It’s amazing how rarely political commentators make links between issues and events over a broad timescale. Issues are examined in silos. Making connections requires an exercise of memory. Something 24 hour news coverage discourages. It’s all about today’s or this week’s crisis, not a pattern over time or what somebody said or did a year ago or more.
Brexit seems to many to be a freestanding issue detached from the flow of other events in Ireland. But is it?
In Northern Ireland before we had the Brexit carnival, RHI was the biggest show in town and it hasn’t gone away (you know). Coughlin’s report is due in the next month or two. In addition, RHI will not be the last scandal to rock the north’s political class.
So what link is there between Brexit and RHI?
Remember how the RHI crisis began? It began when the state broadcaster, the BBC, used considerable energy and resources to expose the misuse of public funds at Stormont in the funding of this renewable energy scheme. In this the BBC didn’t just run a single news report or even a single programme. It kept the story in the headlines here for many months. RHI was covered like no other story in Northern Ireland.
Many will argue with justification that there was good cause for the BBC to do so and we should be grateful that they did. That’s true. But many with their ears to the ground in NI know there are many more scandals here, some much bigger than RHI, that the BBC has either completely ignored or reported and then quietly dropped. I can think of NAMA for one, involving billions and many people in high places across this island. It was reported on by the BBC in 2015 and 2016. Individuals were exposed. But suddenly NAMA was switched off, as RHI was switched on. Some of the BBC’s reports on NAMA online have even been taken down. No conclusions were ever reached and no one held accountable.
BBC controls the agenda
The BBC dominates the news media in this wee place. Through this it controls the political agenda and frames public discourse.
So such massive coverage by the news giant on RHI had a huge impact. In fact it led to the collapse of the hard-won political institutions. Political institutions admired around the world.
Nowhere else in the UK and at no other time has the BBC’s coverage of an event contributed to the collapse of political institutions. To be fair causing political instability is not meant to be the role of a state broadcaster. That’s for the independent media and political radicals. But not in Northern Ireland.
So we must ask the question: why was RHI treated so differently?
Heroes and villains
Simultaneously to the DUP in Belfast being vilified daily by the state broadcaster for their behaviour around RHI – news coverage that leads to them losing office – you have them seen as kingmakers in London because of an election result. All this is done by the same government that controls the BBC. Can any sense be made of these two diametrically opposed outcomes?
I think so.
The political agenda
Firstly, if the British Government had not wished the institutions to collapse in January 2017, it wouldn’t have allowed their BBC attack dogs such free rein or, if it really was all just a giant cock-up, the government would have pulled the stops out to put the pieces back together quickly. But they have done the exact opposite. Two years on and the British Government have not the slightest interest in reconstructing Stormont.
Indeed it looks increasingly like the agreed institutions here will never function again under the current constitutional arrangements.
We must conclude that the collapse of Stormont was a desired outcome of the state. That begs the question: why?
I believe Brexit is the answer.
For one, consider how much more complicated would be the Brexit negotiations with a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly demanding continuous input, questioning central government’s actions, sending deputations to London, Dublin and Brussels, passing motions and, more likely, fighting on the assembly floor. Bear in mind also that unionists no longer carried a majority in the assembly and that a majority in NI voted to remain.
But I think the more significant reason for removing Stormont is a planned reshaping of Ireland post-Brexit.
Since the collapse of the institutions talk of a united Ireland has come centre stage. For years while the DUP and Sinn Fein sat in government such talk was rarely heard. Under the GFA the issue of a united Ireland was held to have been settled until a majority decided otherwise. Republicans did not want to upset their partners in government by pushing their ultimate goal. Now all bets are off and it’s a burning issue again, as is the Irish language.
Could it be that the removal of the institutions was also needed to allow for the development of some form an all-island structure as part of the final Brexit settlement?
Pundits suggest that the British establishment don’t know what they are doing with Brexit, they are incompetent and have made many mistakes. All that is based on the assumption that what the British government say in public is a true representation of their real direction of travel ie they are telling us the truth and not concealing their true intentions from us. Is the British government normally this transparent?
I’m reminded of the famous scene in the Godfather film where Santino is slapped down by his father, Don Corleone, for speaking his mind at a meeting of the Mafia’s Five Families.
‘Never tell those outside the family what you are thinking,’ says the Don.
It’s the same for governments engaged in negotiation, especially old imperial powers like Britain.
Closer alignment with Ireland
Brexit has brought together the political agendas of the Irish and the British states in a way that has never been seen since before partition. British politics are now discussed daily in the Irish media and vice versa.
Despite the apparent disagreements between the two governments Brexit has thrown up how closely linked are the interests of the two states.
In addition Northern Ireland has become the focus of attention in Britain that was last seen during the Home Rule crisis. The needs of two percent of the UK’s population appears to be holding the entire negotiation process to ransom. This is very much a double-edged sword.
Backlash and realignment
While Northern Ireland interests are apparently respected currently – because of the vital role the DUP play in keeping the Tories in power – how much longer will this continue? Do we really believe the British government would have been so attentive to Northern Ireland’s interests in Brexit if unionists had not held the balance of power in Westminster?
The question is: What will happen when the DUP no longer hold the balance of power? Will there be an almighty backlash against this arrogant backwater that caused so much trouble in the negotiations? I think so.
I suspect then that all the pigeons will come home to roost. Then the British establishment will push for a dramatic realignment in Ireland. Unionism will have no assembly and no power at Westminster to stymie any such moves. The British establishment will also be eager for revenge for all the times they had to bite their tongues and humour Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds. They will partner with the Irish government in creating some form of an all-island structure that will have close relations with Britain.
Unity in name only
Irish nationalists and republicans should not lick their lips in anticipation because this creation will have Britain’s stamp all over it. It will be a highly centralised, neoliberal construct where the banks and corporations will call the shots.
With the north cowed, the only obstacle now in the way of this construct is the battle that is currently being waged in the republic for the heart and soul of Ireland. This is between the people – so badly oppressed by the EU troika and their traitorous government – and the forces of the bank-owned state. If this battle is lost then Ireland, north and south, will become a low wage gulag for the Anglo-American empire.
Perhaps only then will the people in Ireland, north and south, unionist and nationalist, at last find common cause and truly unite.