Northern Ireland Must Choose Stability Over Nationalism
Nearly two decades after the Good Friday Agreement cemented peace in Northern Ireland, trust between the major parties is at a low. The hard-fought stability -- now taken for granted by a generation born after "The Troubles" -- is being seriously tested by Britain's looming exit from the European Union.
Last week's high-turnout vote, the second election in under a year, resulted in the usual demonstration of sectarianism, but with some important changes. For the first time in Northern Ireland since it gained self-governing powers, the two main nationalist parties -- those that traditionally supported union with the Republic of Ireland -- won more seats than the two main unionist parties, those dedicated to seeing Northern Ireland remain part of the U.K.
Until Brexit, which threatens to disrupt trading ties and bring a return to an Irish-Irish border, the trend seemed to be going the opposite direction, with unionists consolidating control and a substantial number of Catholics wanting to stay in the U.K. Now, "The notion of a perpetual unionist majority has been demolished," said Gerry Adams, leader of the rising Sinn Fein party.
Anywhere else, that remark might be easily dismissed as showboating; in Northern Ireland, its potential implications are much more serious. Adams has been calling for what's referred to as a "border poll" -- effectively a referendum on reversing Northern Ireland's separation from the Republic of Ireland nearly a century ago.
Under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, a border poll can only be called if it's clear that a majority of representatives want one. The unionists aren't about to grant that and Adams knows it. But he figures it's worth pressing: Northern Ireland voted nearly 56 to 44 to remain in the European Union in the Brexit referendum. Of those who consider themselves nationalists, 88 percent voted to stay in the EU. That presents an added layer of complexity and uncertainty to sectarian issues.
The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the largest party in Northern Ireland, bears much of the blame for the collapse of the power-sharing arrangement. Relations with Sinn Fein had been strained for some time over Brexit, which the DUP supported, and same-sex marriage (Sinn Fein is in favour, the DUP opposes it), among other issues. But a scandal over an energy subsidy scheme run by DUP leader Arlene Foster was the last straw.
The two main parties need to unite behind a slate of ministers in the next three weeks. The alternative is either yet another election, or even the imposition of direct rule once again from Westminster.
Northern Ireland's economy can't afford more uncertainty. It has prospered in recent years, but still lags the rest of the U.K., with a higher unemployment rate, lower GDP growth, lower levels of productivity and higher levels of poverty. There are many good reasons for investors to like the Northern Irish story -- from the growing fintech center and highly educated workforce to modern (EU funded) broadband infrastructure. It may be time to wean Northern Ireland off EU funds (Northern Ireland is the second largest recipient of EU funds by regional income); that would require a lot more help from Westminster, which will be distracted by other things. But growth and prosperity follows political stability.
All of this makes it essential that the parties continue their commitment toward power-sharing and that the government in London ensure that Northern Ireland's interests are well represented in the Brexit negotiations. Northern Ireland may not be the harmonious place envisioned in 1998. But its gains should not be taken for granted.
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