It's not local politicians tearing Northern Ireland apart - it's London

When it comes to many of Belfast's ills, all roads lead back to Downing Street

Northern Ireland is on course for a pre-Christmas Assembly election as the deadline to restore devolved government at Stormont has lapsed. PA
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When Belfast renamed its small commuter airport after George Best in 2006 it was not just honouring a hometown hero who was a global footballing icon. Northern Ireland was then enjoying a peace dividend stemming from the reconciliation of its formerly warring communities and an economic boom that unlocked the talents of the population.

A decade and a half later, Northern Ireland is in a quietly unfolding crisis tied to a Conservative Party melodrama that has left the UK a stricken state. Next week the seventh Conservative MP to hold the post of Northern Ireland Secretary since the 2016 Brexit referendum has some big decisions to announce.

Chris Heaton-Harris is an ambitious former member of the European Parliament and a political operator who surfed a tide of headlines in support of Brexit to the lower ranks of the UK Cabinet. As the Northern Ireland Secretary, he last week shuttered the local government and now has delayed plans call fresh elections before Christmas. He has plenty of blame to heap on the region’s political leaders who yet again have failed to deliver a power-sharing government.

The devolved administration is the lynchpin of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GFA). To turn the corner on 30 years of the Troubles, as the terrorist campaigns were called, it provided a formula for Northern Ireland’s Protestant and Catholic communities to govern together.

Breakdowns have been as common as partnerships since then. There has not been an agreed budget for the region in 10 years. The black hole in government expenditure has grown ever wider.

Yet Mr Heaton-Harris can finger point all he likes. The differences between the parties in Northern Ireland are not key reason why the abyss now looms.

London politics is what has broken Northern Ireland. As voters face the prospect of a winter election that nobody wants, there will be much talk of how time is being squandered. However, the all-important splits in the Conservative Party won’t be on the ballot.

Turning point one was the Brexit referendum itself. By withdrawing from the EU, the UK took Northern Ireland with it. This shattered the founding premise of the GFA, which was that anyone from the region could be British or Irish or both. This concept was underpinned by the principle of common citizenship in the EU.

That joint platform for identity superseded the British-Irish Common Travel Area, which for decades gave British and Irish citizens the right to live and work in the separate islands.

To revert to the Common Travel Area post-Brexit was not enough. Barriers in trade and everyday ties were erected or going to be necessary. These imposed choices were reversals of the post-Troubles peace dividend. Not surprisingly political and community tensions started rising again.

Boris Johnson speaks during his first Cabinet meeting flanked by his then new Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak, in London, on February 14, 2020. AP
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Johnson’s EU departure deal contained a Northern Ireland provision that could have given Belfast a best of both worlds

Turning point two was the advent of Boris Johnson as prime minister in 2019 and the absolutist Brexit formula he choose to pursue. This was very successful at the outset for him and he won a general election with a massive parliamentary majority.

Mr Johnson’s EU departure deal contained a Northern Ireland provision that could have given Belfast a best of both worlds, arbitraging between the UK and EU economic blocs as the only place that was part of both.

Instead the Northern Ireland Protocol has become for Conservative politicians – and their occasional allies in the hardline Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – a poison pill. In their own fevered way they now refuse to swallow this and the elixir has become a noxious cloud that chokes politics in Belfast.

Not content with bringing this ruination, politicians like Mr Heaton-Harris are pressing on.

Turning point three is now being served. An election that few analysts see as resolving any of the real issues.

To hold its dominant role in Unionist politics, the DUP is pushing the line that the protocol must be scrapped. The prospect that it could reclaim its role as the largest party and thus take first minister role is slim but a possibility.

On the other hand the complicated electoral system in Northern Ireland could see voters push up the cross community Alliance Party into a numerical second, creating a new form of deadlock that would deliver a death knell to the system overall.

The 25th anniversary of the GFA hangs over the London government as a test of its nerves. US President Joe Biden has hinted of his desire to travel to Belfast to mark that milestone in the coming spring. Officials in London believe this means resolving negotiations on the Protocol with Brussels by late January.

Ahead of a messy local election and without trust on the ground, London would anyway need to orchestrate a series of miracle-like strokes to achieve this turnaround.

Given his background, the likelihood of Mr Heaton-Harris pulling this off is very hard to see. As I tried to answer a question last week about what the peace dividend was and why it was symbolised in part by the naming of an airport after Best, the Manchester United star, the moment felt to me very hollow.

It would be a comfort if someone with the political equivalent of Georgie’s legendary dribbling and striking skills was on the Belfast scene today.

Published: November 04, 2022, 9:03 AM
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