Northern Ireland Assembly Northern Ireland Assembly. Photo: Parliament-Buildings on Flickr

The deadlock in Northern Ireland is an engineered, anti-democratic farce, argues Chris Bambery

Eight months on from the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly which saw Sinn Féin returned, for the first time, as the biggest vote winner, there is still no agreement on the formation of an executive. The second biggest party, the Democratic Unionists, continues to refuse joining an executive led by Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill.

Matters took another turn last week when the British Foreign Secretary, James Cleverly, refused to allow Sinn Féin’s President, Mary Lou McDonald, to attend talks between himself and Northern Ireland’s political and business leaders. The talks were in order to discuss the Northern Ireland Protocol and its implications for trade between Northern Ireland, the Irish Republic and the rest of the European Union, and Britain.

His claim was that because McDonald is a member of the Irish Republic’s parliament, Dáil Éireann, where she is Leader of the Opposition, he cannot meet her until he has met his counterpart, the Irish Foreign Secretary, citing supposed diplomatic protocol. McDonald said the government’s decision to ‘exclude’ her was ‘bizarre’ and ‘unacceptable’. Former DUP leader, Arlene Foster, stepped in to say Cleverley was ‘quite right’ in refusing to meet McDonald. Many would say, ‘she would say that’.

The way Northern Ireland’s position on Brexit is reported in the British media might lead you to believe Northern Ireland voted Leave. In fact a 56% majority voted Remain. As in Scotland, that result should be respected whatever position you took. The DUP was the only major party to campaign for a Leave vote and it was left with egg on its face.

The imposition of Brexit on Northern Ireland has left a quandary. It was now out of the EU Single Market, while the Republic remained within it. That suggested a customs border between the two states, and yet, the Good Friday Agreement ruled out the imposition of a hard border. The DUP was not worried about that, but did wish to ensure there was no border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain.

However, in October 2019, having become Prime Minister and Tory leader, Boris Johnson travelled to Belfast to promise the DUP conference there would be no border in the Irish Sea. But, low and behold, he then signed off the Northern Ireland Protocol with the EU, which did what? Impose a border in the Irish Sea between Northern Ireland and Britain. The DUP were up in arms, under pressure from their right as Loyalist paramilitaries tried to provoke riots, targeting nationalist West Belfast (a traditional ploy).

Now the Sunak government seems to be nearing a new agreement with the EU. I strongly suspect the DUP will not like that, and also that Cleverly was aware of it, and so tried to appease them by barring McDonald. When you start to examine where matters stand in Ireland, Cleverley’s snub of McDonald seems not just strange but just that: an insulting snub. Many suspect that if the issue of the Protocol disappeared, the DUP would block Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister over some other issue.

The Good Friday Agreement

The exclusion of Sinn Féin’s President is a democratic issue. It is now approaching a quarter of a century since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Let’s backtrack to 1998. Sinn Féin were one of the architects and signatories of the Good Friday Agreement. At the time, and for considerably long afterwards the DUP rejected it. Since then, Irish Republicans have operated in accordance with the Agreement, whose other architects and signatories were the British and Irish governments and the Ulster Unionist Party (which since has largely disintegrated) with the United States and the European Union as guarantors.

During the negotiations towards the Agreement, Sinn Féin’s delegates included elected representatives from the south. No one tried to bar them from taking part. It was the Agreement which created both the Northern Ireland Assembly and the power-sharing executive. Prior to last year’s election, the First Minister had always been a unionist, with first the Ulster Unionists and then the DUP appointing their choice (the DUP accepted the Agreement when they overtook their Ulster Unionist rivals electorally). That was in line with the Agreement, whereby the biggest party got that job and the biggest party in the nationalist camp got the deputy’s position.

In 2007, Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness became deputy First Minister after the party overtook its rivals the SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party), a moderate nationalist party linked to the Irish Republic’s political elite. The Northern Ireland Assembly elections that year were a key moment because the DUP and Sinn Féin both overtook their rivals to become the biggest party in the respective unionist and nationalist camps.

