required to show similar openness.    

However, it would be wrong to forget that, irrespective of occasional mistakes, misjudgements and misdemeanours, the security forces were motivated, overwhelmingly, by a desire to keep people safe.  The same claim could never be advanced for terrorists. 

Ultimately, the army and police were successful too.  By the latter years of the Troubles, the majority of attempted attacks were being foiled.  Frustrated in their attempts to cause mayhem and riddled with informers, the IRA and other paramilitaries were shepherded down a political path. 

Counter-terrorism involved difficult, murky moral choices, and its practitioners sometimes crossed the line into illegality or downright murder, but its overarching aim was to protect life and property. 

It’s easier to quantify how many lives running an agent like Stakeknife may have cost, rather than how many it saved.  That’s not to say that his activities, and the activities of others like him, didn’t eventually force the single most destructive organisation involved in the Troubles to stop killing and maiming.

The state has a responsibility for its actions and victims have a right to demand the truth about what happened to their loved ones, when state actors are suspected of a role in their deaths.  Someone who has been bereaved because of the actions or omissions of an agent is unlikely to comforted by arguments around the moral compromises of counter-terrorism. The government, though, has a duty not to allow a process aimed at dealing with the legacy of the Troubles to become a means of simplifying and distorting history.

Rewriting the story of the Troubles has become a long-term project for republicans.  It is their contemporary means of pursuing the so-called ‘struggle’ and they’ve had some relative successes.  

The notion that the IRA fought to protect Catholic areas or to deliver human rights, for instance, has gained fairly broad acceptance - outside Northern Ireland at least - though thorough historians of the Provisional movement point out that this narrative whitewashes a campaign of violence which was aimed squarely at driving ‘the Brits’ out of Ireland.

The movement continues its project through focussing on selective elements of the past and pursuing civil actions in court.  Recently eight people who were members of an IRA gang, including the prominent Sinn Fein member, Danny Morrison, received six figure compensation pay-outs, after their convictions for kidnapping an alleged informer were quashed, because the role of the agent Stakeknife in building the prosecution case had not been revealed. 

As the government and the political parties in Northern Ireland struggle to agree ways of tackling the legacy of the Troubles, they bear a responsibility to make sure that the process does not become even more unbalanced.  ‘Dealing with the past’ has to contribute something toward building a positive future.  It cannot be allowed to become permanently a new battleground, through which age-old conflicts are fought.