The course of Northern Irish politics in recent years would tend to suggest that the safest predictions err on the side of caution, if not outright pessimism.
There are certainly signs that little will change in Northern Irish politics for the foreseeable future. Although restoring devolution has been listed as a ‘top priority’ by the Secretary of State since she came into office a year ago, there is no evidence that this is bearing fruit. Even the ‘talks about talks’ to reconvene the Executive have been dogged by false starts and disappointment.
Thickening layers of dust on seats in the Stormont Assembly don’t yet temper the confidence of the two largest political parties that they retain the support of their voter bases. Happily for them (if not for wider society), they can easily blame each other for the intransigence that is blocking progress on talks to restore devolved government. According to the terms of the 1998 Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement, devolved governance has to entail power sharing between unionists and nationalists, which means that both Sinn Féin and the DUP effectively hold a veto over the decision to reconvene the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive.
This has led to a disproportionate focus on what each of these parties wish to do. And the Brexit process has made both parties even more cautious about rushing back into sharing power with each other.
For a start, the prospect of taking responsibility for difficult decisions is one that few politicians would ever wish to run towards. In the context of Brexit, a restored Executive and Assembly would face very difficult challenges in finding agreement, let alone in managing the new legal and economic environment. Brexit has exacerbated the centrifugal forces at work within Northern Irish politics.
Not only have unionist and nationalist parties taken opposing views on Brexit, they also have opposing views on Northern Ireland’s priorities post-Brexit. As unionist parties have stressed the importance of Northern Ireland being treated the same as Great Britain, so nationalist parties have stressed the importance of Northern Ireland’s close relationship with Ireland. The familiar tensions are very much in the foreground, and few politicians are talking about compromise or shoring up the centre ground.
Such continuity, however, should not be misread as a sign of stability. Be in no doubt, Northern Irish politics and society are in flux. There are several indications of this. For one thing, a huge burden is being placed on the Northern Irish civil service.
On 5 March the head of the civil service, David Sterling, wrote a letter to the political parties in Stormont regarding a no deal Brexit that could be but three weeks away. He set out the urgent and profound risks facing Northern Ireland and for which there was, in effect, ‘no mitigation available’. Rather than spurring political action, however, the letter generated with mutual finger-pointing between the DUP and Sinn Féin, and ‘raised eyebrows’ from the Northern Ireland Office.
Indeed, the main contributions from political parties on what should be done in the event of a no deal Brexit has been disappointingly predictable and unimaginative. Sinn Féin want a border poll on Irish unity while the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) want the reintroduction of direct rule from Westminster. If there was ever a clear indication of how polarised opinion is, this surely is it. And the directions of polarisation are all too familiar.
The UUP’s call to locate political decision making for Northern Ireland solely in Westminster might be classed as an effort to ‘out-orange’ the DUP, and a slightly surprising one given that the UUP currently has no MPs. Meanwhile, in an effort to counter the green tide of Sinn Féin as an all-Ireland nationalist party, the nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) in Northern Ireland has entered an arrangement just short of a merger with Fianna Fáil – the second largest party in the Republic of Ireland and one proud of its Irish nationalist credentials.
This decision led to some high profile resignations in the SDLP on the grounds that it betrays the social democratic roots of the party in favour of a more explicitly nationalist agenda. The fact that these centrist parties are becoming more boldly ‘orange’ and ‘green’ is some indication of the uneasy situation for ‘moderates’ in Northern Ireland at the moment.
If the constitutional question is back front and centre in Northern Irish politics, does this mean that there is growing momentum towards a border poll on Irish unity? The fact that application forms for Irish passports are flying off post office shelves in unionist heartlands is a sign of pragmatism rather than an (agonised or intemperate) change in people’s cultural or political identity. There are few indications of a surge of movement among Protestants towards a wish for Irish unity.
That said, social media has created a space for new forums for discussion and ideas about a ‘future Ireland’ that includes voices not traditionally heard in public discussions of Irish unity. And, unsurprisingly, reliable surveys suggest that the desire and demand for Irish unification is growing among Catholic respondents. The harder the Brexit, the stronger and louder such demands are likely to be.
The perfect storm that has hit Northern Ireland these past two years only seems to be growing in speed and scale the further we get into the Brexit process.
The Good Friday (Belfast) Agreement is at last gaining attention but for opposing purposes: some claiming it makes the ‘backstop’ in the Withdrawal Agreement illegal (as per Lord Trimble’s legal challenge); others claiming it makes the backstop essential. The public relationship between the British and Irish governments is kept civil at the moment mainly through key figures biting their tongues rather than by sincerely warm words and deeds.
Paramilitary activity and influence on vulnerable communities continues on both sides. Civil servants, business leaders, academics and civic leaders who do speak out on matters of urgent concern relating to Brexit are criticised for being ‘politically charged’ or ‘politically exploited’.
Meanwhile, the confidence and supply arrangement between the DUP and the Conservative Party appears to have had a hugely disproportionate impact on government policy towards Northern Ireland, including on sensitive matters under legal investigation.
In a period of such profound uncertainty in Northern Ireland, the traditional ballasts of stability are being thrown away and damaged. Few people, with perhaps the exception of those on the extreme fringes of politics, are looking forward to what comes next for Northern Ireland.
By Dr Katy Hayward, reader in Sociology at Queen’s University Belfast. This article is from our ‘Article 50 two years on’ report.