Why Northern Ireland is a one party state

Forget Sinn Féin or the DUP, the only party that matters in the Northern Ireland Assembly is the Peace Process Party.

Jason Walsh

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Northern Ireland peace process: are these the four most boring words in the English language? If they are it is because, in the name of ‘good governance’, the ‘process’ has usurped politics.

The Irish peace process is apparently in trouble again. Rumours are circulating that the Nothern Ireland Assembly is once more in danger of collapsing as the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) moves further to the right in an attempt to outflank the challenge from the reactionary Traditional Unionist Voice, led by disgruntled ex-DUP Euro MP Jim Allister. Alternatively, some think Sinn Féin will quit government because the DUP is back-pedalling on commitments to bring the police under the control of the Assembly (1).

Both rumours miss a very important fact: the Assembly won’t fall because Northern Ireland is a one-party state, ruled by the Peace Process Party.

For decades Northern Ireland was derided, correctly, as a joke ‘country’ – a made-up Protestant Bantustan which, while officially democratic, denied civil rights to almost half of its population through gerrymandering, discrimination, the curious practice of allowing limited companies to vote in elections and, if necessary, a good old-fashioned pogrom (2).

From its foundation in 1921 to its eventual dissolution in 1972, only one party ever exercised power in Northern Ireland’s parliament: the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP). During this period one British prime minister after another lined-up to lambast the absence of democracy in Eastern Europe, seemingly failing to notice their own miniature East Germany by the Irish Sea.

The end of the Stormont parliament in 1972 following Bloody Sunday, and the institution of direct rule, fixed this, right? Not exactly. During most of the conflict Northern Ireland was ruled from Westminster. This government, regardless of which minister happened to be running the Northern Ireland Office, was effectively government by the unelected civil service.

None of the major British political parties stood in Ireland (though the Tories did eventually start a local branch, not that anyone cared – or voted for them). Despite the occasional outburst of republican rhetoric from the Labour left, this lack of interest in Irish affairs was not driven by the idea that British politicians should stay out of Irish affairs. Instead, it was simply a result of the fact that Britain has never wanted much to do with Northern Ireland other than ensuring it continued to exist.

The UK government created Northern Ireland through the Government of Ireland Act in 1920 and, in doing so, ignored the will of the Irish people as expressed in an all-Ireland General Election in 1918 in which Sinn Féin won 73 of the 105 parliamentary seats. After such a birth, the British government could have been expected to take a direct interest in ruling its new statelet. This singularly failed to happen. Instead, it immediately separated Northern Ireland from the rest of the British polity, handed control over to a dodgy Ulster Unionist-dominated parliament and happily ignored the place until war erupted in 1969. Prior to this, both unionists and the British government had been hostile to Irish home rule, let alone independence; now that a sectarian carve-up had guaranteed an artificial majority of subjects loyal to the Crown, home rule was seen as ideal.

Even at the height of the conflict while the IRA was trying to bring its war to the streets of Britain, successive British governments pursued a policy of pretending the affair had nothing to do with them. Indeed, three consecutive prime ministers – Harold Wilson, James Callaghan and Margaret Thatcher – pursued a policy of ‘Ulsterisation’ intended to further isolate Northern Ireland from Britain.

New Labour’s victory in the general election of 1997 seemed to change things. Within months, Blair was hailed for engaging with Ireland and bringing about a peace process that resulted in local, democratic rule. Yet nothing could be further from the truth.

In reality, Blair had simply ramped-up the Ulsterisation process – the only difference was that he would involve republicans. Today, it is commonly believed that the British government is acting in good faith in Ireland, as an impartial party keeping apart ‘two tribes’ of crazed bigots who have spent thirty-plus years shooting each other. By writing its involvement out of the history books, the British establishment has succeeded in making Northern Ireland incomprehensible to all but the keenest observers and depoliticised its own role as an occupying power.

