Belfast, Northern Ireland (openDemocracy) – Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government is close to collapse again. If you don’t really care about this, or don’t know much about it, you’re a lot like many people in Northern Ireland.
A media desire to seem even-handed, coupled with low levels of citizen interest and political engagement means a lazy “they’re all as bad as each other” anti-politics has become the tedious norm.
The collapse of the power-sharing institutions could well catalyse a return to sustained political violence. The return of Tory direct rule would accelerate austerity and intensify the class war in Northern Ireland. Most citizens would broadly accept that analysis. However, the typical response is a sneer or a shrug.
You might have heard something about the ‘return’ of the IRA. This is a nonsense. When the IRA announced its cessation of armed struggled in 2005, it instructed operatives to dump arms and embrace purely political means. It was a matter of public record that certain structures – a network of senior commanders and an intelligence unit – were retained. There is probably some overlap between these structures and the upper echelons of Sinn Fein. This is and was a modest price to pay to ensure the republican movement entered the peace process almost entirely intact.
Gerard Davison was killed as a result of a personal feud. Few dispute his status as a senior commander within this residual IRA structure. Kevin McGuigan, the man widely accused of Davison’s murder, was killed shortly after. McGuigan himself was once an IRA operative.
With an election looming, the unionist parties have competed to look ‘tough’ on Sinn Fein. They have colluded extensively with paramilitary groups on their own side, but have tripped over each other to placate their respective bases. The booming, quasi-fascist ‘culture’ of self-pitying orange supremacism – stoked and given succour by mainstream unionism – has pushed these parties further right. Residual unionist bias within the police force has worked to strengthen unionist parties’ talking points. The current crisis is primarily about electoral competition within unionism – not some confected scare about a Provo comeback.
The Stormont system was already creaking. The DUP – who control the finance ministry and have an effective power of veto – have been enthusiastic supporters of Tory austerity. In this, they have been broadly supported by the smaller UUP and Alliance parties.
The nationalist Sinn Fein and SDLP have struggled to reconcile their rhetorical opposition to austerity with their desire to support power-sharing. They are routinely humiliated by unionism’s lack of interest in sharing power in good faith. Some trade unions and some parts of civil society have put them under intense pressure. Sinn Fein is desperate to make an electoral breakthrough – as an anti-austerity party – in the Republic’s upcoming elections. With hostile conservative governments in London and Dublin, they are starved of obvious alternative political strategies. This impasse vindicates the dissident republicans who have never supported the peace process.
The dissidents are riddled with police informers and command little public support, but they appear to be growing in numbers and confidence, particularly outside Belfast. In Belfast, a young Irish SWP councillor named Gerry Carroll is biting at Sinn Fein’s left flank. He’s got a really good shot at entering the Assembly when the next election is held.
Meanwhile, donations to political parties remain secret in Northern Ireland. Allegations of corruption have followed the DUP for many years. A Stormont committee led by Sinn Fein is investigating a potentially gigantic scandal involving the DUP, international vulture funds, the Irish Republic’s blank cheque bailout for developers during the crash and missing offshore millions. The current ‘crisis’ is a timely distraction. A collapse of the Assembly would stall that investigation indefinitely. And that would be a shame, eh?
Why you should care
Disintegrating health and social services, shamefully high incidences of suicide and racist attacks, routine fascist street presence and rictus-grin-faced, gentrifying neoliberal developmentalism are all things in other regions of the UK.
Whether you give a shit if or when those things happen in Sheffield, Perth or Monmouthshire, give a shit when they happen in Northern Ireland.
Written byfor openDemocracy.