Who believes in devolution? Consequence of breakdown between DUP and Sinn Fein is unionism and nationalism both embracing 'devo-scepticism'
"Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." It looks as if Northern Ireland politics could be teetering on the edge of proving the saying true.
One consequence of the continuing breakdown in relationships between the DUP and Sinn Fein, is that both unionism and nationalism seem to be embracing 'devo-scepticism'. Whether it's the implication that many unionists are considering the merits of Direct Rule, or Gerry Adams declaring that "we can't work with the DUP", scepticism regarding devolution seems to be becoming entrenched in both unionism and nationalism.
What makes this odd is that both unionism and nationalism have historically recognised the need for devolution.
Ever since the old Stormont Parliament was prorogued in 1972, unionism sought the restoration of devolved structures. It did so on the basis of both political philosophy and hard political reality. There was the conviction that devolution - a regional parliament and executive accountable to the people of Northern Ireland - were necessary for the region to flourish, rather than being governed remotely from Westminster. Almost every policy paper produced by the various unionist parties since 1972 included a statement of belief in the need for devolution.
There was also pragmatism. If unionists wanted influence, real political influence to shape the destiny of Northern Ireland, this required regional government.
We need to hear this two-fold case being made much more robustly and confidently by political unionism. The apparent flirtation with direct rule is bad politics - in both tactical and strategic terms. It foolishly - and inaccurately - suggests to unionists that there is another, better alternative to power-sharing regional government. And it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, further undermining confidence amongst pro-Union voters in the devolved institutions.
This is a case of political talk being anything but cheap. Collapsing political institutions is no mere temporary act, easily undone when your short-term political aims have been achieved. I was just born when the old Stormont parliament was prorogued in 1972. I was a 35 year old member of the Assembly when devolution was restored on an apparently stable basis in 2007. The years in-between were marked by division, violence, and chronic instability.
But what, then, of nationalism? Despite appearances, there is much more significant common ground between unionism and nationalism on devolution than the current situation points to.
Nationalism, like unionism, has a philosophical commitment which recognises that remote government from Westminster is not in the interests of the north-east of this Island. Under the old Stormont regime, northern nationalism's complaint was not devolution itself, but about how devolution operated. In more recent history, there have been times - not least in the late 1960s and early 1970s - when nationalism thought otherwise. But that was a temporary response.
Sunningdale demonstrated that nationalism - no less than unionism - recognised that regional, devolved government was necessary if our society was to flourish. All serious nationalist political contributions throughout the 1970s and 1980s worked on the basis that some form of devolution was necessary. When republicans entered the political process in the 1990s, they had to drop the hostility to devolution and commit to working devolved institutions.
And, just like unionism - in fact, perhaps more than unionism - nationalism knows the bitter political reality of exclusion. Being excluded from power in a regional administration leaves northern nationalism stranded, incapable of exercising real influence over the affairs of our society. Even if Direct Rule has significant input from Dublin, it gives nationalism nothing like the influence secured by devolution.
It is the case, then, that the current instability in Northern Ireland politics - the apparent willingness of the DUP and Sinn Fein to undermine confidence in the devolved institutions - goes against the grain of both unionist and nationalist philosophy and self-interest. We need a significant change of direction from both parties. They need to become, at least, devo-realists - or, preferably, devo-enthusiasts.
It is only devolution that can bring unionists and nationalists together in co-operative, common good politics. Any other constitutional arrangement simply cannot do this. In both their political philosophy and in their grasp of the hard realities of politics, it's time for unionism and nationalism to rediscover the commitment to devolution.
Belfast Telegraph Digital