Just over a year ago, a visibly frail Martin McGuinness of Sinn Féin announced that he would be stepping down as deputy First Minister, thus triggering the collapse of the Stormont government. The row was ostensibly caused by a scandal over a Renewable Heating Incentive; however, as anyone who follows NI politics will know, the issues between the two main parties of the Executive run much deeper.
Perhaps it is inevitable that republican Sinn Féin and staunchly unionist DUP will be intrinsically opposed. Yet the atmosphere between the two parties could be described as hostile. This is not political competition based upon policy comparison and notions of competence, but rather one rooted in identity and a violent past which continues to shape NI. It was not always this way; there was a time when First Minister Ian Paisley and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness got on so well that they were nicknamed “the Chuckle Brothers”. This was the most unlikely of political partnerships, yet Paisley, founder of the DUP and firebrand preacher, and McGuinness, a former IRA commander, referred to each other as friends.
Both men are now deceased: Paisley died in 2014, and McGuinness passed away only a few weeks after his resignation last year. There has been a changing of the guard in Northern Ireland politics; for the first time since the modern Executive came into being, none of the party leaders have participated directly in the Troubles conflict. Both Paisley and McGuinness spent time in jail during the Troubles, as had Paisley’s successor as DUP leader, Peter Robinson.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are now both led in Northern Ireland by relatively young women, Arlene Foster and Michelle O’Neill, who had no direct role in the Troubles. This should signal a move beyond NI’s troubled past. Yet, the politics of the North of Ireland continue to be dominated by the same partisan issues, such as dealing with “the past”, and disputes over whether there needs to be an Irish language act introduced. These are the issues which the DUP and Sinn Féin have cited when challenged over their refusal to re-enter government; however, these issues have been around since the start of the Executive, making it difficult to pinpoint what makes them deal-breakers now.
The NI Executive has been absent at a most crucial time. Northern Ireland will be uniquely challenged by Brexit, yet during negotiations the fight against ahard border was largely fronted by Irish PM Leo Varadkar. For nationalistsin the north, Ireland is one country divided by a border. For Sinn Féin to have not been able to take a lead in this vital issue fails the community they profess to represent. Equally, what right does Arlene Foster, former First Minister, really have to speak on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland? While there is no assembly, she is simply the leader of a unionist party in Northern Ireland.
The absence of a government in Northern Ireland is having real life implications for its citizens. Like much of the UK, NI is experiencing a hospital crisis, but there is no health minister in place to deal with local issues. There are loans for charities waiting to be handed out, but with no executive in place they cannot be distributed. Art and culture centres are in dire need of money to keep their doors open, but with no Minister for Culture no such grant can be approved. Real people’s lives are being affected, but politicians continue to squabble over the same issues. The alternatives, including direct rule from Westminster, seem unlikely to adequately meet NI’s unique needs.
This week, a mural was unveiled by Sinn Féin in Derry, Martin McGuinness’s home city, which bore his picture and a quote from his resignation statement: “no return to the status quo”. Yet, what is forgotten is that the “status quo” was a functional executive. McGuinness and Paisley and others like them worked to create and maintain this system at the end of a peace process, recognising that it was the only way forward.