Impasse unlikely to mean Troubles return

Posted By: September 07, 2017

Newton Emerson. Irish News. Belfast. Thursday, September 7, 2017

Speaking to RTÉ radio, Gerry Adams has warned that young people will be “radicalized” by what he called “the DUP’s refusal to embrace their rights”

The Sinn Féin president was asked several times what he meant by “radicalized” but he declined to explain further.

The most ominous implication of his warning must be considered extremely unlikely. A new paramilitary movement fighting for same-sex marriage and bilingual public information leaflets sounds more like something from a Monty Python film than a serious prospect for our imminent future.

However, Adams’s words reveal the very high threshold of perceived failure in Northern Ireland, due to our recent past.

To be blunt, it takes violence to turn a drama here into a crisis.

Purely political failure barely exceeds our threshold for entertainment. We appear to have an almost limitless tolerance for it and in any case, the limit is never tested.

When Belgium or Spain have found themselves without a government for months on end, that was a genuine crisis. But Stormont is not a national Executive or Assembly, so its suspension does not create any truly alarming sense that nobody is in charge.

Whenever a point is reached where some lights might go off in the public sector, the Northern Ireland Office flicks a budgetary switch to keep them on.

This may be inching us towards direct rule but it is happening so incrementally that no blinding light-bulb moment may occur – it is direct rule by a dimmer switch, with an end-point unprecedented in its potential lack of aggravation.

All previous periods of direct rule have occurred either during the Troubles or due to some IRA-related threat to an incomplete peace process.

Of the interruptions to modern devolution, the first few were caused by unmet agreements on decommissioning, while the period of direct rule from 2002 to 2007 was dominated by arguments over IRA disbandment and republican recognition of policing, especially in the wake of the Northern Bank robbery and the Robert McCartney murder.

It is an effort now to recall the depth, detail and duration of those arguments but it is important to do so because they are what gave that final stretch of direct rule its whiff of cordite.

What would create a similar sense of crisis today, with decommissioning and disbandment officially classed as solved and Sinn Féin firmly signed up to support the PSNI? The Policing Board, incidentally, can and has functioned without Stormont – its elected members can take their seats regardless.

If we drift into direct rule over the coming months, it could be about as provocative as local government reform. The existence of the relatively powerful new super councils – another unprecedented factor during a period of direct rule – might help cushion the blow, by providing a venue and outlet for regional politics. Councils can even festoon their districts with Irish-language signs.

The type of violence required to upset this happy picture turns out to be remarkably specific. Not just any old violence will do. Loyalism seems free to run amok without any political ramifications. Likewise, dissident Republicans can kill and bomb without any destabilizing blame attaching to Sinn Féin.

The Provisional movement can also still kill, within the ghastly terms of ‘internal housekeeping’. It is only two years since two IRA-linked murders in Belfast, followed by an official report that found the army council still exists and influences Sinn Féin.

The DUP response to this was to play hokey-cokey for a couple of months then never mention it again, while the report’s research has since been quietly shredded.

If the army council really wanted to cause a crisis, it would have to plant a bomb in a town centre – the totemic act of Troubles violence. Nothing less would sufficiently shock the public and the political establishment, as the continued indulgence of so much other violence proves. Of course, there is not the slightest prospect of such a thing happening – and the implicit message of the peace process is that Sinn Féin accepts such violence never worked anyway. So all Republicans are creating at Stormont is a drama, or even less than that, as without Stormont the drama increasingly lacks a stage.

Because nobody under 20 remembers anything other than DUP-Sinn Féin rule, Adams may have a point about young people seeing things differently. For the moment, however, Northern Ireland retains the mixed legacy of its Troubles perspective – a terrible temptation to political complacency, plus an extraordinary resilience to the consequences.