Same new deal for Northern Ireland
Neither ‘momentous’ nor ‘historic’, the devolution deal is just more of the same in the neverending peace process.
A new deal reached through the Northern Irish peace process this week gave politicians and headline writers renewed opportunities to claim ‘historic breakthroughs’ and ‘a new dawn’. UK prime minister Gordon Brown talked of ‘leaving history behind’. Former US president George Bush came out of retirement to pronounce on the developments. The ‘momentous’ and ‘unprecedented’ deal was a decision to devolve policing powers from the UK government to the Northern Ireland Assembly and local policing boards.
While all sides rushed to claim their place in the history books, few acknowledged their own history in relation to devolution. Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – the two leading parties sharing power in the Northern Ireland Assembly – were previously both fierce opponents of devolution on the grounds of passionately held principles.
For Sinn Féin, a republican party committed to a United Ireland, devolution represented just another form of British rule where the British conceded limited powers to Northern Ireland while continuing to exert overall control. Indeed, some republicans even argued that direct rule from London was a preferable system because at least it rendered the real, colonial relationship between Britain and Northern Ireland more explicit. Devolution, on the other hand, was simply an attempt to disguise the imperialist nature of British rule.
Likewise, most hardline unionists of the DUP objected to any kind of devolution that involved sharing power with Irish nationalists. Given until how recently both parties held these positions, it’s hard not to conclude that the most historic and momentous thing about this week’s announcement is the extent and speed at which both parties have abandoned their principles.
What was also striking was that behind the noble rhetoric was a pedestrian and banal offering. Nigel Dodds, a DUP hardliner who is best known for his Paisleyite outbursts, described the deal as being all about ‘jobs, the economy and the day-to-day issues’. Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin, who is best known internationally for having once been a leading member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, matched Dodd’s uninspiring language, describing the deal as ‘making sense’ and being ‘the way forward’.
While political leaders talked breathlessly about success, anyone hoping for proper media scrutiny of the real dynamics of the process would be frustrated. The media helped build up excitement for the deal but completely failed to reflect the widespread public apathy and disengagement from the process. Perhaps this is not surprising in a place where there is now a sinister new acronym for any journalist who dares to question the peace process: JAP, which stands for Journalist Against Peace.
If the media and political leaders were not in reflective mood, at least a few dissident youth attempted to remind them of their break from the past. A new slogan has appeared on the walls in dissident areas: ‘What’s the difference between Sinn Féin and the SDLP? 30 years.’ The slogan refers to the fact that Sinn Féin’s new enthusiasm for devolution brings them in line with what their more moderate nationalist colleagues in the Social Democratic and Labour Party were arguing for 30 years ago.
Try as they might, the politicians and editors failed to excite the populace. Even the interventions of US secretary of state Hillary Clinton did little to convince a sceptical public that this deal will mean anything other than business as usual. While the media cranked up the tension over approaching deadlines, midnight negotiations and the potential collapse of talks, many people in Northern Ireland knew the real score: most of the bargaining was not about policing and justice at all, but rather was a petty squabble over carving up the money and sweeteners that came with the deal. As politicians look to the coming election, areas of principle gave way to fighting for a bigger piece of the cake to help them win votes.
Many were openly angry about the way the first minister, Peter Robinson, appeared to gain fresh new enthusiasm for agreeing a deal with Sinn Féin only after his wife’s affairs and financial misdealings were exposed. Rarely has there been such a mismatch between the excitability of the headlines and the boredom and cynicism of the public.
There is nothing momentous or revolutionary about the latest deal in the apparently neverending Irish peace process. Powers are devolved from the UK only when the British government agrees to do so and always with the threat that if the children in the playground can’t behave and get along then their new powers will be rapidly suspended and direct rule restored – which has happened several times before. Within days of the deal, the Irish indeed showed signs of misbehaviour as a leaked email revealed that David Ford, the man tipped to become Northern Ireland justice minister, a supposedly neutral post, feels that the Saville Inquiry into Bloody Sunday is ‘pointless’.
The only truly remarkable aspect of this week’s deal is the historic abandonment of principle displayed by the unionists and republicans who now share power in Northern Ireland.
Kevin Rooney teaches government and politics at a London school.
Previously on spiked
Following farcical devolution talks at Stormont, Jason Walsh explained why Northern Ireland needs a new politics. He also described Northern Ireland as a one-party state and looked at the revival of Irish republicanism. Mick Hume explained why the future is not orange or green. Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past. Kevin Rooney railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.
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