Northern Ireland

It is seldom good news that brings word of Northern Ireland into the pages of the mainland newspapers, and this week is no exception: after two years of chronic crisis the province’s devolved institutions look close to collapse.

The immediate crisis has been precipitated by the decision of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), the smaller and more moderate of Ulster’s two main pro-UK groups, to withdraw from the all-party Northern Ireland Executive.

They claim that Sinn Fein’s denying the continued existence of the Provisional IRA (PIRA), after it allegedly murdered someone in Belfast last week, has “driven a hole through the Good Friday Agreement”.

As a result, the larger and more hard-line Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has come under pressure to toughen its stance against Sinn Fein, threatening to collapse the Executive even as it urged caution on its smaller rival.

Peter Robinson, the First Minister of Northern Ireland and DUP leader, has taken to the pages of the Belfast Telegraph to urge the UUP not to ‘flee the field’.

Northern Irish government is run on the basis of ‘power sharing’, where parties from both communities share office.

In practice this means that the DUP and UUP rule alongside Sinn Fein, the more moderate nationalist Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), and the liberal, cross-community Alliance Party in a mandatory coalition.

If one community ceased to be adequately represented in the government, cross-communal consent for the devolved administration would collapse.

But as the local press are pointing out, this IRA spat is merely the latest symptom of a much deeper malaise.

Contrary to the hopes of those who advocated power sharing, co-existing in government has done nothing to reduce the mutual suspicion between Ulster’s unionist and nationalist communities. This antipathy only grows more acute when one focuses on the politically engaged, such as party memberships.

This has only been exacerbated by a years-long standoff, covered regularly in this site’s Red, White, and Blue column, triggered by Sinn Fein’s refusal to implement the Government’s welfare reforms.

Due to a quirk of devolutionary arcana responsibility for welfare is, uniquely, devolved to Stormont – but only so long as they adopt UK policy. Failure to do so incurs huge Treasury fines, which have already cost Northern Ireland hundreds of millions of pounds and necessitated swingeing budget cuts.

Unionist patience with the republicans will have been eroding for the better part of two years as this stand-off has dragged on.

All this means that it is fruitless to look – as Tory peer and former UUP first minister David Trimble appears to – for lasting solutions in the ins-and-outs of whether or not the PIRA exist and, if so, whether Sinn Fein know about it.

If we are, as today’s Guardian urges, to ‘stick to the peace process’, we must face up to the mounting evidence that Northern Ireland’s political institutions are fundamentally dysfunctional.

Indeed, adopting a posture of avoiding collapse at all costs may only prolong the trouble by suggesting to Belfast politicians that Westminster has a bottomless tolerance for their chronic inability to govern.

Alex Kane, a respected Northern Irish commentator and one-time aide to Enoch Powell, makes this point well, and argues too that both the DUP and Sinn Fein both have an enormous vested interest in keeping the Assembly on its feet.

So it may be that the present crisis will fade from our headlines, as have all the others in recent times. But unless something substantial changes, it looks like such an outcome will only be putting off the inevitable.

Unless Northern Ireland’s institutions can be reformed, there will come a time when their mere survival will no longer count as a worthwhile victory.

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