Yet, in spite of its official role as an integral part of overall United Kingdom governance, the British establishment cares little about the political apparatus in Belfast.
Underlining this reality was the spectacle of Ian Paisley Junior ruefully telling an almost empty House of Commons that Boris Johnson had not uttered a single word about the collapse of the Executive, which had occurred days earlier. Reinforcing this view was the fact that not one major British newspaper featured the Executive’s collapse on its front page.
With so little obvious commitment from London to the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is reasonable to ask what is happening. In many ways the real question should no longer be whether the Executive and associated institutions can be restored but how long the Six Counties can survive as a distinct political entity.
The latest brouhaha in Stormont is surely a symptom of the underlying malaise.
Significantly, the staunchest supporters of maintaining Northern Ireland as a going concern are no longer capable of offering a coherent administrative package. Worse, from their point of view, they are now actively, albeit unwittingly, contributing to its downfall.
Amidst a long list of damaging political blunders, the DUP’s mishandling of Brexit takes some beating. Presented by Theresa May with a golden opportunity to influence policy to their advantage, the DUP shot their foot off. Within two years they had contrived to endorse a process leading to a protocol that created a regulatory barrier in the Irish Sea. Incredibly, the North’s largest unionist party failed entirely to understand the political dynamic in Westminster. This blind spot has caused the party to suffer division-creating recriminations from within its own constituency.
Little illustrated this more starkly than the hostile reception received recently by the leading DUP politician Sammy Wilson while campaigning in the staunchly unionist village of Markethill in Co. Armagh. Long seen as one of the more hard-line members of his party, Wilson was subjected to constant heckling and abuse as he attempted to address an anti-protocol rally. Some of his critics went so far as to castigate him with the ultimate unionist insult, that of being a Lundy.
Undoubtedly many outside the unionist heartlands will be amused at the spectacle of an acerbic DUP politician being subjected to treatment that was once the forte of his own party and its founder. While it’s difficult to resist smiling at the irony, we cannot overlook what this means for the North’s body politic in general and for the largest unionist party in particular.
Because, in spite of its often high-handed behaviour, the DUP has over the last decade grown used to the perks and privileges of administering the North from the comfort of Stormont. No longer is it a protest organisation on the periphery but it is now the lead party in office. It has, therefore, a self-serving, vested interest in maintaining the Six County political institutions. That is, of course, for so long as it is possible for it to do so.
Now, however, as a result of its inept mishandling of Brexit and turbulence resulting from the protocol, the DUP has found itself forced to withdraw from the North’s Executive—an action that puts the very future of devolved administration in the Six Counties in doubt, a real possibility already identified by the Ulster Unionist leader Doug Beattie, among others.
The Markethill demonstration, with its ominous reminder of the fate of previous unionist parties attempting compromise, has set out a marker for Jeffrey Donaldson. Provided that his leadership survives an accusation that he recently contemplated deserting the DUP in favour of the Ulster Unionist Party, he will face two equally desperate scenarios.
On the one hand, he must force the European Union to back down and abandon the protocol. The likelihood of the EU capitulating was always slim. With Boris Johnson now under pressure to maintain NATO unity in relation to Ukraine, the chances of Brussels rolling over are next to nil.
If, as seems likely, he fails to remove the protocol, Donaldson will be forced to continue boycotting the institutions. Otherwise he risks conceding ground to the neo-Paisleyites and is therefore caught in the classic dilemma of damned if he does and damned if he doesn’t. The result is political deadlock, in the short term at least. Even should some contrivance facilitate the formation of a new Executive, its durability will always be in doubt.
In the light of the above, it is impossible to avoid the conclusion, identified on many occasions in the pages of this publication, that the North is a failed political entity and one beyond permanent repair. At the root of the problem is the fact that it cannot achieve the type of constitutional and governmental consensus that allows other political entities to function when under stress. With a large and ever-increasing percentage of the Six-County electorate rejecting the very legitimacy of the state, normal politics cannot happen.
Consequently, even mundane issues frequently acquire a distorted significance. Take, for example, the matter of retaining free access to lateral-flow tests. Notwithstanding being supported by most parties, including a unionist minister of health, the aforementioned Sammy Wilson has argued for following the lead set by England and charging for the service. His thinking is not so much neoliberal-influenced as a desire to be seen to stay in step with the English.
Under such conditions, the Six-County entity will continue to stumble between administrative inertia and administrative fiasco until eventually and inevitably it arrives at a critical meltdown point. This final stage will come as a result of changing demographics and the fundamental, insuperable obstacles posed by irreconcilable constitutional objectives. This is not speculation: it is a hard-headed analysis based on readily available evidence.
How socialist republicanism responds to this situation is important. While nothing is ever inevitable, it is irresponsible to ignore concrete realities. Nor should there be room for wishful thinking. The North is a failed and dysfunctional political entity, offering no realistic prospect of an internal solution that can overcome its flawed creation.
The best contribution we can make at this point is to insist that this reality is publicly highlighted and expounded upon and to ensure that the implications are not ignored. In the course of this discourse we must seize the opportunity to promote the only permanent solution to the issue: an end to partition and the building of a workers’ republic throughout the whole of Ireland.
Tommy McKearney is a left wing and trade union activist.
He is author of The Provisional IRA: From Insurrection to Parliament.
Follow on Twitter @Tommymckearney