Belfast Telegraph

If devolution dies, then an Ireland border poll could be next

By Barry White

Is devolution on its death bed, or will we see it reach its 100th birthday in 2021? If you're a voter and you vote tribally on Thursday, this election could be the end of an ambitious experiment in self-government, arising out of Home Rule, Dublin's Easter Rising and partition, which has never truly established itself.

I'm old enough to remember Northern Ireland's third prime minister, Lord Brookeborough, hunched in a corner of the front bench, eyes shut and rarely speaking. He didn't need to, since so many of the seats that gave unionists a majority in the 52-seat Commons were uncontested. Terence O'Neill, from the Anglo-Irish aristocracy, was never the man to counter the twin nemeses of Ian Paisley and the first generation of nationalist graduates, wanting a voice.

Before the civil rights explosion of 1968-9, Stormont nationalists had generally been treated with disdain, and their ageing representatives in the Senate were fighting the battles of the 1920s, ignored by the media.

The only blot on the unionist horizon, as the 1960s began, was the NI Labour Party, not yet boycotted by the party hierarchy in London. But as soon as it raised its working class head, winning four seats in the 1959 election, O'Neill's UUP struck back unthinkingly, reducing it to a two-man rump in 1963 and killing one of the first attempts at cross-community politics.

Brian Faulkner was the first unionist leader to recognise that devolution's future lay in a coalition of moderates, culminating in the brief 1974 power-sharing executive, until the violence in the streets overwhelmed him. Direct rule was the only alternative, and every attempt at replacing it was defeated by the inability of even the UUP and SDLP to agree broad enough terms.

Only when Dublin and Washington got heavily involved, and a low-level Irish dimension was created, was the way cleared for the ground-breaking Belfast Agreement of 1998, restoring UUP-SDLP power-sharing.

Without the DUP and Sinn Fein, however, and without decommissioning and republican support for the police, it wasn't to last. Not till the 2006 St Andrews Agreement achieved these aims were Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness able to sideline their differences and begin the 10 years of devolution that just could be ending.

Nearly 50 years on from the one-sided celebration of Northern Ireland's first half-century in Ulster 71, largely consisting of a dreary fairground in Belfast's Botanic Gardens, the electorate will deliver perhaps its last verdict on the devolution ideal. The hope must be that, with so much political and economic uncertainty in the world, the two main parties - probably the DUP and Sinn Fein, if they can repeat last year's success - will be willing and able to re-establish an executive, with or without others.

All the parties, except perhaps the TUV, want Stormont to be restored, but Sinn Fein's demand that Arlene Foster step aside until the RHI inquiry is completed points to a lengthy period of stalemate. Even if this can be settled, their insistence on an Irish Language Act and progress on legacy issues suggests they are in no hurry to return to the Assembly without significant changes.

The veto of the Petition of Concern might be dropped or amended, new means of emphasising the equal status of the First Ministers could be adopted, along with cabinet responsibility to avoid "solo runs" by ministers, and fewer, less-well-paid Spads.

Westminster desperately wants to avoid a long period of direct rule, but must be aware that all the old problems could emerge after an election, especially if the chemistry remains lacking between "brutal" Arlene Foster and abrasive Michelle O'Neill, close to Gerry Adams.

The last time the threat of direct rule menaced the party leaders - in St Andrew's in 2006 - it was Ian Paisley who settled, fearing that Westminster could grasp the nettle on such controversial issues as abortion rights.

Again this could be a factor, forcing unlikely agreements, although all parties will be aware that the British and Irish governments will be focused on Brexit rather than time-consuming, under-achieving talks about resurrecting Stormont.

Nevertheless, the exceptional challenges of Brexit to Northern Ireland mean that it is almost unthinkable that our politicians will stand idly by, giving London and Dublin exclusive rights to dealing with Brussels.

Whatever governments may argue, the Good Friday Agreement is based on the idea that there are no trading or cultural barriers on the island - holding out the possibility of future political change - while Brexit, against the wishes of a majority, is the antithesis of all the progress made over 45 years.

The election on Thursday will indicate if the two main blocs are as powerful as ever, or if there is a change in the air, thanks to cross-community voting.

Governing Northern Ireland will always be difficult, but your votes can prove or disprove that power-sharing devolution is the only possible means of containing the contradictory objectives of unionism and nationalism.

If the hope of devolution dies, and Britain counts the cost of Brexit, a vacuum would be created in which a border poll could become the next reality check.

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

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