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Team GB and four lessons for Northern Ireland
When power sharing negotiations collapsed on Valentine’s Day some on social media asked why the main BBC evening news bulletin put the story towards the bottom of the running order –just before an update on Team GB’s efforts at the Winter Olympics? The harsh but fair answer, is because that is a pretty accurate judgement of where it ranks in importance for most people on ‘the mainland’.
For those of us more engaged in picking at the scabs of Northern Ireland politics, recriminations over who is to blame for the non-deal will continue to reverberate for some time. Sinn Fein (and many independent journalists) claim there was an ‘accommodation’ in draft form, but the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) could not sell an Irish Language Act and marriage equality legislation to its base, so walked away. The DUP has claimed that there was no deal and that the draft was exactly that, with no commitment from them to a stand-alone Irish Language Act. While applying the last rites to the talks, the DUP called on the government to immediately institute direct rule from Westminster.
The UK government’s reaction to this request has been interesting. Despite DUP pressure, and some muscle memory from previous crises –the government has (so far) resisted the call for direct rule to be implemented. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, explicitly declined to re-introduce direct rule on 21 February, agreeing only to set a budget so that essential services could continue. DUP Deputy Leader Nigel Dodds called this ‘a dereliction of duty’ –not the sort of language you would expect from a party that has an understanding –if not full blown partnership, with Bradley’s Conservative Party.
So what lessons can be learnt from the latest collapse of power sharing at Stormont and its place on the podium of interest for the British public?
Lesson 1: The DUP tail does not wag the Tory dog
In the end there are greater pressures and strategic concerns that may affect the GB ‘mainland’ than the relationship between the Tories and the DUP. One of the key reasons why London has not yet implemented direct rule is because the Irish government is adamantly and very publically opposed to them doing so. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney has said: “There can be no British-only direct rule” and that Dublin must be consulted in any future direct rule scenario. While the DUP certainly exerts significant leverage on this Tory government, it has its limits.
Brexit has shifted the political axis between Ireland and the UK –at least for the moment. The Conservatives need the DUP for as long as its minority administration lasts –but the UK needs the Irish government for as long as Brexit negotiations and the transitional arrangements last. Potentially even beyond that as Ireland will become the UK’s gateway with the EU and land frontier with it.
Brexit could be a game-changer concerning the balance of power in Northern Ireland politics –a rather ironic conclusion, given that the DUP is fully committed to Brexit and the UK.
Lesson 2: It’s not Team UK for a reason
There is, perhaps, a deeper historical lesson lurking behind the “Team GB” marketing trademark deployed by the British Olympic Association since 1999. In sporting terms at least, Northern Ireland has been invisibilised–and it is a painful metaphor for those of a unionist persuasion. Put bluntly, Northern Ireland is on the political, economic and cultural periphery of the UK, rather than an integral component of British understandings of its own political self-interest or self-image.
The phrase Britain has ‘no selfish strategic or economic interest’ in Northern Ireland, was one of the golden keys that unlocked the ‘complete cessation of military operations’ by the Provisional IRA in 1994 and was a key mantra of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. It and has been an article of faith ever since. The British government has never said this about Scotland, Wales or any other part of the UK. It is hurtful to unionists who feel that Britain should have a selfish interest in Northern Ireland. But it doesn’t.
During the Second World War, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill played footise with Irish Taoiseach Eamon de Valera over the possibility of Irish reunification in return for the Free State supporting the war effort. While the real significance of this ‘offer’ has been questioned by historians, (given that it carried the rather significant caveat of requiring unionist support ) the fact that the carrot of reunification was dangled at all is indicative of where British expediency lies at a time of ‘national’ crisis.
It’s not just Churchill. Team GB’s politicians have frequently demonstrated their willingness to consider all options in private, regardless of what they may say in public.
In 1983, Margaret Thatcher asked the then Northern Ireland Secretary James Prior if he thought her government should prepare for a ‘tactical withdrawal’ from the province.
Then, in 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement gave the Irish government a consultative role over key policy decisions in the North. It was a massive blow to the unionist psyche but their feelings were less important to Thatcher than a potential alliance with Dublin.
Despite Margaret Thatcher’s adage that Northern Ireland is ‘as British as Finchley’, in practice it never has been. It is certainly not as British as the London boroughs of Camden or Westminster, despite Boris Johnston’s intervention on the Irish border conundrum on 27 February.
When it comes to Northern Ireland –different rules apply. It’s Team GB first. It’s Team GB and Northern Ireland, a distant second.
Lesson 3: The future might be more green than orange
In the current climate direct rule carries significant risks for the DUP. An Irish language act, marriage equality legislation –and pretty much anything else that might ease Brexit negotiations- can be brought into Northern Ireland with a swish of a British politician’s pen and the usual nod through via Orders in Council at Westminster regardless of their protests.
The confidence and supply arrangement between the government and DUP will forestall this for the moment, but in the event of a Labour or majority Conservative government, the medium-term prospects look more challenging for unionists.
As a result of Brexit, direct rule could eventually have a distinctly green tinge to it, as the UK government needs Dublin support for any deal with the EU and possibly for transitional negotiations in the months and years ahead. The cost of power sharing in Stormont might be to accept these bills now, or have the traded away by direct rule in the future.
Lesson 4: Be careful what you wish for –because you might just get it
The DUP has been an enthusiastic advocate of Brexit and is now also calling for direct rule. However, the EU draft treaty, published on 28 February, lays out a deal that was unacceptable to the DUP before Christmas. Despite the Prime Minister’s public utterances rejecting it, its publication moves further distinction between Team GB and Team GB & NI in the years ahead that little bit closer.
Given the history of British political expediency towards Northern Ireland, walking away from devolved government to deliver Brexit via direct rule, could prove to be a flawed long-term strategy from a unionist perspective. You might get the cake, but someone else will get to eat it.
Whenever the effects of Brexit on Northern Ireland finally emerge you’ll find them on the news report of ‘mainland’ GB television just before the curling.
Feargal Cochrane is vice-chair of the PSA and professor of International Conflict Analysis and the director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre (CARC), in the Department of Politics and International Relations at the University of Kent.