North still ‘caught in the grip of sectarianism’

Posted By: September 20, 2014

   “[Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie] Flanagan seemed to suggest it was a matter for Northern Ireland parties to resolve.”


North still ‘caught in the grip of sectarianism’ [Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie] Flanagan seemed to suggest it was a matter for Northern Ireland parties to resolve. Noel Whelan. Irish Times. Friday, September 19, 2014 As you read this news media elsewhere will be dominated by the outcome of the Scottish referendum. The campaign for and against independence has understandably attracted blanket coverage on both sides of the Irish Sea. In the coming weeks, however, to paraphrase Churchill, as the deluge of coverage about Scotland subsides, the “dreary steeples” of Northern Ireland and in particular the stalemate of Stormont will emerge once again, with the integrity of the struggle between the parties their apparently unaltered. This month, 20 years after the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, and more than 16 years after the Good Friday agreement, Northern politics appears to be in crisis once again, ignited this time by Peter Robinson’s comments to the Belfast Telegraph that the Stormont institutions are not fit for purpose. In the Edward M Kenn nedy lecture delivered in New Ross last Friday, Nuala O’Loan spoke of how peacemaking worldwide teaches that most peace agreements break down within 15 years. She warned that while the Good Friday agreement had safely passed that benchmark the peace was fragile. Despite the cozy “chuckle brothers” relationship between Martin McGuinness and the late Ian Paisley, Northern politics, she warned, was still “caught in the grip of sectarianism”. Sports stadium She spoke of how the parties could not even agree to build one super sports stadium at the site of the Maze Prison. Instead heavy investment was required in Ravenhill for rugby, Windsor Park for soccer and in Casement Park for GAA. O’Loan also set out in stark terms the extent to which Stormont has effectively seized up as a legislative assembly. In the three years since the last Assembly elections just 27 Bills have become law. Seven of these were budget Bills, while the remainder dealt with relatively minor issues such as the licensing of pavement cafes, charges for carrier bags, rates amendments, changes to pensionable age, and rates of air passenger duty. Most of the legislation, she said, was very limited and very short. There has also been a failure to face up to important budgetary decisions. Next month £87 million will be cut from the budget because the Northern Ireland executive has not agreed to bring in UK-wide welfare reforms introduced by the Cameron government. Stalemate Such a stalemate raises the prospect of the suspension of the Stormont institutions, and O’Loan wondered aloud whether that might play into the hands of Northern Ireland politicians. She asked whether we are “moving towards a period of direct rule, during which hard decisions will be made by British direct-rule ministers so that the major parties can then return to government having avoided responsibility at the ballot box for those same hard decisions?” Welfare reforms and the introduction of water charges are among the issues which Northern politicians might prefer to have the London government blamed for implementing. Northern Ireland, in O’Loan’s view, needs help again from the British and Irish governments. “Our problems are their problems and their responsibilities. Devolution can achieve so much but our politicians do not seem capable of making things work in Northern Ireland.” In a reply to O’Loan at the same event, Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan appeared to pour cold water on the suggestion that the London and Dublin governments might again step in to seek to resolve differences between the Northern parties. For Flanagan “the very banality of most of political discussion in Northern Ireland [is] the real marker of change, based as it is on daily engagements around issues that affect the whole community rather than perhaps the landmark events – big house talks, agreements, great leaps forward – which we most often celebrate.” While recognizing that the frustrations articulated by Peter Robinson’s are shared by parties across the political spectrum, by community representatives, by academics who “see a politics which has atrophied, affecting reconciliation, lives and potentially even the very process itself”, Flanagan seemed to suggest it was a matter for Northern Ireland parties to resolve. Reports from this newspaper’s Northern Editor in recent days suggest that the desired initiative from the Stormont politicians, in the form of intensive all-party talks locally, may begin quickly now that the Scottish referendum is over. Some are more confident than others about whether such talks can bear fruit without the involvement of the British and Irish governments.   © 2014