Editorial from Irish Political Review, August 2008
Against The Tide
There is now a semblance of politics in 'the Northern Ireland state'. There is at least what used to be called 'politicking'. Politics in the sense of party rivalry to undertake the governing of the state there can never be, because there is no state of Northern Ireland.
Paisley upset all calculations except those of Sinn Fein by making a deal with Sinn Fein. He even upset the calculations of the DUP. Resentment within the DUP over the deal led to Paisley's retirement under pressure from lieutenants who thought they might resort to simple hostility to Sinn Fein, but within the power-sharing structure laid on for them by Paisley, so that they might have it both ways. But they found that they couldn't. They found they had to play the game because Sinn Fein still had the power under the d'Hondt system to ensure that there was no game to be played. Peter Robinson could not take over from Paisley without the consent of Sinn Fein. Such is the logic of the devilish system devised by the Alliance Party and the SDLP, both of which have been marginalised under it.
Sinn Fein eventually agreed that Robinson should take over as First Minister, but is now effectively preventing him from establishing anything like Cabinet government.
The various Ministries are independent of each other under the system. The DUP conducted its Departments independently when Trimble was First Minister, but aimed to bring about Cabinet Government when it became the major party. It has failed to do so. Sinn Fein is at present preventing the Executive from meeting, to ensure that the other parties cannot interfere with its Ministries. The great issue of the moment is the abolition of the 11 Plus, the examination which has determined selection for secondary education in the past, by the Education Minister. Up to now, children who failed the exam were not normally able to get an academic-type education unless it was a private one. The Unionist Parties have opposed the ending of this system.
When he was Education Minister Martin McGuinness announced the abolition of the exam, just three days before the dissolution of the Executive in 2002. The issue was then left in abeyance by the Northern Ireland Office. But it was clear that the issue of the 11+ would immediately be taken up again if Sinn Fein obtained the Education portfolio—which the other parties enabled it to have when Ministries were being chosen. However, bringing about change in an orderly way is difficult under the power-division system which operates. Legislation on contentious issues is all but impossible under the double-mandate requirement of the devolved system, but that means there must be extensive administrative autonomy for the various Ministers if there is to be government. Caitriona Ruane took over from McGuinness as Education Minister and is feeling her way towards administrative reform of the education system without the use of legislation.
Margaret Ritchie, the SDLP's sole Minister, who holds the Social Development portfolio, has declared herself "outraged" at the Sinn Fein delaying of the Executive holding a meeting (Irish News 23.7.2008). She claims her housing projects are affected (though it is hard to see how). Perhaps more to the point is the fact that she is a rival to Ruane in the Newry Westminster constituency, currently held by the SDLP's Eddie McGrady who is retiring at the next election. Ritchie courted Hibernian popularity when she first took up her post by cutting off funding to Loyalists. She has been stymied there by legal action and is looking around for further ways to do down Sinn Fein (which did not endorse her action). The Irish News helps her all it can. In media terms Ms Ruane is fighting a lone battle, but if she succeeds in carrying through the end of the 11 Plus that will count for little in the long run.
As the parties of the centre-ground operate the system according to its logic, the parties which have been pushed to the extremes are resentful, whinge and dream of bringing the house down. The fringe extremists are now the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party.
David Trimble, who ruined the Unionist Party with the help of Professor Bew, has been put out to grass as Lord Trimble and has been joined by Lord Professor Bew. Both complain that they were undermined by Whitehall which played footsy with Sinn Fein, and Bew has carried this complaint into his Oxford History Of Ireland.
But who else was there for Blair to play footsy with if he was to solve the Irish question? Have they forgotten that the solution must relate to the problem? And it was Sinn Fein that constituted the Northern Ireland problem into something could be handled, at least for the time being.
Trimble's successor, Reg Empey, looking for something to do with the wreck of a party that he inherited, has recently come up with the idea of having the politics of the State in Northern Ireland, with the Unionist Party becoming a region of the Tory Party. And BBC commentators have pointed out that this would give the Northern Ireland electorate an opportunity to engage in politics on real issues.
Twenty years ago, when this was a viable project, it was rejected categorically by both the Unionist Party and the Tory Party, as well as the Labour Party. In the face of outright hostility by both parties we gave up the campaign we had waged for about twenty years. This had some influence on the course of events which decisively took a different turn in the early 1990s. The Catholic community turned increasingly to Sinn Fein/IRA. The more it was told it mustn't by good people like Garret FitzGerald, the more it did so.
Sinn Fein ceased to be the covert expression of the will of the Catholic community and became its overt expression. The Catholic community in its newly-established respectability is now at ease with itself as Sinn Fein, in a way that it never was in the era of tricky, neurotic 'constitutional nationalism'. There is no longer a substantial part of it looking to escape. The Unionist Party has missed the bus. As Bacon said, There is a tide in the affairs of men…
Against The Tide.
An Open Letter To Cowen.
Israel & UN Resolutions.
Shorts from the Long Fellow
What Was The Somme?
We Are All One Now.
Haughey And The Nazi Flags.
Paul Bew On Haughey's 'Nazism'.
Fenianism & Irish Exceptionalism.
Mad Dogs Do Belgium.
Thoughts On Seán Swan's Official
Puzzling Over Northern Ireland.
Lisbon Treaty Debate.
Does It Stack Up?
The Tip-off That Shattered A Cabinet
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