Blair twice handed power over to a new Stormont Assembly, one that unlike its predecessor does represent republican sentiment. Unfortunately, in order to obfuscate the national question, the assembly has been constructed in the most unpolitical way imaginable.

Today, gerrymandering and discrimination are no longer problems. The UUP is a shadow of its former self, having been replaced by the hyper-Protestant DUP, and republicans have fair representation in the Assembly. But Northern Ireland is still a one-party state. The difference is that instead of being ruled by the Unionist Party, it’s ruled by the Peace Process Party, a bizarre coalition of almost everyone who manages to get a foot in the door of the Assembly.

The government of Northern Ireland, if we can even call it that, is composed not only of the DUP but also Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Irish nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP). The real difference between the one-party state of yesterday and that of today is that republicans now have a hand in governing these hollow and undemocratic institutions.

In fact, this government is usually referred to, even by itself, as ‘the Executive’. This is not merely an Americanism; it is a tacit admission that the Assembly is neither a real parliament nor is Northern Ireland actually capable of electing a real government under its sectarian rules, described locally as ‘consociationalism’. In fact it is more like a mutant form of the Pillarisation, the segrational system of both the Netherlands and Belgium that saw Protestants and Catholics attend different schools, join different trade unions and generally have as little do to with one another as possible. For all the waffle about ‘shared futures’, the people of Northern Ireland share less than ever and the more the government expands to take in members of different political stripe the less coherent and cohesive it becomes. With every expansion of the government there is a corresponding contraction of the political space.

Further growth is expected with the tiny Alliance Party expected to take a ministerial post in the near future. (For the record, Alliance is a group of supposed liberals who think there is middle position between British and Irish sovereignty, though, inevitably, it always turns out actually to be the continuation of British sovereignty, just with less Union Jackery and Orange Order parades). In fact, the only elected party that hasn’t been yet been invited into the Executive fold is the Progressive Unionist Party, a small labourist group that grew out of the Ulster Volunteer Force paramilitary organisation.

Naturally, like the coalition from hell that it is, the Northern Ireland Executive lurches from crisis to crisis. As we have seen in Germany and Italy, a government composed of conflicting views rapidly becomes incapable of functioning. Parties with divergent views on economics can rarely rule together, so how is it possible that a government can exist when two of the four parties in it want to abolish the state they are supposed to be running?

The answer has been to depoliticise everything. The Executive gets on with governance while its members, in an attempt to appeal to their supporters, fight noisy sham battles over the latest sectarian issue.

There are only two real positions on Northern Ireland: either it is an undemocratic carve-up because it was artificially separated from the rest of Ireland, or it is, as Margaret Thatcher said, ‘as British as Finchley’ – at least politically if not culturally. The pretence that Northern Ireland can be magically transformed into a normal society simply by ignoring the fact that it remains a disputed territory does a disservice not only to committed republicans and unionists, but also to the electorate who are refused the right to express their political will in meaningful elections.

All of the parties in the Executive owe their allegiance not to the electorate nor to the sovereign nations of Ireland or Britain, but to the peace process – a process without end whose sole purpose is to enforce a political compromise. But this compromise comes at the very high cost of heightening communal division and sectarian tensions.

Northern Ireland is no longer about as legitimate as East Germany – today it more closely resembles Kosovo.

Jason Walsh is a journalist based in Dublin. He is the editor of forth, a new online current affairs magazine.

Previously on spiked

Jason Walsh looked at the revival of Irish republicanism. Brendan O’Neill described the Real IRA bombings of March 2009 as the work of the Zombie IRA. He also called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

(1) Anxiety at lack of action on policing and justice, Gerry Moriarty, Irish Times, 6 November 2009. This row has been running for some time – see this report from 2008: SF threatens to collapse assembly, BBC News, 24 August 2008

(2) For a history, see: Northern Ireland: The Orange State, Michael Farrell, Pluto Press, 1980

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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