The pretend politics of a fantasy state

Created to frustrate the will of the people, Northern Ireland and its political parties barely function anymore.

Jason Walsh

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Tough times lie ahead for the governing parties in Northern Ireland. Both the once-mighty Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and its opponents (or is it partners-in-government?) Sinn Féin are staring down the barrel of very peculiar political shotguns.

The DUP’s most pressing problems surround Iris Robinson, the gay-bothering fundamentalist Christian MP, Assembly member, local councillor and wife of Northern Ireland’s first minister Peter Robinson. Mrs Robinson has withdrawn from public life and is due to step down from her seats after it was revealed that she had an affair with the local butcher. And his son. And helped his son start a business with money many people are now asking questions about (1).

The ins and outs of Iris Robinson’s affairs, both romantic and financial, may yet oust her husband from his position of power, but Sinn Féin won’t be watching on with glee. In December, Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams was caught up in his own scandal when his niece Áine Tyrell announced on television that her father, Liam Adams, had repeatedly raped her from the age of four onwards (2).

At first it looked as though Adams would emerge as a hero from this story, especially when he played the victim card himself and announced that his own father had been a sexual abuser (3). Later, however, it was discovered that Adams’ self-declared support for his niece didn’t appear to go quite as far as he had claimed, leaving many angry that he didn’t do more to protect children.

Adams’s fate appears to be sealed, but he is taking his time. Speaking on Newstalk radio in Ireland, Killian Forde, a once-rising star who recently quit Sinn Féin, said Adams has been seeking to step down since 2005. The delay has been the result of the inability to find a suitable candidate for Sinn Féin president, who must come from the Republic of Ireland this time in order to placate the party membership (4).

Schadenfreude all round, then?

As it goes, the scandal surrounding Adams is not necessarily of great importance to the future of Sinn Féin in Northern Ireland. Although Adams has a seat in the Assembly, his role is minimal. Sinn Féin is led locally by deputy first minister Martin McGuinness, so the potential for local fallout from the child-abuse allegations is minimised. Nevertheless, the party is facing difficulties.

The supposedly ‘substantive’ issue underneath all of this pretend politics is the devolution of policing and justice to the Assembly. Sinn Féin wants it, but the DUP doesn’t. It seems likely that unless the DUP bends to Sinn Féin’s will on the issue, the Assembly will collapse. The only reason anyone would notice, though, is because this would precipitate an election.

Local control of policing and justice is, more or less, an issue for nationalists and republicans – but it’s a long way from a united Ireland. While it’s true that most Sinn Féin voters would like to see the police under local control, there is no indication that anyone other than the most hardened party hacks really cares that much about the issue, a fact that unmasks the fantasy nature of the politics of the Assembly.

Republicans have long argued that Northern Ireland is an illegitimate failed state. Despite having made their peace with it in recent years, the fact is that this insight remains correct. The Northern Ireland Assembly is barely functional as a political entity – but that scarcely matters. The only important thing, from the point of view of the peace process, is that it continues to exist.

If an election were held tomorrow, the likely outcome would be the DUP vote being split two ways between the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice on the right and the apparently reinvigorated Ulster Unionist/Tory alliance on the left. This could leave Sinn Féin as the biggest party – and nationalists, for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, would be the controlling group in government.

But nothing would change, for this is the very scenario the Assembly is designed to render politically meaningless. Unionists have feared a nationalist-led government for decades – the only way to get them on-board for the Assembly was to ensure that such a government would be a no-hope administration composed of no-marks. Rather than being a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people, the Northern Ireland Assembly is a pretend parliament for politically empty decision-making.

Like every British-sponsored electoral body in Ireland since the 1918 election, when the British government refused to recognise an overwhelming vote for all-Ireland independence (6), the purpose of the Assembly is not to express the will of the people, but to frustrate it through tedious technical measures. If the will of the people ever meant anything, then the Assembly and its predecessors would have abolished themselves and Northern Ireland would have merged with the rest of Ireland. The Assembly cannot be allowed to be truly political because to do so would be to expose the fantasy nature of the Northern Irish state itself.

Unlike in the past, however, the current state of affairs is not a simple conspiracy against the republican citizenry of Ireland. The rot, spreading from the top down, has seeped right into republicanism itself, both in its formerly armed, militant and more moderate varieties. Partners in the peace process, Sinn Féin and the shrunken husk of the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) – once the officially acceptable face of Northern nationalism – not to mention southern parties such as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour, have all become meaningless zombie organisations, staggering on across the electoral landscape without any obvious purpose or principle.

In short, Irish politics is in a state of paralysis, stuck with institutions and organisations that are merely millstones from the past without the capacity to forge anything new. It’s politics, Séamus, but not as we know it.

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 described Northern Ireland as a one-party state and looked at the revival of Irish republicanism. Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Mícheál Mac Giolla Phádraig criticised the idea of an IRA ‘death cult’. Kevin Rooney 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) Iris Robinson, Irish Times politics blog, 8 January 2010. 
For more details see: The Lock-Keeper’s farrago, Daniel Jewesbury, forth, January 11, 2009

(2) Child abuse scandal rocks Irish republican leader Gerry Adams, Jason Walsh, Christian Science Monitor, 23 December 2009

(3) It’s all about victimhood, Jason Walsh, forth, 21 December 2009

(4) Speaking on The Wide Angle with Karen Coleman, Newstalk, 10 January 2010

(5) See: Wikipedia page on 1918 election result

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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