After Irisgate: the future’s not Orange – or Green
However the scandal over the Robinsons unfolds, Northern Ireland politics will remain dominated by a one-party system: the Peace Process Party.
The ‘Irisgate’ scandal in Northern Ireland appears to have left many observers in a state of shock and awe.
How, the more gossip-oriented ask in amazement, could Iris Robinson, staunch Presbyterian and 60-year-old wife of Peter Robinson – the leader of the Reverend Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party and until this week Northern Ireland’s First Minister – have got herself mixed up in such a sexual and financial mess with a 19-year-old lover?
And how, the more serious-minded earnestly demand, can the Northern Ireland peace process – which came out of 25 years of bitter warfare and has survived violence and political conflict and crisis since it began some 15 years ago – now be seriously threatened by the shenanigans of one woman and the allegation that her husband turned a blind eye?
The first question only the fragrant Mrs Robinson can answer. The second gets things back to front. Irisgate is a product of the peace process, as well as a problem for it. It is precisely because the struggle for sovereignty between British Unionism and Irish republicanism has ended that such a little scandal can now come to dominate politics in the province. It is a symbol of how low political life has sunk under the institutionalised peace process that the stagnant status quo in Northern Ireland should be put at risk, not by a clash of principles or competing national interests, but by a relatively petty personal affair. And it is a sign of the crisis of democratic politics that the first reaction of all sides within the Stormont political elite has been to try to hold their cosy power-sharing arrangement together.
As the salacious details of Mrs Robinson’s affair become public, many have been quick to denounce the moral hypocrisy of a woman fond of quoting the Bible to attack homosexuality as an ‘abomination’. She may not be the ‘proper Presbyterian’ she claims. But then, these days Iris and Peter Robinson are not really the proper Unionists their party name claims either.
As examined previously on spiked, a combination of domestic and international factors has left both traditions of Unionism and nationalism exhausted in recent years (see Paisley and Adams: the ghosts of politics past, by Brendan O’Neill). The Unionists can no longer claim to stand for defending the Crown to the death and No Surrender to Irish republicanism. Equally the republican movement no longer stands for the destruction of the Northern Ireland state and the creation of a 32-county Irish republic. Instead they govern local matters together through the power-sharing assembly, their conflicts largely reduced to symbolic issues of competing ‘cultural identities’.
The remarkable way that the national question, the all-consuming issue in Ireland for the past 200 years, has now been removed from the agenda is clear in the biggest debate between the DUP and Sinn Fein today, over the proposed devolution of policing and justice powers from Whitehall to Belfast. When ‘the Troubles’ began in Northern Ireland 40 years ago, it was the Unionist establishment that desperately sought to retain local control over the law courts and the paramilitary police force as weapons to protect its power and privileges. By contrast the Northern Ireland civil rights movement and then the resurgent republicans sought to break the power of the Stormont parliament. Indeed, many saw the suspension of the sectarian bastion at Stormont and the imposition of direct rule from Whitehall after Bloody Sunday in 1972 as a clearing of the decks that clarified the conflict between British imperialism and Irish nationalism. Yet today, it is Sinn Fein that is demanding the devolution of policing powers back to the Stormont assembly, seeking to empower rather than overthrow the British-built statelet of Northern Ireland.
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In effect all of the major political organisations in Northern Ireland have abandoned their past principles and signed up to a one-party non-political system of government that replaces the old Protestant one-party state: today, Northern Ireland is dominated by what we might call the Peace Process Party. This has created some bizarre ‘historic’ moments in recent years, such as the time that Paisley the Orange firebrand and Sinn Fein’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, the man long accused of being IRA chief-of-staff, sat laughing together for the cameras while opening a local Ikea store. Now there is talk of McGuinness emerging from Irisgate as the First Minister of the state he once waged war against – that is, as figurehead leader of the Peace Process Party.
That state of affairs has led to some disgruntlement and protests among traditional constituencies on both sides, with sporadic violence from the Real/Continuity IRA and the emergence of the group Traditional Unionist Voice. But the PPP has carried on in office.
This forms the background to Irisgate and the unexpected political impact such a local scandal has made. There was always a history of patronage and graft in the hidden corner of the UK that was Northern Ireland, under the old Orange plutocracy. The influx of millions in regeneration money into Northern Ireland in recent years may have made dodgy dealings more rife. But more importantly, the suspension of major political conflicts has allowed attention to focus, as in Britain, on matters of personal character and scandals and gossip. Hence shortly before Irisgate broke, Sinn Fein leader Gerry Adams was plunged into a crisis of his own over revelations of past physical and sexual abuse within his family. The cracking of the old Unionist and republican blocs probably also means that personal problems which could once have been swept under the carpet are more likely to come to light.
The strange death of politics in Northern Ireland has also shaped the reactions to Irisgate. On the one hand we had Peter Robinson, a former ‘Ulster Says No’ loyalist hardman once proudly photographed posing with an automatic rifle, making a weepy confessional to the media about his family crisis, looking far more New Labour than Old Loyalist. On the other, there were Adams and McGuinness appealing for ‘calm’, making clear that, while Sinn Fein wants to use the situation to their advantage in the negotiations over devolution, they do want to rock the Stormont boat, let alone sink it.
There has been a lot of speculation about who might be the ‘real winners and losers’ at the end of this affair. One thing that already seems clear is that the people of Northern Ireland will gain nothing more in the way of democracy. Indeed, there has been a powerful instant reaction from many quarters against any suggestion that Irisgate might precipitate early elections. As one liberal Northern Ireland commentator put it in the UK Guardian, ‘The danger now is that the unfolding crisis leads to emergency assembly elections, with a big vote for the even more fundamentalist Traditional Unionist Voice, no new shared government at Stormont – and a growing drumbeat of “dissident” republican violence’. In other words, we can’t have an election, because people might vote for the ‘wrong’ candidates.
It has been a fundamental principle of those running the peace process from the start that the people of Northern Ireland and their backward prejudices must be kept out of it as far as possible. There have been elections, but the political outcome – a victory for the Peace Process Party – has been decided in advance, with the British authorities making it clear that ‘there is no Plan B’ for Northern Ireland.
Whatever else it does in the end, Irisgate will not change that undemocratic reality. Northern Ireland politics is set to continue in a state of unstable stasis, where there is always a crisis but nothing really changes, and where the PPP is likely to continue in office, if not in power, even if Sinn Fein was to become the largest party at the next assembly elections.
This truly strange affair in Northern Ireland politics – weirder and more off-putting than Iris and her toyboy – will carry on in one form or another so long as there is no alternative on offer. Whatever the dissidents on either side might wish for, there will be no going back to the past: the war is over. The trouble today is that with politics entombed in the interminable self-serving peace process, there is no sign either of a future that looks any rosier than Mrs Robinson’s.
Mick Hume is spiked‘s editor-at-large.