Northern Ireland Struggles On Without a Government

The long Prince of Wales Avenue leads up to Northern Ireland’s seat of government in Belfast, a building known as Stormont. (CNS Photo/Cain Burdeau)

BELFAST, Northern Ireland (CN) — The Parliament Buildings, Northern Ireland’s seat of government commonly known as Stormont, sits on a hill and looks grand and formidable, exuding an air of British imperial rule and authority. But these days it’s largely empty of politicians, at all times of the year.

Northern Ireland’s experiment with sharing power between Protestants and Catholics is in crisis and its government is in deep freeze — shut down, closed.

It’s been this way since January 2017. For 28 months, and counting, Northern Ireland has been without a government, the longest period any democratic country at peacetime has been rudderless.

The country’s legislative assembly doesn’t meet. There’s no cabinet. Ministers’ offices are empty. Laws aren’t being debated and passed. Critical reforms are stalled. Oversight committees don’t meet. Decisions aren’t being made.

All the while, Northern Ireland’s social and political problems worsen: Schools are underfunded, waiting lists at doctors’ offices grow longer, unemployment is rife, suicide is alarmingly common and political rhetoric is turning acrid.

“The two parties should get together, put all their problems on the back burner, and get the country going again,” said a frustrated Anthony Cooper, a 57-year-old electrician and Protestant resident of Donegall Road in South Belfast, an area that saw extensive violence during the Troubles.

Around the corner, the side of a brick house pays tribute to a 19-year-old combatant of the Troubles killed in 1991 when the IRA attacked him at his home. The tribute was put there by the Ulster Volunteer Force, a Protestant paramilitary group blamed for about 572 deaths after the Troubles started in 1966.

Belfast is a city filled with reminders like this one of Northern Ireland’s long and bloody conflict, and each reminder helps explain in part why politics has broken down here: Past differences and grievances are still causing strife today.

For now, there’s no telling when the government will get back to business because the rancor between politicians representing Protestants and Catholics is so bad and their visions for the country’s future so extremely different.

“Here, if you’re Protestant, you vote for DUP [the Democratic Unionist Party] because they’re Protestant. If you’re Catholic, you vote for Sinn Féin because they’re Catholic,” said Taubie McGuire, a 19-year-old unemployed Protestant. “At the moment, it’s green and orange.”

The DUP and Sinn Féin are about as diametrically opposed to one another as any political parties could be, and their mutual animosity is rooted in the Troubles.

The DUP was founded by the Rev. Ian Paisley, a fundamentalist Protestant clergyman, ultra-loyalist and pro-British politician who repeatedly lashed out at Catholics during the Troubles. His party was stridently opposed to giving concessions to Catholics and it rejected the Good Friday Agreement, the peace treaty brokered in 1998 by the United States, the United Kingdom and Ireland to end the Troubles. Even so, the DUP grew in power after the treaty was signed and it has become the leading political force in Northern Ireland.

But its dominance is under threat from Sinn Féin, the radical left-wing pro-Irish party considered the political wing of the Provisional Irish Republican Army. The IRA has been held responsible for about 1,771 deaths. About 3,739 people were killed in the conflict.

In the last general election in 2017, the DUP won 28 seats and Sinn Féin 27. The rest of the assembly’s 90 seats were split among smaller parties.

“We talk about the need for compromise, but the fact of the matter is that it is difficult for them to come together when their views are fundamentally different,” said Deirdre Heenan, a professor of social policy at Ulster University.

She said the political fight is seriously hurting Northern Ireland in critical areas such as education, healthcare and the economy.

“There is a process of keeping the place running, keeping the lights on,” she said. “Yes, we can keep running, but we’re just running, we’re not addressing the fundamental issues.”

At its most basic, the DUP and Sinn Féin are fighting over the same issue that’s riven Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland for more than a century: Whether the country should remain part of the United Kingdom (as the DUP wants) or become united with Ireland (as Sinn Féin wants).

In that context, Sinn Féin is pushing for the Irish language to become officially recognized in Northern Ireland. The DUP strenuously opposes this, accusing Sinn Féin of seeking to use Irish language act as a strategy to further its goal of uniting Northern Ireland with the Republic of Ireland.

On social issues, the two parties see the world very differently too. Sinn Féin is pushing to legalize same-sex marriages and abortion. The DUP opposes both. Same-sex marriage and abortion are legal now in neighboring Ireland and in England.

Ever present, bubbling in the background, are sharp differences over the legacy of the Troubles: Who should get commemorated, who shouldn’t, who should be recognized as victims, who shouldn’t, who should be investigated, who shouldn’t.

“We didn’t have a process to deal with the past, and the past continues to seep into the present,” Heenan said.

For all the merits of the Good Friday Agreement, it did not set up a peace and reconciliation commission, as was done in South Africa to deal with the legacy of apartheid.

A review of the Twitter feeds of DUP and Sinn Féin leaders sheds light on this side of the story: On those of the DUP, victims of the IRA are commemorated, while Sinn Féin leaders back investigations into killings by British soldiers.

The total breakdown was precipitated by a scandal involving the leader of the DUP, Arlene Foster. She oversaw a botched UK-funded emissions-reducing program to encourage businesses to switch from fossil fuels to renewable sources.

The misconceived out-of-control subsidy program was abused, for example, by farmers who heated sheds not in use. Foster allegedly ignored whistleblowers, and DUP members are accused of profiting from the scheme. An inquest is looking into this so-called cash-for-ash scandal. Hundreds of millions of dollars in subsidies allegedly were paid out that should not have been.

