Ciaran Cadden graduated from University of Manchester in PPE, and is co-editor of @tweetyouthvoice. He currently teaches English in Taipei.
Any onlooker to the current political discourse in the United Kingdom would perhaps be forgiven for thinking that all aspects of public policy within the country are running so smoothly that we can afford to give all our attention to an amicable divorce from the European Union.
Alas, they would be mistaken, and in the most north-westerly corner of the UK we have been without a functioning devolved government since January 2017. That’s well over six-hundred days, but who’s counting?
Unfortunately, and rather embarrassingly, the world is counting, and watching with despair as a sustained, yet fraught, peace agreement with shared governance is disintegrating before our very eyes.
By no means is the Belfast Agreement of 1998 perfect. In fact, I and many others have reservations in particular about the concept of a ‘shared executive’ and its ability to succeed in an increasingly-polarised electoral environment. The middle ground in Northern Ireland is shrinking, and this may require a fundamental re-think on how to progress with representation at Stormont. I have previously floated the concept of voluntary coalition, but this has been taken up with little to no enthusiasm.
The failure to grasp this nettle has resulted in a rather depressing false false: a sustained lack of representation at Stormont or Direct Rule from Westminster.
Yet another way is possible. As an ideological conservative ,I and many others adhere to the philosophy of small government and the promotion of individual liberty, empowering the individual and the local community in making decisions they see as justified.
Why can’t we make a similar case for governance in Northern Ireland? At least, perhaps, to solve the outlying issues which are ensuring that the locks on the Stormont gates are there for the foreseeable future.
If we are to believe the rhetoric from the DUP and Sinn Fein, alongside the swathes of media reports, governance is being blocked due to two distinct subjects: an Irish Language Act, and social issues pertaining to same-sex marriage and abortion rights. Perhaps it is time to ask the people of Northern Ireland to decide on these issues, and then for the main two parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein to come together and decide on a way forward on health, tourism and a business strategy for a post-Brexit Northern Ireland.
Sinn Fein have stated that refusal to back an Irish Language Act is a “red line” in their negotiation strategy, yet commanded only 27.9 per cent of the vote at the last assembly election in 2017. Even if other parties were advocating for a standalone act, it seems illogical to allow this one issue to block governance for everyone in Northern Ireland who rely on Stormont for important decision-making. For example, the Institute of Directors (IoD) have claimed the Stormont stalemate has risked £1 billion of infrastructure projects not going ahead.
By contrast, the DUP and others do not have a majority anymore and thus cannot utilise a ‘Petition of Concern’. However, if Stormont does not sit then no vote can be had on the introduction of same-sex marriage. Something ought to give way.
It is unfair – yet easy – to shrug one’s shoulders and not legislate for matters which appear popular to the Northern Irish electorate. For example, a Sky Data poll in April found 75 per cent of respondents supported the introduction of same-sex marriage. It is also counter-productive to hold the institutions to ransom over a language act.
However, I do not agree that MPs in Westminster should rail-road decision making for the Northern Irish people no matter how much virtue-signalling they utilise. Thus, to break the impasse one ought to advocate for one or more referendums.
‘Referendum’ is now a dirty word, particularly on the British Isles for people who didn’t get their way on the Brexit referendum (even though these people advocate for another referendum to correct the original verdict!). But they are democracy in action, a direct application of people power which has worked from ancient Greece to modern-day Switzerland – and even in the Republic of Ireland, where use of such a means has changed their constitution beyond recognition.
Even though Sinn Fein have weaponised the ancient language, Irish is not necessarily a one-sided issue, and nor indeed are social issues such as same-sex marriage. Allowing for the electorate to rise above divisive rhetoric of election time, and vote for an issue at face-value, will cultivate that sense of togetherness and cooperationwhichNorthern Irish politics is so desperately lacking.
Empowering the electorate to decide on such issues, and thus issuing a mandate to legislators for governing, should allow talks to continue without so-called “red lines”. Instead we could look to a governing institution which will advocate and deliver prosperity for all in Northern Ireland.