Walter Ellis is a French journalist and commentator born in Northern Ireland. He is the author of “The Beginning of the End: The Crippling Disadvantage of a Happy Irish Childhood”..”
Politics, to reverse the famous maxim of Carl von Clausewitz, is the continuation of war by other means. And nowhere is this truer than in Northern Ireland.
Since the signing of the so-called Good Friday agreement in 1998, hardly a month has passed without an act of violence linked directly or indirectly to what is timidly called the Troubles, because the armistice did not mean no end to hostilities.
And the same turbulence goes for the political arena.
The underlying question: should Northern Ireland continue to be part of the United Kingdom or should it join the Republic of Ireland? — was approached and taken up again with monotonous regularity, each time ending up in a variant of an impasse. But is a united Ireland now inevitable?
In the current debate on unification, the United Kingdom, it must be said, is neutral. Although the ruling Conservative Party is slated to be Unionist, this position applies primarily to Scotland, and the sense of family that binds Conservatives to Scots does not extend to the 1.9 million Irish people in the Nord, who have given them nothing but trouble for the past 50 years. .
Meanwhile, this month’s elections to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly – an institution whose members often see exit as the best way forward – followed a familiar pattern. Around 40% of voters opted for parties supporting the British link, around 40% backed Irish nationalist parties; and the rest – mostly social liberals – got stuck in between.
Those who saw the glass half full pointed out that the central floor had expanded; cynics noted that the main warring factions found themselves further apart than ever. The change suggested by the elections is in the air; but so is stasis.
Sinn Féin, formerly the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, won 27 of the 90 Assembly seats. For the first time since its late entry into government in 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) came second, with 25 seats.
And the Alliance Party – non-sectarian, middle ground, neither Unionist nor Republican – ended the campaign with 17 seats, by far its highest tally ever. However, only to find that the Big Two remained with their daggers drawn, making forming a functioning executive virtually impossible.
Humbled by his party’s defeat, Sir Jeffrey Donaldson of the DUP then confirmed that, as he had previously threatened, he would halt proceedings unless the UK government scrapped the Northern Ireland Protocol, a bitter addendum disputed over the treaty ending UK membership of the EU.
Deeply controversial, the protocol aims to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland – the most poignant issue for both sides in the century-long feud – by keeping the British province isolated within the EU single market for goods, while imports from England, Scotland and Wales are subject to checks at the ports of Belfast and Larne.
It’s a complex case, reminiscent of the late Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald’s comment when confronted with particularly sticky EU legislation: “I can see how it would work in practice, but how does it work- it in theory? »
Donaldson and the DUP hate and despise the protocol, believing it diminishes their status as equal citizens of the UK, creating a border in the Irish Sea which they say should run between the North and the Republic. “Loyalists” – mostly working-class Protestants, often linked to outlawed paramilitary groups – support the DUP in its rejection of the protocol, while Sinn Féin sees it as an essential part of a future united Ireland.
The result is a perfect storm in a teacup, spelling out current issues for everyone.
In the longer term, however, another shift is brewing, with demographers pointing out the fact that the Catholic/Nationalist population in the North is slowly growing and is expected to overtake the current Protestant/Unionist majority within the next decade. At some point thereafter, an Ireland-wide border ballot, with practice as early as 2027, could allow the UK to open negotiations with Dublin, regarding the form and likely timing of a transition to Ireland. ‘unity.
The hurdles will of course be many, including concerns expressed by taxpayers in southern Ireland and the likelihood of an insurrection by die-hard Ulster faithful. But the direction of travel will be fixed for all.