As it says on the tin, Sinn Féin stands for a united Ireland. It organises across the whole of Ireland, unlike the parties who currently make up the Irish government – Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Greens – who do not and never have. Those who vote for it are fully aware of this, and its worth saying, while it is the biggest vote winner in the north, it is also number one in opinion polls in the south.

Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, if both the Irish Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly vote for a referendum on Irish unity, one has to take place. That is what we are edging towards. The British government has past form in blocking the democratic mandate of Irish Republicans. In 1918 and 1921, Sinn Féin swept the board in two all-Ireland elections, refusing to take their seats at Westminster and setting up an illegal parliament in Dublin, the Dáil Éireann.

Partition

The British government of David Lloyd George refused to recognise their mandate and implemented three courses of action. The first was to try and crush the Republicans, by now fighting a guerrilla war against the British, using repression. That failed. The second was to set up a partition state in the north east of Ireland. The boundaries of that were a matter of some debate.

In the debate at Westminster on how Ireland should be partitioned in 1920, Charles Craig MP, brother of the man who would be Prime Minister of Northern Ireland from its creation in 1921 until his death in 1942, James Craig, gave this rationale for the border which was eventually drawn by British civil servants, as being: ‘The defence of as much of Ulster as we can hold.’[1] Three of Ulster’s historic nine counties were excluded, because otherwise there would be too many Catholics within the new Northern Ireland state. The six-county state was designed to have an impregnable unionist majority based on a sectarian head count of Protestants and Catholics.

The third course of action, having created Northern Ireland, was to enter into negotiations with the Republican leadership, in particular those newcomers who had no real commitment to a Republic or Irish unity, but did represent the business interests of the Dublin elite and the hierarchy of the Catholic church. The eventual Treaty accepted partition, a state based on the structures of the old colonial state, and left the new 26-county Irish Free State as a neo-colony of Britain for its first decade.

The result was a brutal civil war in the south as the new Free State turned on those Republicans who rejected this deal. In the north, sectarian violence had already accompanied the creation of the new state and continued into 1922 with Irish nationalists taking the brunt.

Economic decline

Back in 1920-21, there were material reasons why businessmen like James Craig wanted to retain the connection with Britain. In 1921, the belief in both London and Belfast was that the one industrial area of Ireland, that around Belfast, had a bright future. Its shipbuilding, engineering and textile mills were tied to Merseyside and Clydeside, and exported to British imperial possessions.

Almost from the beginning, such hopes were dashed as Britain’s economy entered two decades of repeated recessions, reaching a depth in the 1930s. It was too reliant on the old industrial staple industries, and that was even more true for Northern Ireland. Post-war Northern Ireland struggled to attract new industries, which were increasingly American or European. Northern Ireland became caught in a vicious circle of economic decline, paralleling Britain’s but with knobs on.

So today, while Britain has one of the lowest productivity and skill rates of any major economy, the productivity rate in Northern Ireland is the worst of any UK region, 17% below the average. It is 40% lower than in the Irish Republic. A Queen’s University report on Northern Ireland’s productivity problem, published in late 2021 found:

‘NI’s workforce appears weak in both basic skills, and its share of higher skills … That management also lags behind best practice may exacerbate the deficiencies of the workforce, while a lack of ambition may create further barriers to productivity improvements.’

That is the price of being on the economic and political outskirts of a declining Britain. Northern Ireland is essentially a branch economy of the UK’s. While it remains so, any advance seems unlikely.

The obvious solution to the difficulties posed by Brexit is a United Ireland. The major voice urging that is Sinn Féin. That explains why the DUP are blocking Michelle O’Neill becoming First Minister. However, it’s important to add that here in Britain the Tories and Starmer oppose Irish unity (with one eye on Scotland). In the Republic, the government parties offer words in support of it, but like the rest of the Irish elite, they are far from happy at the prospect. This is why, here in Britain, we not only have to oppose Cleverly blocking Sinn Féin, but also have to support and campaign in favour of Irish unity.


[1] Charles Townshend, The Partition: Ireland Divided, 1885-1925 (Allen Lane 2021), p.143.

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Chris Bambery

Chris Bambery is an author, political activist and commentator, and a supporter of Rise, the radical left wing coalition in Scotland. His books include A People's History of Scotland and The Second World War: A Marxist Analysis.