Thursday, May 18, 2017

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Clock Toward Brexit Ticks On

Dr John Coulter has been a political journalist, author and commentator on Irish affairs for 39 years. In Part One of this two-part series, he outlines his view of the only workable solutions for Unionism to the crisis which has hit the Irish peace process – compulsory voting and an all-island agenda involving the Commonwealth. In the second article, he will examine how Republicanism needs to develop to ensure the peace process is maintained.

Compulsory voting for all citizens, similar to the Australian system, is the best long-term solution to the peace process in Ireland.

In spite of a 10 per cent increase in voter turnout at the recent snap Stormont Assembly poll, just over 60 per cent of those entitled to vote turned up at the polling booths.

But what of the short-term in Northern Ireland? The parties have a matter of days to hammer out an agreement which could see devolved government restored, otherwise it is yet another Stormont election, or direct rule from Westminster.

The latter option – direct rule, which first hit Northern Ireland in the early 1970s in the aftermath of the fall of the original Stormont Parliament – will see mainly English-based Tory MPs impose hard-hitting austerity cuts to sort out the Province’s crumbling health and education sectors.

The essential problem of the current peace process is that the snap Assembly poll was a victory once again for tribal politics as voters kept up the Orange/Green polling patterns which have largely existed in Northern Ireland since the formation of the state in the 1920s.

The two main Stormont power-sharing Executive parties – the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein – were again returned as the two largest parties in spite of the number of Assembly members overall being reduced from 108 to 90, with the DUP only one seat more than Sinn Fein.

However, the most important statistic to emerge from the March poll was that for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history, unionism has lost its overall majority in the state. The poll was also a significant victory for the centre ground parties, like Alliance and the Greens, who held all their seats.

The biggest electoral hits were suffered by the main so-called Stormont opposition parties. The moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party, which although holding its 12 seats, failed to significantly eat into the Sinn Fein vote.

The DUP’s main unionist rival, the Ulster Unionist Party, which had dominated Stormont politics for at least 80 years, lost six of its 16 seats, forcing its leader Mike Nesbitt to quit. All eyes, however, will be on Sinn Fein to see how it moves in the coming days.

It is clear that the republican movement has long since concluded that the route to a united Ireland – namely the 32-county democratic socialist republic as desired by the rebels of the 1916 Dublin Easter Rising – cannot be achieved through the front door of a direct terror campaign in Northern Ireland or in mainland Britain.

The aspiration of that socialist republic will only come about through the back door of Leinster House, seat of the Dublin Parliament. Since Sinn Fein president and former West Belfast MP was drafted in as a Louth TD, he has built the party’s representation in the Dail from fringe status to positioning Sinn Fein on a political springboard which could propel it into minority partner status in the next Dail expected after a Southern General Election later this year.

Sinn Fein’s republican strategy should be to ‘park’ its gains in Stormont for the meantime, and focus on increasing its TDs. It must create a scenario where either the two main parties in Leinster House – Fianna Fail or Fine Gael – have to rely on Sinn Fein to form the next coalition government.

Neither Fianna Fail nor Fine Gael can bank on the hope that enough Independent, Green or Labour TDs win seats to form a coalition government. Like it or not, both main Southern parties must swallow the bitter medicine which the late Ian Paisley senior had to take in 2006 when he signed up to the St Andrews Agreement – that he would have to climb into bed politically with Sinn Fein to form a stable devolved government.

Sinn Fein has an added rush to form a partnership in the Dail. Fianna Fail has already organised north of the Irish border and expects to be contesting Ulster elections by 2019. That could severely dent the Sinn Fein vote, keeping Sinn Fein in a position where it is constantly playing second fiddle politically to unionism.

As for Colum Eastwood’s SDLP, a formal merger with Fine Gael is the only option, otherwise Sinn Fein will eventually electorally inflict on the SDLP what the SDLP inflicted on the old Irish Nationalist Party at Stormont. That latter party is now confined to the dustbin of history.

A merger between Fine Gael and the SDLP would give both parties an ace card which they currently lack and which Sinn Fein and Fianna Fail both have – an all-island identity and organisational structure.

With Brexit looming, there is one more tactical shift which Sinn Fein must make – the historic leap of abandoning its traditional policy of abstentionism at Westminster and allowing its MPs to take their Commons seats, forming a voting alliance with the Scottish and Welsh nationalists along with anti-monarchists and republican sympathisers within the Labour Party.

It should not be forgotten that when Sinn Fein was formed in 1905 by Arthur Griffith, it was not a hardline republican party, but a movement which campaigned for dominion status. Rather than push for an all-Ireland solution, perhaps Sinn Fein would be better placed to settle for an all-island agenda – one which put the people of the island first and accommodated unionism.

There can be no doubting that Brexit will both geographically and economically place the Republic on the very edge of the European Union. This will have financially disastrous consequences for the once dominant Celtic Tiger economy.

The Republic must face the equally bitter reality that it will have to re-negotiate a closer relationship with the United Kingdom – whether that UK includes Scotland or not. Practically, the Republic will have to become a member of the globally powerful Commonwealth Parliamentary Association.

The CPA currently represents some 50 plus regional and national parliaments throughout the world. While many of the nations represented in the CPA were former members of the British Empire, the CPA should not be misrepresented as that empire under a new title.

Ironically, Ireland was a founder member of the CPA in 1911 when the organisation was launched as the Empire Parliamentary Association when the island was entirely under British rule.

Political aspirations will have to take second stage to the needs of Irish citizens north and south of the border post Brexit. The peace process would be cemented if Brexit was followed by Irexit – namely, the Republic of Ireland following the UK out of the EU.

The South of Ireland would develop the all-island structure by formally joining the CPA and developing a closer relationship with Westminster. The compromise should placate both sides in the Irish debate; nationalists secure an all-island agenda; unionists have a pre-partition solution with the 26 southern Irish counties back in a formal partnership with London.

And this is where the original observation of compulsory voting kicks in – all voters will have a say. Ireland, north and south, does not want an English electoral nightmare where some MPs are being elected by less than 50 per cent of the electorate.

The key question as always – this is the workable all-island solution, but which of the two tribes has the political courage to take the first steps – nationalism or unionism? Meanwhile, the clock towards Brexit ticks on.



Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter

1 comments :

Henry JoY said...

More pie in the sky wishful thinking from Dr Coulter.

Its highly, highly improbable that an Irexit will ever be given any any serious thought. 26 county Ireland has 400,000 jobs arising from foreign direct investment. Those jobs are largely dependent on continuing access to a market of 1/2 a billion EU citizens.

There are 40,000 jobs in the total agricultural sector as opposed to the 400.000 in those FDI companies creating goods and services. Whatever challenges that may arise in agriculture they will not have much influence on policy vis-a-vis EU membership. Agricultural exports are now comparatively irrelevant when one considers that they account for a mere 2% of the Republic of Ireland's trade in value terms.

The vast majority of citizens, I'd contend, will be more likely to remain 'Good Europeans'. Highly improbable that they'd choose any untested arrangement with the old colonial master!

The best the Free Staters can do for Northerners (and themselves) is to minimise, to whatever extent they can, the impact of the new EU border which will come into affect on the island. Expectations over and above that are the stuff of pipe-dreams.