This time, Northern Ireland’s marriage of necessity might work
Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland often liken their political future together to that of an arranged marriage with little prospect of love. Nationalists, or Republicans, are usually Catholic and seek to unite Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland as one country. Unionists, or Loyalists, are usually Protestant and want to preserve Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. Paramilitary groups on both sides killed more than 3,000 people during some 30 years of sectarian violence, beginning in 1968.
Ever since the Good Friday Agreement of 1998, several attempts have been made to reach some sort of peaceful compromise and devolve political control from London to a power-sharing executive, made up of nationalists and Unionists, in Belfast. But in 2002, the executive and assembly were dissolved. The next few months will see the latest, and possibly last, attempt to make the marriage stick. Legislative elections are scheduled for March 7. According to a deal negotiated in St. Andrews, Scotland, last year, Northern Ireland will then have until March 26 to form a power-sharing government, or else Britain will continue with direct rule. Candidates from the two largest Loyalist and nationalist parties, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Fein, will sit as first minister and deputy first minister. Members from the two smaller Unionist and nationalist parties, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party, will also have positions on the executive.
There are reasons to believe that, this time, the deal may work. Sinn Fein and the DUP are the most traditionally uncompromising parties, with substantial support in their respective camps. If their leaders can agree to share power, and can deliver support from the ranks of their own parties, the population of Northern Ireland might finally reach a tipping point and commit to political co-operation. Signs that this may indeed be taking
place include the fact that, last weekend, Gerry Adams, the leader of Sinn Fein, convinced party members to accept the rule of law and support the new Police Service of Northern Ireland. At a party conference, 900 delegates voted to give Sinn Fein’s executive the authority to declare its support for the police and justice system— but only after devolution is restored and judicial and policing powers are transferred to Belfast.
Even with these caveats, it was a fundamental change for Sinn Fein. “They are nearly defined by their op-
position to the police,” Chris Thornton, political correspondent for the Belfast Telegraph, told Maclean’s. “The movement that they’re a part of spent the better part of three decades killing police officers. Many of their members and supporters were, in return, killed by police.” Adams told his party that supporting the police was a step on the road to a united Ireland independent of Britain. “Today you have created the potential to change the political landscape of this island forever,” he told party delegates. “You have
created the opportunity to significantly advance our struggle, and you have seized upon this opportunity to advance our primary objective of a united Ireland through greater political strength.”
Democratic Unionist Party Leader Ian Paisley welcomed Sinn Fein’s moves to support policing, but has repeatedly stressed that words be accompanied by action on the ground. The DUP wants local Sinn Fein politicians to call on Catholics to immediately and unreservedly support the police in their efforts to bring those who have committed crimes to justice. Still, it appears that Paisley is ready to share power with Sinn Fein, something he had previously rejected. “It looks to me as if he’s cutting his ties with the world of hardline fundamentalism, politically and religiously, and that he is emotionally committed to this deal,” said Paul Bew, a professor of Irish politics at Queen’s University, Belfast. “I don’t understand the changes, or why, and I think they’ve come quite late. But they have come. This is a new man.”
Paisley and leading members of Sinn Fein, such as Adams and Martin McGuinness, might be ready to be co-operative with their political enemies, but Unionists and nationalists are not unanimously united behind them. Dissidents in Sinn Fein and the DUP have rejected power-sharing and may run for office on such a platform. McGuinness, nominated by Sinn Fein for the position of deputy first minister in the Northern Ireland assembly, claims police have warned him that nationalists are plotting his murder.
The sense of betrayal felt by the more unbending nationalists and Unionists is understandable. For decades, the DUP and Sinn Fein stood against co-operation and compromise. They supplanted their more moderate opponents, the Ulster Unionist Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party. Now, in the eyes of some of their supporters, they’ve gone wobbly. “You don’t do a deal just because the alternative is violence. That’s blackmail,” said Sammy Morrison, a Unionist student living in Belfast whose aunt was buried in the rubble of an IRA bomb attack and survived. Morrison was previously a member of the DUP, but left the party because of its stance on power-sharing with Sinn Fein. “Dr. Paisley is Mr. Unionist, and here he is going into something that flies in the face of everything he taught for 30 years.”
THE BEST WE CAN HOPE FOR IS A BELGIAN SITUATION, WHERE YOU HAVE CIVILIZED ANTAGONISM’
Bew, the author of the forthcoming book Ireland: The Politics of Enmity 17892006, says it does need to be asked why Sinn Fein and the DUP are willing to strike a deal after scorning similar opportunities for decades. “Have these great beasts—of militant Catholic Irish republicanism, with its strong violent tradition, of the Paisley tradition, with militant Protestant fundamentalism-decided that, after all, they didn’t mean it? How much did Gerry Adams mean it? How much did Ian Paisley mean it, if, at the end of the day, they can compromise around the middle-ground solutions that other people have been advocating for 25 years? Other people whom they have destroyed and humiliated.”
Even if the leaders of Sinn Fein and the DUP can convince most of their grassroots
that the time is right to share power, it’s unclear how this would work in practice. “The leaders have not met. They have not shaken hands,” said Alan McFarland, chief negotiator for the Ulster Unionist Party. “Does anyone believe that these two parties who haven’t even spoken to each other yet are likely to find agreement easy? If Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, as first minister and deputy first minister, were leading a trade delegation to Canada, do we really think that they’re going to be chumming it up in Toronto? Staying at the same hotel? Chatting it up and singing off the same hymn sheet? This is a big problem.”
McFarland’s Ulster Unionist Party will be competing with the DUP for votes in the upcoming election, and his comments are obviously slanted. But his concerns are echoed elsewhere. “I think the best we can hope for is something like a Belgian situation, where you have a divided society, civilized
antagonism and culture wars extending indefinitely into the future,” said Liam Kennedy, a professor of Irish history at Belfast’s Queen’s University. “But that’s much better than what we’ve experienced.”
And, in the end, this is why some sort of power-sharing coalition, however unwieldy, is the likely outcome. The potential alternatives—indefinite direct rule from London (with greater input from Dublin), and a return to sectarian violence—are widely perceived as worse. “It’s an essential marriage, more a loveless marriage than a marriage where both sides are waiting with panting breath to embrace each other,” Sean Farren, director of elections for the Social Democratic and Labour Party, told Maclean’s. “Even if it is not a marriage made in heaven, politics doesn’t always allow us those luxuries. We can, nevertheless, begin to work, however reluctantly, together.” M
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