Brendan O'Neill’s editorial on the re-convening of the Stormont assembly (published 27 March, 2007 in the "Spiked Online" blog and reprinted in “The Blanket”) is by far the most cogent analysis I have seen on the current state of political activity, or stasis, in Northern Ireland. I would only take issue with two points in Mr. O'Neill's commentary, which are in no way meant to detract from the very high quality of the article.
First, Mr. O'Neill slightly mischaracterizes, or at least obscures, the nature of modern unionism, which did not begin in the 1970s in reaction to the onset of the Troubles, although those were the circumstances in which Ian Paisley's Democratic Unionist Party was organized. Rather, unionism in its current form can best be traced back to Edward Carson's Ulster Covenant of 1912. The Covenant was formed in reaction to the Irish Home Rule Bill that was introduced in the British Parliament in the same year. Whether the British ever intended to enforce the bill remains uncertain, but Carson and his followers weren't taking any chances. Rather than accept the possibility that Ireland's Catholic bourgeoisie might have a parliament of their own, the Ulster Unionists declared, in the Covenant, that any concession of self-determination to the Irish, no matter how democratically justifiable and no matter how well supported at Westminster itself, would be anathema. The Convenanters also organized the Ulster Volunteers militia to enforce this opinion. Today the Ulster Volunteers mainly concern themselves with running the drug and prostitution rackets in unionist neighborhoods, but their original purpose was to show London that any attempt to create a non-sectarian parliament in Ireland would be met with civil war. And the Unionist movement (which is in general much more unified than nationalism) has never fully set aside this doctrine. A good, though hardly unique, example of this fact was seen in 1998, when Ulster Unionist Party leader David Trimble said, during a lecture tour meant to promote the Good Friday Agreement, that the 1922 creation of the 26 county Irish Republic had been a mistake.
Second, Mr. O'Neill is completely correct when he reveals the selfishness of Whitehall's motives in Northern Ireland, and the readiness that London has shown to betray unionist interests whenever British interests make doing so expedient. Thirty five years of such rough handling has indeed eroded unionism to the point where it is almost unrecognizable. And the unlikely political gymnastics which Tony Blair, perhaps in preparation for his own political swan song, has pressured Ian Paisley into performing over the past few weeks haven't done anything to increase the Unionist parties’ credibility.
But until Britain can develop an alliance with some other, less outdated faction who can reliably serve their needs, London will have no choice but to continue to govern through the unionist movement. Furthermore, the development of any such new faction is unlikely, since, as Mr. O'Neill shows, the parliamentary structure laid out in the Good Friday Agreement tends heavily toward cementing the existing social and political structure in place. And the Unionists' veto power in Stormont, their solid demographic majority east of the River Bann, their numerical superiority in the Northern Irish Police Service and their exclusive control of the Special Branch of the police force all show that they are not yet politically zombified.
Finally, it is an axiom of Anglo-Irish history that, so long as Ireland has access to the west coast of Britain, Britain will have a strategic interest in controlling (or at least maintaining a garrison in) Ireland. Britain's management of its Irish policy since 1993 shows that, written statements to the contrary, that strategic interest has not dissipated. This is the only plausible explanation for why the United Kingdom continues, decades after settling into an indirect neocolonial relationship with its other former provinces, to tolerate and cultivate in Ireland a political faction whose world view and policies were mapped out in and have never strayed far from the mind of Rudyard Kipling.
All of this raises the question of what new political landscape will emerge from the current fog. Mr. O'Neill's suggestion that the old parties have been swept away as anything other than British administrative units is convincing. And he draws a convincing picture of a Northern Irish government completely dislocated from the actual politics of Northern Ireland itself. But since the political tensions which originally created those parties and factions have not gone away, and since those tensions cannot find any outlet in the existing political system, the question then becomes where will those tensions express themselves — and how?
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