It’s often said that American politics is increasingly polarised. Republicans and Democrats vote on party lines more frequently, with dissenters being scorned as ideologically impure. Many academics believe this polarisation has been an elite phenomenon, with most ordinary Americans maintaining relatively centrist views. But even if America’s stark political divisions are purely the failure’s of its leaders, the same cannot be said for Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of a political crisis. It started when the largest party, the DUP, ran a Renewable Heat Incentive scheme. The idea was to encourage people to use renewable energy, but the absence of proper controls meant people were making money simply by heating their homes, at great expense to the taxpayer. As a result, Sinn Fein withdrew from the government, triggering an election in which they inevitably gained a higher proportion of the vote. Following the election, talks between the two major parties have broken down, with either side refusing to compromise. Sinn Fein want the DUP’s leader, Arlene Foster, to resign, because of her role in what is now commonly known as the ‘cash for ash’ scandal. They also want cuts to funding for Irish language classes to be reversed, gay marriage, and a poll on Irish reunification- the latter is largely to avoid Brexit, in which most Northern Irish voted against. The DUP have refused all of those demands, believing concessions to be a sign of weakness and the demands to be unreasonable. Eventually there will be either direct rule from Westminster, or another election- which would be the third within a year.
The country has a long history of sectarianism and political polarisation, which has been far more brutal than even politics in the US. Although he eventually came to the negotiating table, the recently diseased Martin McGuinness was a murderer and a terrorist, and never renounced his violent ways. But the old debates over whether the Nationalists or Loyalists were responsible for more deaths, or whether Irish unification is a good idea, are both beside the point when it comes to today’s conundrum. As a historian, I find it tempting to judge the the agencies of the present based on their actions in the past. For instance, its very easy to be critical of Germans because of the Holocaust, or accuse Russians of not feeling guilty enough about the gulag. But eventually, however unacademic, we ought to move on from the past, and assess people based on their current behaviour.
So in this instance, regardless of who has the worse history, the DUP are presently far more obstinate and unreasonable in their political views and expectations than Sinn Fein. Arlene Foster ought to do the decent thing and resign, even if an investigation shows no evidence of any intentional wrongdoing. Although it would look embarrassing for the DUP in the short term, the longer she stays as leader, the worse the party’s electoral fortunes will be. Moreover, Sinn Fein’s social policies are perfectly reasonable, even if they (along with the DUP) expect far too much money from Westminster via the Barnett Formula. Gay marriage is supported by a majority of Northern Irish and even a majority of MLA’s- only the Good Friday feature known as a ‘petition of concern’ prevented marriage equality from becoming law (like it already is the Republic of Ireland and the rest of the UK.) Funding for the Irish language is also reasonable, even if it is currently only spoken by a small minority. As for Brexit, the DUP seems to have no qualms about taking Northern Ireland out of the EU against its will, even though this will probably result in a hard border between it and the Irish Republic- customs checks and immigration controls would be impossible without one. The Good Friday Agreement was enacted on the basis of the UK’s continued EU membership; such a dramatic change warrants a referendum.
None of this ought to be read as an endorsement of Sinn Fein. They are still too closely tied to crimes committed during the Troubles by the Provisional IRA, even as those like the late McGuinness are slowly dying out. Their brand of left-wing nationalism has a subtle feeling of xenophobia, as shown by slogans like ‘get the British out.’ They inaccurately refer to British rule over Northern Ireland as an occupation, sometimes even going as far as to compare themselves to Palestinians living under Israeli occupation. Such a comparison is totally facetious: the two situations are completely different, and most Northern Irish still want to remain British. To describe Britain as an occupying power is to deny the people of the right of self-determination. As for economics, Irish reunification may be beneficial in the long term. Northern Ireland is currently poorer than both the Republic and the rest of the UK, so unionism is hardly a guarantor of prosperity. But in the short term, the North would have to go through an austerity programme, because of the loss of Barnett Formula funding. Having personally witnessed the late McGuinness give a speech on the perils of Tory austerity, even from the perspective of a region that receives more than its fair share of funding, the prospect of fiscal conservatism is hardly a rallying call for reunification, particularly with a Republic that has a centre-right majority.
On a sombre conclusion, Northern Ireland may be one of these places where true moderation is impossible. You either believe Northern Ireland should be British or Irish (unless you’re one of the few deluded individuals that thinks the country could survive as an independent state.) Whatever position you take, roughly half the country will vehemently disagree with you. I am personally ambivalent on the Irish question from a purely philosophical perspective, though the prospect of union with a country racing towards the hardest possible Brexit, led by people who believe that no deal with the EU is an economically viable option, is hardly an appetising one. At present, Britain looks like it will have a Tory majority in perpetuity. The opposition Labour Party languishes in the opinion polls, and is totally unwilling and/or unable to hold the government to account on anything. Conversely, the Irish Republic is currently one of the developed world’s fastest growing economies. Unemployment is still a problem, but it is in decline. It already has a GDP per capita that exceeds the UK, and the gap will only grow. Northern Ireland has a chance to end its dependence on Westminster subsidies, and embrace the entrepreneurial culture the Republic has so successfully fostered. If the DUP really believed in democracy, which it insists is what Brexit is all about, then it would allow Northern Ireland a say on its future. And if the country voted for reunification, I would hold nothing against them.