Northern Ireland is back in the news, and this time it's not because of sex and money. The more familiar peace process crisis has returned (though, technically, it never really went away), with the devolution of police and justice powers to the regional government in Belfast the central issue (apart from all the other issues). Once again the British Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach have waded in to try and sort the mess out, and, with no deal reached today, set a deadline of 48 hours for the main parties to strike a deal, or the two governments will set out their own proposals.
It's been almost 12 years since the Good Friday Agreement (or Belfast Agreement) which set up the devolved regional government in Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland had its own government from 1922-72 until the outbreak of the Troubles led to London imposing direct control (known as "direct rule"). The new system is a consociational one: in other words, both communities share power. This was to ensure that the institutions would have a broad cross-community support, which was absent from the first period of regional government. But while the Assembly and Executive are seen as legitimate, they're also seen as ineffective - after all, it's been 12 years and we're still stuck in the same old process, with the same old arguments.
It's hard to explain to people who didn't grow up in NI exactly what it's all about, and every time I try it always strikes me how ridiculous the whole thing must sound.
So, here it goes with the very, very brief and crude description of the state of play [Warning: may contain traces of exasperated cynicism]:
- The government (Executive) is a coalition of four parties, but the main ones are a party of former revolutionaries/rebels (Sinn Féin) and a party of reactionary fundamentalist Christians (DUP).
- Sinn Féin wants the devolution of police and justice powers to the Executive/Assembly because it would complete the set of devolved powers, and because the whole issue of decommissioning of the IRA's weapons has been resolved.
- The DUP want other issues to be settled in the deal, including the abolition of the Parades Commission (PC).
- The PC was set up to restrict/ban contentious parades, in practice this mainly concerns the parades of the unionist Orange Order (or the "Loyal Orders", which commemorate the overthrow of an English king and the enthronement of the Dutch Staatholder William of Orange in the 17th century [I know this might not make sense, but it's best not to think about it]). Some of their parades run through nationalist areas, and have been sources of what we might politely call tension.
- Sinn Féin are angry at what they see as a precondition to any deal, and feel that they shouldn't have to make many more concessions because the DUP have blocked the introduction of an Irish Language Act and other Sinn Féin pet policies. They don't want to look weak.
- The DUP are hurting from the Robinson sex scandal and are worried about loosing support to the more extreme unionist TUV party. Want a political victory and obstructionism worked well with decommissioning.
- DUP & Sinn Féin don't really want an election, but the brinkmanship may bring it about.
- The other 2 (more moderate) parties are angry about just generally being ignored; increasingly only get publicity involving them being angry about being increasingly ignored.
- IF a deal is reached, the minister who takes up the portfolio can neither be from the DUP or SF parties because they don't trust each other and it may be the leader of the (tiny) opposition cross-community party. Maybe.
The line in Yes, Minister that government isn't so much a team as a loose confederation of warring tribes is perhaps more apt in this case.
What's so dispiriting is that politics really hasn't changed. There is still the sense that a gain for one community is a loss for the other. Both sides are guilty of this, but the DUP is unbelievably explicit and brash in its approach - in other words, the biggest party of government and the holder of the First Minister's office (which is a joint equal office with the deputy FM, despite the name) sees gloating about keeping the leading nationalist party - their government partners - down and out as "good politics". Is it any wonder that more extremist parties and groups are emerging if politics aren't being normalised? Maintaining such attitudes legitimises the extremes while the paralysis of the Executive mean that moderate voters loose faith in the purpose of government and are less likely to vote.
When decommissioning was achieved and the DUP and Sinn Féin apparently reconciled, some people thought that people would move to more moderate politics, but the weakness of the moderate parties (who refuse to leave the government and set themselves up as a separate alternative) and the ineffectiveness of the government mean that there's little oxygen for the moderates.
So the perpetual peace process trundles on, forever on life support...