Why Stormont cannot be fixed through absence, political inertia or even browbeating the DUP…

…there seemed no ground in front of my feet, only the abyss of star-studded space falling away forever.

– David Abrams

Asked by Ian Dale the other night on LBC whether the Biden visit would have an effect, I gave him the obvious answer which is that since only the DUP (the current fulcrum around which the fate of the Assembly revolves) can decide, it changes nothing.

Aside from political considerations, US Presidential visits are fun especially for the people who really have made the Belfast Agreement work, ie the plain folk of Northern Ireland. Compared to other parts of the UK and NI we do alright in that regard.

Apart from holding out the promise of a US investment trip his speech was pro forma public diplomacy. Instead of trying to fruitlessly pressurise the immovable object that is the DUP, he chose to sing a paean or three on the US’s debt to Ulster Scots.

That was it. It’s as though he had anticipated Arlene’s somewhat overwrought accusation that Biden hated the UK on GB News. It even included a confession that he was as English and French as he was Irish. [But there’s no votes in the other two, eh? – Ed]

As a former First Minister it was injudicious, but an indication of the effects of the long siege of Northern Irish Protestants, who are now just one of three minorities in NI, whose versions of history they feel are routinely airbrushed from the official account.

Arlene’s outburst drew much criticism, not least because at one time, as a two times victim of the Provisional IRA she’d been seen by many moderate Catholics as holding out an olive branch when early in her term she attended a GAA match.

They tend to forget it ended in a widespread vilification/witch-hunt over an issue that few jobbing journalists ever understood and over which the DUP’s long coalition partner had been complicit in keeping the scandalous details from rival politicians.

Apart from a brief sojourn during Covid, Stormont and its institutions have barely worked since the day Sinn Féin walked out in January 2017. The following election fuelled a surge for tribal nationalism which effectively sidelined its pluralist cousins.

The short effect on the other side was to shore up the DUP, but in 2022 voters (as they have been doing from the term “Protestant” in successive censuses) trended somewhat away from unionism (and nationalism) towards pluralist alternatives.

In the aftereffects the now smaller blocks of unionist and nationalist voters have moved further away from the centre and towards more extreme tribalist norms and with it has gone any sense that there is much grounds available for a new consensus.

Some centrists have toyed with the idea of excluding the DUP on the grounds that if they won’t do their job, someone else should be allowed to. The sentiment is understandable, since without some punishment, where’s the incentive to govern?

It is open to the charge of hypocrisy since no such calls emanated from that quarter when Sinn Féin pulled down the institutions for the expedience, some would say, of hiding their complicity in the RHI mess (which incidentally is still ongoing).

But that is not say there’s not a problem. How does it get fixed? Maybe it could if the British and Irish governments would get together in some harmonic of the pooling of political capital between Dublin and London that brought about the Belfast Agreement.

It ought to be possible both to loosen the tight halter put on the Executive by the St Andrews Agreement and end the ridiculous two horse race to become First Minister by abolishing any distinction between two offices that have the same de jure powers.

Micheál Martin’s Shared Island Initiative offers a more positive incentive in the shape of funding for cross jurisdictional projects aimed not at abstract long term objectives on the constitution but by tackling issues of more pressing voter interest.

The quiet assassin of confidence in Stormont has been the post crash austerity UK governments which turned to power sharing ministers and told them in successive years they’d have to inform their voters they’d be getting less not more from devolution.

The prospect of investment and economic growth (the delayed peace dividend for Northern Ireland’s battered, post conflict economy) may switch the incentives for those willing to grasp the nettle of governing for all the people of Northern Ireland.

In this regard, Biden kept his powder dry with the possibility of an investment conference deferred to later in the year, or whenever the DUP decide to come in from the cold. It’s no silver bullet, but nor was there one in 1998. And yet, NI is transformed.

“Treat people as if they were what they ought to be and you help them to become what they are capable of being.”

– Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

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