Walter Ellis is a Northern Ireland-born, France-based journalist and commentator. He’s the author of “The Beginning of the End: The Crippling Disadvantage of a Happy Irish Childhood.”
Politics, to invert Carl von Clausewitz’s famous maxim, is the continuation of war by other means. And nowhere is this truer than Northern Ireland.
Since the signing of the so-called Good Friday Agreement in 1998, hardly a month has gone by without some act of violence related directly, or indirectly, to what is coyly referred to as the Troubles, as the armistice didn’t mean an end to hostilities.
And the same turbulence goes for the political arena.
The underlying question — should Northern Ireland remain part of the United Kingdom or should it join the Republic of Ireland? — has been addressed and readdressed with monotonous regularity, resulting each time in a variant of stalemate. But is a united Ireland now inevitable?
In the ongoing debate on unification, the U.K., it should be said, is neutral. Though the governing Conservative Party may be studiedly unionist, this stance mainly applies to Scotland, and the sense of family that ties Tories to the Scots does not extend to the 1.9 million Northern Irish, who have caused them nothing but trouble for the last 50 years.
Meanwhile, this month’s elections to the devolved Northern Ireland Assembly — an institution whose members frequently regard walking out as the best way forward — followed a familiar pattern. Around 40 percent of voters opted for parties supporting the British link, roughly 40 percent backed Irish nationalist parties; and the rest — mainly social liberals — got stranded in between.
Those seeing the glass half full pointed to the fact that the center ground expanded; cynics noted the main warring factions ended up further apart than ever. The election suggested change is in the air; but so, too, is stasis.
Sinn Féin, formerly the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army, won 27 of the 90 seats in the assembly. For the first time since it belatedly entered government in 2007, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) came second, with 25 seats.
And the Alliance Party — non-sectarian, middle of the road, neither unionist nor republican — ended the campaign with 17 seats, by far its highest ever tally. However, only to find that the Big Two remained with their daggers drawn, making the formation of a functioning executive practically impossible.
Humiliated by his party’s defeat, the DUP’s Sir Jeffrey Donaldson then went on to confirm that, as previously threatened, he would stop proceedings unless the British government abandoned the Northern Ireland Protocol, a hard-fought addendum to the treaty ending the U.K.’s EU membership.
Deeply contentious, the protocol is intended to preserve an open border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic — the single most emotive issue for both sides in the century-long quarrel — keeping the isolated British province within the EU single market for goods, while imports from England, Scotland and Wales are subject to checks at the ports of Belfast and Larne.
It is a complex business, recalling the comment of the late former Irish Prime Minister Garret FitzGerald when confronted by a particularly glutinous piece of EU legislation: “I can see how this would work in practice, but how does it work in theory?”
Donaldson and the DUP loathe and despise the protocol, feeling it diminishes their status as equal citizens of the U.K., creating a border in the Irish Sea that, as they see it, should run between the North and the Republic. “Loyalists” — mostly working-class Protestants, often with links to banned paramilitary groups — stand behind the DUP in rejecting the protocol, whereas Sinn Féin regard it as an essential building block of a future united Ireland.
The result is a perfect storm in a teacup, spelling present trouble for everyone.
In the longer term, however, another shift brews, with demographers pointing to the fact that the Catholic/nationalist population of the North is slowly growing and is expected to overtake the current Protestant/unionist majority within the next decade. At some point after that, an all-Ireland border poll, with a practice-run as early as 2027, could allow the U.K. to open negotiations with Dublin, regarding the form and likely timetable for a transition to unity.
The hurdles will, of course, be many — not least concerns expressed by southern Irish taxpayers and the likelihood of an insurrection by die-hard Ulster loyalists. But the direction of travel will be fixed for all to see.