The current political impasse and absence of ministerial decision-making in Northern Ireland seems to be exercising a lot of local editors and pundits. Most probably because the Stormont machine isn’t generating the necessary copy to sell papers and to keep them employed. It looks like politics here has shut down, to be replaced by an unaccountable impersonal bureaucracy.
After partition was sorted out and the guns were put away in the 1920s, Northern Ireland returned to being the quiet little backwater it had been before the hiatus of the Home Rule crisis. There was no politics then either. Prime Minister Craig worked only an hour a day and his cabinet rarely met in the twenties and thirties. London forgot we existed.
To be fair their job was done. They had created a colonial outpost in the British imperial tradition, a one party state where one set of tribal leaders controlled things on behalf of the empire. Big House Unionism comprehensively controlled the majority Protestant population through a system of old fashioned patronage and the minority Catholic population was similarly controlled by their Church.
History is cyclical. We have returned to being a backwater governed by an unaccountable local elite.
Now with Big House Unionism and the Catholic Church marginalised, and the population secularised, it was to be hoped that things would improve. Catholic and Protestant have equality after all. But that equality simply means that they are both disenfranchised and dumbed down by a number of factors common throughout the modern world, such as a discredited political structure and politicians and a pervasive media who dope the population with misinformation and manufactured controversies.
We live in a small, highly controlled society where there is much chatter which passes for political debate and many elections, but like an old Soviet-controlled east European state all issues and outcomes are unchanging. The status quo always remains.
We are put in mind of Churchill’s famous quote:
“as the deluge subsides and the waters fall short we see the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone emerging once again.”
At the centre things
Those of us who lived through the adrenaline rush of the sixties, seventies and eighties believed with pride that this place was the centre of the known world, hitting the international headlines on a regular basis, keeping the local and national media contentedly busy. We believed we were about something important. But perhaps we got a false impression of ourselves and the wee place we lived in.
Even when the guns were put away once more in the 1990s and the marbled halls of the grand imperial palace up at Stormont echoed to points of procedure once more under the Good Friday Agreement, we still believed we were important and stood for something in the world. After all, the Leader of the Free World, Prime Ministers and senior international diplomats thought we were worth their time. Hadn’t we shown how deep-seated conflict could be resolved and sworn enemies could work together for the common good?
Return to the backwaters
Now that has been cruelly taken from us. Presidents and Prime Ministers, even Secretaries of State, won’t give us the time of day.
Where did the ‘peace dividend’ go wrong? We are left contemplating our dreary steeples and wondering – could Churchill have been correct?
Once more great events swirl around us – Brexit, the Irish republic’s Abortion Referendum, the Middle East, potential world war – and we are left debating whether or not they will be able to stage the North West 200 motorcycle death run next year because of an absence of ministerial decision-making. Our near neighbour – the Irish Republic – appears capable of shaking off its past and making decisions about issues such as abortion and same-sex marriage that we seem incapable of.
For a fleeting moment or two we thought we were still the boys and girls in the big picture. With Brexit important people once more noticed us. Our border kept them up late at night. We were mentioned in high places just like the old days. In addition, the DUP’s ten seats at Westminster wrong-footed the governing power and Northern Ireland – or a section of it at least – appeared to be at the centre of things.
Facing the truth
But now as time passes and we remain in limbo, the notion that we are valued by others no longer comforts us and the realisation of our traditional status comes back to haunt.
The truth is hidden in plain sight and discussed only behind closed doors in whispered tones.
Within the United Kingdom of some 65 million people the concerns of less than two million on the very periphery of the kingdom, with no natural resources or strategic value to offer, don’t matter when it comes to national issues. Now it seems our opinions don’t even matter when it comes to local issues. Why else would Her Majesty’s Government leave civil servants to run the place without any accountability locally or nationally?
We’re like a sleepy branch office of a major company where the management have been downsized and only the receptionist remains to answer the phone and keep the lights on, while the staff sit around with little to do moaning about the management or lack of it. They all appear waiting for something to happen.
Still they keep feeding us the propaganda that we are important, that they value the ‘union’, that Northern Ireland is central to the Brexit negotiations and we won’t be short changed, but those who have escaped the constant brain-washing know better.
Is this dreamlike state to be our future? Are our children to grow up worshiping the dreary steeples or will we break our time-honoured mold and strike out for something better?
Union isn’t working
It seems a statement of the obvious that the union isn’t working. When partition and the union has been attacked in the past with accusations like ‘failed entity’, unionists have angrily responded with counter-accusations that any instability was caused by republican violence. But that argument can no longer be made. There comes a point when we run out of excuses.
Northern Ireland is a failed entity and alternatives must sought. Seeking ‘direct rule’ or a return of the discredited Stormont institutions won’t reverse the ongoing failure.
Albert Einstein is reputed to have said:
“insanity is repeating the same mistakes and expecting different results.”
In situations like these, when something isn’t working, a return to what’s known in certain circles as ‘factory settings’ may be the best first step i.e. a return to where it all started: to Ireland one hundred years ago, before the Government of Ireland Act and partition, where we can start again with the benefit of the century’s painful experiences and the mistakes to learn from.