Belfast Telegraph

Eilis O'Hanlon: No mass rallies outside Belfast City Hall doesn't mean people are happy with how things are

Politics in NI is like being trapped in an abusive family relationship. It's time that all those 'devolved matters' were transferred right back to Secretary of State Karen Bradley, whether she wants them or not, writes Eilis O'Hanlon

Secretary of State Karen Bradley
Secretary of State Karen Bradley
Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill
DUP leader Arlene Foster

Almost exactly one year ago the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach flew into Belfast amid speculation that a deal to restore power-sharing at Stormont had been agreed. Spoiler alert: it hadn't.

It still hasn't.

Anyone looking to understand why Northern Ireland is still waiting on a breakthrough would be best advised to avoid the politics and history section of the library and head straight to the shelf containing books on psychology.

Specifically, any of the extensive literature on living with dysfunctional families, because it bears an uncanny resemblance to the current political situation.

The DUP and Sinn Fein act like warring parents everywhere. Instead of being attuned to the interests of the family, they invariably put their own selfish needs first, meaning the family at whose head they sit never gets to enjoy the comfort of consistency.

One day all is sweetness and light. The next all Hell breaks loose. That's been the experience of the Assembly from day one.

Relations are harmonious for a while, then comes the messy break-up; after a protracted reconciliation, the warring couple moves back in together and all's hunky dory (sort of) for a while; then there's another, inevitable rupture.

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So it goes on. Family members are forced to put their lives on hold to sort out the mess.

Admittedly, it can be glib to explain political problems by blaming them on inadequate personality traits. The last two years have seen far too many examples of know-it-alls raiding the lexicon of pop psychology to explain away Brexit.

Trying to see the current political impasse in Northern Ireland through the prism of a broken household doesn't feel anywhere near as far-fetched, though.

What, according to psychologists, do families need most? Structure and routine. That is exactly what's been missing.

The heads of the family here have instead been erratic, or inconsistent, in providing support and leadership. Everything depends on their shifting moods, rather than a clear focus on the communal good.

Even on a very basic level, a family's need for safety, food and shelter - what one might regard at a civic level as the rudimentary duty of any administration to provide - has been allowed to slip and all because the DUP and Sinn Fein would rather snipe at one another.

As things stand, eggheads could talk until the cows come home about how to solve the stand-off over the official status of the Irish language, or the rights of same-sex couples to marry, but ultimately it wouldn't matter. The previous time everything broke down in acrimony, just a year after the Stormont House Agreement was supposed to have paved the way for progress, it was over welfare reform and continued paramilitary activity. Before that it was "flegs". Next time it will be something else.

Individual issues are not what cause the disagreements. They're merely excuses in order to have a disagreement in the first place.

That's why the rest of the family is forced to tiptoe around on eggshells for fear that the slightest trigger will set off another squabble between the warring parties.

Of course, people in Northern Ireland are not children and we're not forced to maintain this connection with our inadequate proxy political parents. They only get away with it because they suspect we'll put up with being taken for a ride. Sadly, they've been right more often than not.

All of us must bear some responsibility for enabling the DUP and Sinn Fein to spin out their dysfunctional dance of co-dependency. Other brands are available.

Susan Forward is a psychotherapist. Normally that should be grounds for caution. She's also from California, which ought to set off another alarm bell. But she, literally, wrote the book on toxic families and she puts it in a nutshell: "Unhealthy families discourage individual expression. Everyone must conform to the thoughts and actions of the toxic parents." That is as near-perfect a description of how the heads of the Northern Ireland political family have inveigled and gaslighted us all into compliance and any psychologist worth his or her salt would say that the only option sometimes is to get as far away as possible.

This is one instance where Ulster needs to loudly say No.

It's possible that this is happening already to some extent. Exposure to a toxic environment can make those trapped inside it angry, but it can also manifest itself in resignation, apathy, indifference.

It's rare to find anyone who cares that much any more about whether Stormont gets back up-and-running; and the longer that time goes by without seeing a return of devolution, the less urgent it seems.

This time two years ago was the midway point between the January downfall of Stormont and the March Assembly election. Bad as it was back then, few predicted it would still be going on in 2019.

What would have seemed equally implausible is that the government shutdown would have started to feel so normal.

Just because there are no mass rallies outside City Hall demanding change doesn't mean that people are happy with the way things are; but most have surely given up hope that this time would be any different, even if the cracks were papered over once more?

That's assuming the DUP and Sinn Fein even want to get back to Stormont. Some issues could probably be parked in the spirit of coming together as the dreaded March 29 Brexit deadline fast approaches, but the nature of that impending crisis is so overwhelming and touches on so many deep-rooted questions around identity and Northern Ireland's long-term place in the Union that it's hard to see how it could avoid overshadowing the work of the Assembly for months - if not years - to come.

Without a more solid guarantee that the DUP and Sinn Fein won't kick off again at the first Brexit-related provocation, why should they even be given the benefit of the doubt?

After putting off the moment of truth multiple times, the hour must be nigh to make a decision once and for all on transferring those "transferred matters" right back to the Secretary of State, whether she wants them or not (and let's face it, she doesn't).

Appointments are waiting to be made and rulings on spending have been gathering dust too long. The call by the Northern Ireland Local Government Association to give additional powers - and, equally importantly, money - to councils to plug the leadership gap is one imaginative piece of the puzzle, but that alone wouldn't be enough.

Sometimes when parents can't - or won't - fulfil their responsibilities to the family, someone from outside has to step in and do it for them.

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