It was revealed today that Iris Robinson, member of both the Westminster parliament and Northern Ireland Assembly, was unfaithful to her husband, leader of the right wing Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Northern first minister, Peter Robinson. Naturally the press is having a field day, especially given that the Robinsons are born-again Christians and Iris Robinson is on the public record as saying that gays can be ‘cured.’ Schadenfreude is a powerful emotion, but the question of politics is more important than any glee one may be tempted to feel regarding Iris Robinson’s breaking god’s commandments.
Unfortunately, the one rumour that would have been actual news has proven to be untrue: Peter Robinsion did not resign his position as first minister.
In fact, the rumour mill had been running in overdrive for days, reaching a crescendo today when the idea that Robinson had decided to resign his post started spreading among journalists. This may have been mere speculation or it may have been have been kite-flying from within Robinson’s party – at this stage is is impossible to say.
True, had Peter Robinson resigned and had this precipitated an election, Sinn Féin may well have ended-up as the largest party in the Assembly, thus shifting the balance in favour of Irish republicanism for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history. Alas, this did not happen and we will have to wait and see if the threat from the ultra-right wing Traditional Unionist Voice and the reinvigorated Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) will see off the DUP’s reign of torpor.
There is one pressing matter, though, that far outweighs the difficulties facing Robinson, at home or in work: election or no election, the Assembly doesn’t work – and probably never will.
The fact is, Northern Ireland is a failed political entity. This is not about ‘Brits Out’ sloganeering, rather it is a simply a case of facing up to reality. The Assembly, created under the rubric of the so-called Good Friday Peace Agreement, is actually a divisive institution that, in its current incarnation at least, is utterly incapable of governing. Not only is there the perennial problem that every election is a border poll, there is also the fact that the two leading parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin, are both bowing under the weight of their own internal contradictions. Both are being set-upon by former members who use their own past rhetoric to undermine attempts toward peaceful accommodation.
The only possible future for the North of Ireland is tighter integration into the national polity – the decision that will eventually have to be made is whether that polity is Ireland or Britain.
This fact has been tacitly recognised by at least three political parties: Fianna Fáil and Labour in the Republic of Ireland and the Conservatives in Britain.
The Conservative Party has linked-up with the local Ulster Unionists (UUP) to create the electoral fusion bloc ‘Ulster Conservatives and Unionists – New Force.’ Despite antagonising some socialist-inclined UUP members such as Sylvia Hermon MP, the ‘New Force’ looks likely to be merely a precursor to a formal reunion between the Conservatives and their lost Irish tribe.
Fianna Fáil has been edging North for some years and looks set to displace the SDLP as the principle voice of Irish republicanism outside Sinn Féin.
Mark Langhammer, meanwhile, has been standing under the banner of the Irish Labour Party in the hardline loyalist area of Newtownabbey – and with some success. In fairness, Langhammer had to practically drag Labour into the North but given that its sister party, the once might Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), appears to be entirely moribund, a full-scale Northern electoral campaign makes perfect sense – to everyone except the Labour Party’s timid leadership.
The reason these three parties, for all their flaws, offer a real political alternative for the North is because their attachment to their wider – and, frankly, more socially advanced – polities has the potential to render the question of sectarian head-counting null and void.
Since its foundation by the British in 1920, Northern Ireland has been a tinderbox. The explosion of violence we now call ‘the Troubles’ was only the latest sorry tale in the history of a statelet artificially separated from the rest of Ireland and yet never loved and always held at arm’s length by the British.
The question of equality for Catholics has since been settled but the broader issue of nationality remains. Although peace has been welcomed by all, the actual institutions of the state itself, such as the Assembly, contribute to tensions on the ground rather than ameliorate them. Everything in the North is now viewed through the unionist-republican prism, leaving literally no ground for compromise. Ending the war was an achievement worth crowing about but replacing it with a war of words is not good enough.
Settling the question of sovereignty was never going to happen overnight but the only way forward is for the two mother countries to actually take an interest in their red-haired stepchild, otherwise the North of Ireland will remain a place apart and the future will be one of increasingly bitter fighting between two discrete groups who vote not on social or economic issues, but solely on the question of nationality. The only question will be whether it will more closely resemble Belgium or, once again, Beirut.