16 August 2019

Stormont needs radical change

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This week marks 50 years since The Battle of the Bogside, which led to the deployment of British troops in Northern Ireland, and is considered to be the start of The Troubles. In recent months, the scars of Northern Ireland’s sectarian past have been clearly on display. This week’s anniversary has been marked by consecutive nights of violence in Derry/Londonderry, following riots involving an anti-internment bonfire in North Belfast. The violence has been condemned by all sides, but serves as a timely reminder of the vacuum that has been left by the collapse of power-sharing, and the continuing suspension of Stormont. Power-sharing cannot resume until politicians are brought together to tackle the big issues so that Northern Ireland can prosper for the post-conflict generation.

The murder of Lyra McKee in April sent shockwaves through the country, a tragic reminder of how fragile peace can be. The generation that Lyra had named the “ceasefire babies”, to which both she and I belong, had rarely experienced such tragedy. We were told such senseless acts had been left in the past. Her funeral was one of the rare occasions since the collapse of power-sharing that both sides of the political divide had been brought together. Fr Martin Magill received a standing ovation for challenging the gathered politicians from the pulpit, “why in God’s name did it take the death of a 29 year old woman, with her whole life in front of her, to get to this point?” For talks to be worthwhile, politicians must put aside their differences for the greater good.

Power-sharing worked when there was a sense of respect between both sides. If Martin McGuinness, a former leader of the Provisional IRA, and Ian Paisley, the man who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, could work together then the same should be possible for any politician. McGuinness said that until they agreed to form an Executive together, he and Paisley “had never had a conversation about anything…now we have worked very closely and there’s been no angry words between us”. Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster could learn a valuable lesson from the ‘chuckle brothers’. Sinn Fein and the DUP have no choice but to find a means of working together again. Their increasing electoral success, at the expense of the SDLP and UUP, ensures they will be in power for the foreseeable future. We should not have to accept continued political stalemate as the reality of sectarian politics.

Brexit creates obvious concerns for Northern Ireland’s future. The Irish backstop served as the focus point of anger for hardline Brexiteer MPs who voted against May’s Brexit deal, and on a daily basis, we are told that a ‘hard Brexit’ would put the Good Friday Agreement at risk. Speaking at an event to commemorate hunger strikers in Co. Tyrone, Sinn Fein MEP Martina Anderson told the gathered crowd that “Britain’s days in Ireland are numbered” before concluding with “Tiocfaidh ar la”, a phrase popularised by the Provisional IRA meaning “our day will come”.

Brexit has drawn another line in the sand between unionists and nationalists. The DUP were the only major party to have supported the leave campaign, but refused to support May’s Brexit deal. Sinn Fein have capitalised on the uncertainty around the border to increase calls for a border poll on a united Ireland. Each side is playing to their core audience, and our politics are becoming increasingly polarised. One thing that is clear though, on all sides, is that Northern Ireland’s now seamless border cannot be subject to physical infrastructure, or anything resembling the borders of the past.

Arguments that raged fifty years ago over parades and flags are still occurring, leaving us to wonder if cross-community relations could ever reach a place of respect. This seems unlikely when ordinary people take their lead from politicians who mock the Irish language with statements like “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”, or who mock the victims of the Kingsmill massacre on social media on the anniversary of their murders. We teach our children respect, but our politicians seem to have missed the memo. My name is Irish, but my knowledge of the Irish language is limited to a nursery rhyme. I’m a unionist but appreciate the significant of the Irish language to the nationalist community as an essential part of their identity. Respecting each other’s culture should not be a radical concept in 2019.

The future of power-sharing remains uncertain. Northern Ireland has been without its Assembly since January 2017, and various attempts – including an Assembly election – have all failed to break the deadlock. The political parties who had guided Northern Ireland into power-sharing, the SDLP and UUP,  have disappeared as an electoral force. The Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, over which McGuinness resigned to bring down Foster, remains unresolved. Stormont itself needs radical change, with the petition of concern needing reform to prevent its continued use as a means of blocking equality legislation. For Northern Ireland to prosper in the union, its citizens need to have the same freedom and opportunities afforded to everyone else in the UK. This should be a basic concept for any Unionist.

Northern Ireland has been left to be run by civil servants, with the courts having to clarify their powers, before Westminster past legislation to give more legal clarity. Direct rule has been a rumoured consequence of a potential no deal Brexit, wherein civil servants would not have the authority to make the relevant decisions for Northern Ireland’s day to day running.

It has been 50 years since the start of The Troubles, and Northern Ireland is fundamentally a different place but it is still on the road of recovery from years of sectarian conflict. It faces a new challenge with Brexit, and what it’s place will be in a post-Brexit United Kingdom, where a desire for a “do or die” Brexit must be weighted against the principles and spirit of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement. For Northern Ireland to grow, it must come to a place of mutual respect.

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Aine Lagan is a Conservative activist, and is Head of Communications for Conservative Young Women