Crisis? What is a Crisis? Northern Ireland and The ‘Other’ Political Gridlock of the Autumn

It has come to a strange state of affairs when an important government minister declares their administration is ‘in crisis,’ and is dismissed by opponents and the media as ‘electioneering.’ After all, I would be surprised to find any polling evidence which designated a significant chunk of the population ‘pro-crisis.’ But this is precisely what Gerry Kelly, Sinn Fein MLA and Junior Minister to the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, declared of the Northern Ireland Executive which his party jointly leads with the Democratic Unionist Party. Whereas, however, a parallel ‘crisis’ of government across the Atlantic led to apocalyptic warnings of a world left rudderless and a century-defining economic meltdown, the alleged disintegration of government within our own borders has elicited little more than a resigned shrug of the shoulders, even in Northern Ireland.

Actually, this is a pretty understandable reaction. ‘Semantic satiation’ is the name for that sensation when you hear a word so much it seems to lose all meaning. It is hardly surprising ‘crisis’ may well be a victim of this phenomenon within the Six Counties when you consider the region’s history. The current ‘crisis,’ with an irony fitting for a nation famed for its literature, stems from stalled plans to build a Peace Centre on the grounds of the now disused Maze prison. This facility once contained some of Northern Ireland’s most notorious convicted terrorists and was the site of one of the Troubles darkest spectacles: the 1981 hunger strikes in which ten IRA volunteers starved to death and the ongoing viability of Northern Ireland as an entity sat on an almost literal knife-edge.  When compared then to the blood-stained and crisis-saturated history the building represents, bickering about what will be built upon its remains scarcely seems worthy of that particular ‘C’ word.

All crises are relative though. As we noted, much of the US government literally stopped working. No one would have suggested that blood would be because of it, but a government which can not govern must surely be a government in crisis. Exploring the genesis of this more local dispute is somewhat instructive in understanding the comparative apathy expressed in reaction to Mr Kelly’s invitation to panic, and provides an insight into the increasingly dysfunctional world of Northern Irish politics.

In some ways, the dispute is very simple. Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to build this ‘Peace Centre’ on the site of the Maze prison. With the Maze being so strongly associated with the IRA hunger strikers, however, this plan unsurprisingly went down much better with Sinn Fein’s Republican base, for many of whom the hunger strikers are heroic figures, than with the DUP’s Unionist base, for many of whom the hunger strikers were nothing more than terrorists. Cue Unionist groups and political parties outside of government, such as Traditional Unionist Voice (the UKIP to the DUP’s Conservatives-although actually TUV had the dubious honour of being endorsed by the National Front at previous elections) decrying the plans as a glorification of terrorism. After a summer of hand-wringing and rioting in the streets, although the latter is admittedly only tenuously related, the DUP withdrew their support for the project. DUP leader and First Minister of the Executive Peter Robinson announced this in a bizarre 12 page letter replete with paragraphs in capitals and liberal use of formatting. This best one could say concerning this stylistic eccentricity is that it somewhat distracts from the rambling, paranoid, and often contradictory tone and content of the epistle.

The DUP did though suggest a compromise of building the Peace Centre elsewhere, one Sinn Fein did not care to accept, for reasons they have failed to communicate with much clarity but seemingly relate to concerns about airbrushing history and the failure to deliver on the agreed plan. One wonders how the parties would have dealt with the issue of what would go inside this disputed building, but that now seems to be academic. With any development requiring the consent of both parties, the EU body funding the programme withdrew their support. Sinn Fein stated their continuing commitment to the project – in spite of no longer having any funds to build it – whilst the DUP restate their opposition. Hence crisis.

Ok, perhaps it is not that simple. Rather it is all very familiar. Intransigence from one side or the other – or more commonly both – has brought the Executive to a standstill so many times over the last decade it has somewhat negated any sense of the sky falling in. From the devolution of Policing and Justice powers, to the abolition of the eleven-plus, not to mention the yearly summer name-calling over parades, the institutions of government in Northern Ireland have ceased to function at the hint of a controversial decision. Crisis is more or less the norm for the Northern Irish Executive.

‘And what of it?’ you might fairly ask. Churchill’s dictum about ‘jaw jaw being better than war war’ is oft quoted concerning Northern Ireland (despite the fact it doesn’t really rhyme with our accent) but you wonder what the man who played a part in his own Irish crisis almost a century ago, as his Liberal party bungled an attempt to install Home Rule, would have made of politicians sniping at one another in the media whilst not actually cooperating on anything of substance.

Still better than war war, no doubt, but with a summer of violent discontent and sectarian tensions on a scale not seen for some time, it is clear a government seemingly allergic to progress is not going to help the country progress in any sense. The last few weeks alone has seen two murders linked with dissident Republican groups. Important roads and railways have been closed due to bomb threats. The prospect of ‘going back to the bad old days,’ is sometimes discussed is hushed tones, but a new Troubles remains thankfully unlikely. What is very possible is Northern Ireland’s continued stagnation as the ‘sick man’ of the UK, struggling to attract investment and unable to create jobs. With no-go areas and continued segregation in education and housing. Continual low-level violence and sectarian mistrust tacitly encouraged by lazy, opportunistic and confrontational political rhetoric is certainly a possibility.

Maybe then the shouts of crisis warrant some attention. Sadly, a further reason Mr Kelly’s political flourish has been largely ignored is the lack of any conceivable solution. The political system of D’Hondt imported from Belgium (a country which took almost two years to form a government after their last election) is cumbersome and does have the strange effect of encouraging politicians to talk up crises to their own electoral benefit. To abuse another Churchillian phrase, however, it is probably the worst form of government for Northern Ireland, except for all the others.

The depressingly prosaic truth may be it is the personalities rather than the institutions which maintain the constant crisis politicians occasionally deign to note. Gerry Kelly was the boy who called calamity on this occasion, which takes some nerve considering the role he played in stoking the fires of the whole debacle. He should have been, and doubtless was, aware publically delivering a fawning eulogy to two attempted IRA bombers would do little to assuage Unionist fears his party intended to construct a shrine to terrorism at the proposed peace centre. As if to show no one side has a monopoly on re-fighting the battles of the past and playing to the lowest common denominator, Peter Robinson was recently reported as criticizing TUV leader Jim Allister for selling land to a Catholic.  Evidently the Stormont’s briefings system at the very least is in crisis as word of 1778 Papists Act which legalized Catholic land-ownership has yet to reach the First Minister’s desk.

One does not want to paint too grim a picture. The Stormont executive seems to handle the more mundane aspects of government nearly as well as other regional assemblies, if that is not to damm with faint praise. It is a final grim irony though that the proposed Peace Centre was to be the centerpiece of the much-trumpeted ‘Shared Future’ initiative. The failure of the project, and the long-term problems of Northern Ireland, seem precisely due to the fact our leading politicians have little interest in either of these concepts.