Belfast Telegraph

If power-sharing can't be achieved by moderates, we will be faced with bad blood and anarchy

By Barry White

This time it is serious. When I was writing my column for the Belfast Telegraph, over 35 troubled years, I was often known as the man who blew out the light at the end of the tunnel.

I was very sceptical that after 30 years of violence, most of it initiated by the Provisional IRA, that any plan which meant unionists and nationalists had to govern together could work. They didn't agree on the long term future of Northern Ireland, or on the scope of relations with Dublin, so they would have to set their orange and green politics to one side, to form an effective government.

The Good Friday Agreement, which is nearly 19 years old, provided the optimistic template, heavily brokered by British, Irish and American governments which would never have contemplated the enforced coalition executive that emerged.

But as long as the moderate unionists and nationalists were in charge, represented by the Ulster Unionists and the SDLP, I admitted and hoped that it had a chance.

How things have changed, since those days when northern and southern referendums gave 71% and 91% backing to the power-sharing scheme. The moderates, who let Sinn Fein prevaricate for too long on the surrender of IRA hardware and support for the police, have been replaced by the DUP and Sinn Fein, whose support for the Good Friday principles has been highly conditional.

Here are two parties which have always relied on tribal loyalties attempting to prove that they can run a government largely consisting of tribalist politicians. They may meet in the Executive, which until 2016 was diluted by the presence of UUP, SDLP and Alliance representatives, but clearly they regarded each other as enemies rather than partners.

Ministries have been run as separate fiefdoms, with disappointingly little co-operation between ministers, and when the inevitable crises have occurred, it has taken the First and Deputy First Ministers to provide solutions.

Under Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness, whose diplomatic ability has astonished everyone, these were achieved with little apparent difficulty. Under Peter Robinson and McGuinness, the atmosphere was chilly but stable, but under Arlene Foster and McGuinness it was frozen in time and momentum. The chemistry between the frontierswoman First Minister and her former republican adversary was never right, as recent events have proved. While the Sinn Feiner seemed to accept the give and take nature of their political partnership - looking askance when offence was given to his core support - Arlene Foster has tended to regard herself as a champion of fundamental unionism, even in the new dispensation.

The cracks were showing, long before the 'cash for ash' scandal split the two-party government asunder. The Red Sky affair, the NAMA allegations of multi-million pound corruption and the inexplicable defence of UDA involvement in community funds all damaged public confidence in the Stormont institutions, but RHI destroyed it.

And the revelations came not from Assembly sources, as preferably they should have, but from painstaking media investigation.

Perhaps even the RHI scandal could have been overcome, if the DUP had been quicker to admit its mistakes and produce an earlier plan to deal with them. But it was deadly slow to react.

Jonathan Bell dropped his bombshell, and, with the Speaker fumbling his job, the party's lack of respect for the opposition's anger captured the public's attention.

The withdrawal of £50,000 from an Irish language scheme soured the already toxic atmosphere, and undoubtedly led to Sinn Fein ceasing to bite its lip over the DUP's unthinking arrogance.

Now, instead of the two big parties trying to make up, to keep Stormont going, they have been pitched into an unwanted election which will decide whether the Good Friday Agreement institutions can be resurrected.

If they are truly dead, after a polarised election, then the devolution settlement dies with them, and we are back in the early 1990s, hopefully without the violence.

Maybe, like Jim Allister says, the Stormont system is so flawed that it must be discarded and rebuilt.

The election will demonstrate, by the voting percentages as well as the percentage of non-voters, the near-impossibility of the task in the years ahead.

But surely all unionists must realise that if there is no change in attitudes, and no reform, the devolution experiment will have run its course and direct rule from London is the only alternative, unsatisfactory as it was for 25 years. Presumably the DUP and Sinn Fein will be returned as the largest parties, with the main responsibility for devising a more accountable governmental system, but if they approach it without the art of compromise and generosity, continuing the election "war" by other means, they needn't start.

One of my reasons for pessimism back in the 1990s was the knowledge that as the unionist majority declines - and in my lifetime I have seen it drop from 66% to 50-plus - it becomes even more defensive of its Britishness, making it even less accommodating to the Irishness of a growing minority.

If it goes down this road, as it was doing under Arlene Foster, it is heading for a disastrous showdown not only with nationalists but with an increasingly disillusioned British government.

Brexit can only exacerbate the tensions in a divided community, forcing unionists to cling to mother England and nationalists to see closer links with Dublin, and Europe, as their way forward, regardless of majority opinion.

Already it should be obvious that if Stormont is to survive, in any form, these two political blocs have to reach a better accommodation, knowing the dire consequences of failure.

The attitudes - and compromises - that brought David Trimble and John Hume together must be restored, more durably than ever. Belligerent confrontation on the airwaves, or in the Assembly, must be avoided by careful party discipline, down to the choosing of less pugnacious representatives on TV and radio.

The long negotiations which will be necessary to replace the present failed institutions could not survive another round of recrimination and accusation.

The prize must always be a Northern Ireland more at peace with itself, if that is possible, meaning power-sharing of some sort, entered into by trusted and necessarily moderate politicians.

If there is a ray of hope, it is the warming relationship between the UUP and SDLP.

The alternative to all-round pragmatism is continuing bad blood at the top and a certain slide towards political and maybe practical anarchy.

Some may already have that as their goal, knowing how easily the two communities can be divided on their basic, but unattainable, objectives. Please don't let them have their way.

Barry White is a former journalist and commentator with the Belfast Telegraph

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