In January 2017, citing the DUP’s “arrogance” over the scandal, Sinn Féin announced it would no longer participate in a power-sharing government. Under the rules of power-sharing, without Sinn Féin, the DUP could not rule alone. The government collapsed.

It’s worth explaining, then, how government works in Northern Ireland, a country that’s part of the UK, but has a regional government that’s devolved, meaning it has extensive powers to make its own laws, levy its own taxes and craft its own budget.

Most significantly, Northern Ireland is overseen by a power-sharing system of government that forces the country’s two main populations to be represented. This dynamic was set up under the Good Friday Agreement.

When politicians campaign for public office, for example, they are required to identify which side they are on. They can pick one of three choices: They can be unionists (generally, pro-British and Protestant), nationalists (generally, pro-Irish and Catholic) or other.

For laws to pass the Northern Ireland Assembly, they must win support among both unionists and nationalists. Each side can block legislation it doesn’t like. Power-sharing is built into the executive branch as well.

“It’s been a very difficult and troubling period for Northern Ireland,” said Mary Murphy, an expert on Northern Ireland at University College Cork.

She said that although the renewable heating program “became the explanation for the collapse” the two parties conceivably “had gotten to a point where they could not do business together.”

“It comes down to the lingering lack of trust between the two political parties,” she said. She added that Brexit further poisoned their relationship, with the DUP supporting Brexit and Sinn Féin opposed.

A walk over the grounds of the Stormont Estate, where the hulking Parliament Buildings commands views over Belfast, is a walk through Northern Ireland’s contested history — and in a way, the parliament and its grounds are among the biggest reminders of this country’s troubled past.

The halls and chambers of Northern Ireland’s seat of government in Belfast are mostly empty of politicians these days because the country’s power-sharing government has collapsed. This photo shows the Great Hall at the entrance to the building. (CNS Photo/Cain Burdeau)

The building was conceived in the 1920s after the British government partitioned Ireland in two and created Northern Ireland. At its birth, Northern Ireland was meant to be a country for Protestants governed by Protestants, and Stormont became the seat of government for this new state. Catholics, a minority, were kept out of government.

This was how Northern Ireland was ruled until 1972, when the parliament was suspended in favor of power-sharing. But a unionist general strike caused the fall of power-sharing and led to direct rule from London, which lasted until the Good Friday Agreement was reached in 1998.

This British past hangs over Stormont.

The straight-as-an-arrow mile-long Prince of Wales Avenue takes the visitor to a dramatic statue of Edward Carson standing prominently in front of Stormont. Carson was a politician who fought against the unification of Ireland in the early 20th century and he was pivotal in creating the Ulster Volunteer Force, the paramilitary force that fought against Irish republicans. For unionists, he is a hero. For nationalists, he’s an enemy.

Inside Stormont, reminders of British and unionist Protestant rule abound. At the top of the Grand Staircase, there’s a statue of Lord Craigavon, another Protestant hero in the fight against rule by Catholic Ireland. He was Northern Ireland’s first prime minister.

Ornate chandeliers made of cast iron and gilded in gold hang from the ceilings of the Great Hall at the main entrance. These chandeliers hung in Windsor Castle before they were given as a gift to Northern Ireland.

A pro-Irish narrative is not on display here, and for many nationalists Stormont is an affront, with some having called for a new parliament to be built.

“It’s a relic of the old unionist order,” Colin Coulter, a sociologist at Maynooth University and a Northern Irish scholar, said about Stormont.

Despite the seemingly insoluble deadlock, politicians are expected to fill the Assembly in Stormont once again.

“It has to be resolved, ultimately,” Murphy, the politics professor, said of the stalled government. “I think the parties will resurrect the institution in the not too distant future.”

Indeed, talks are set to begin this week between the parties to reopen government.

Frustration over the impasse has deepened since the April 18 killing of journalist Lyra McKee, a 29-year-old woman covering a neighborhood riot against a police raid in the city of Derry. The riot erupted in a poor working-class neighborhood with a history of pro-Irish paramilitary activity and police accused the New IRA, a paramilitary group, of being behind the journalist’s death.

DUP and Sinn Féin leaders condemned the violence and appeared side-by-side at a commemoration in Derry and later at McKee’s funeral, which saw the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland in attendance too.

“Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life ahead of her to get to this point?” the priest presiding over the funeral, Father Martin Magill, pointedly remarked.

United in tragedy, political opponents stood up and applauded the priest’s words. But it didn’t take long before the two sides were back to drawing red lines for the coming talks.

“The possibility of a stalemate remains very strong,” Coulter, the sociologist, said. “I think we are in this deadly dynamic where the parties are being rewarded for their mutual intransigence.”

Reached by telephone, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, a Sinn Féin Assembly member for South Belfast and former finance minister, was hardly conciliatory.

“The DUP seem to have learned nothing and forgotten nothing,” he complained.

The DUP did not return messages seeking comment.

The Sinn Féin member then blasted British Prime Minister Theresa May for forming an alliance with the DUP in her efforts to get the UK out of the European Union.

“The British government has no urgency at all. They just want to keep the DUP on its side to deliver Brexit,” he said.

“It’s a disgrace and scandal that we have not had a government,” he said, and suggested a breakthrough would require not just Sinn Féin and the DUP talking, but British, EU and even US leaders to help broker a new agreement.

“People in the US, people in London, Brussels, they need to put their shoulder into this, and help find a route back into government,” he said. “The peace process is like riding a bicycle: We need to move forward and we are slowly starting to fall over.”

(Courthouse News reporter Cain Burdeau is based in the European Union.)

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