Alex Kane: The survival of the Belfast Agreement can’t be taken for granted

My view – and I don’t say this easily or lightly – is that we are heading towards a very dark, very dangerous place, with no sign whatsoever that politicians, let alone the general public, have any idea just how bad it could become. More worryingly, I’m not convinced we can do anything to avoid that awful destination.

Monday, 12th April 2021, 1:00 pm

That was the closing paragraph of my News Letter column on July 29, 2019.

Earlier in the piece I wrote: ‘It is stupid, utterly stupid, to imagine that had the 2016 referendum not produced a victory for Leave then all would now be well in Northern Ireland. It wouldn’t. The Irish language dispute wouldn’t have been resolved. The dispute over legacy would have continued. All other unresolved issues would have remained unresolved. Sinn Fein would still be pushing for unity and a border poll. The RHI crisis would still have happened. The “feed a crocodile” comment would still have been uttered.’

The prospect of a deal to reboot the Assembly/Executive (which did happen six months later, but only because the DUP and SF – who’d seen their vote drop in the general election a few weeks earlier – were pooping themselves at the prospect of another election) didn’t fill me with much optimism, either, and I argued it was likely to be short-lived and built on quicksand.

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Michelle O’Neill and Arlene Foster – both Sinn Fein and the DUP are already in election mode, which will be the usual numbers game

Fair enough, it has managed to stumble along for 15 months, but it has been one crisis on the heels of another against a backdrop relationship which is more ‘Game of Thrones’ than ‘Love Island’. And with Sinn Fein entirely focused on a border poll and unionism trying to undo the ‘betrayal’ inflicted upon it by Boris Johnson, we need to face the fact that there is now more chance of me becoming the first atheist, pro-Union pope than there is of Arlene and Michelle agreeing a non-aggression pact and governing in the common interest.

This is endgame territory for the Belfast Agreement. Its survival should no longer be taken for granted. We can’t simply unwind another few hundred yards of bandages in the negotiating equivalent of triage, strap a couple of oxygen cylinders on its back, fill its pockets with cash and then push the peace/political process up the front steps at Stormont. Have our politicians never watched the Universal horror classics from the 1930s and realised what happens when you tinker too much with assorted grotesquerie?

Is there, I wonder, anyone (and I’m excluding those already diagnosed as clinically insane, or who think ‘The Crown’ is a history programme) who believes the Belfast Agreement can be rescued? Come on, now, there must be someone with a case to make in its favour. I accept there are many, many of you who would like it to work, or who fear the consequences of its collapse, but that’s not what I’m asking: which is, do you genuinely, hand-on-heart believe, it can deliver consensual, all-in-this-together government?

At this point in the column some readers will already be posting their replies on my Twitter timeline and pinning the tail on either the SF or DUP donkeys: ‘It can’t work because Sinn Fein don’t want Northern Ireland to work’; or ‘It won’t work because the DUP has no interest in power-sharing or equality’. And yet, knowing that to be the case, most DUP and Sinn Fein voters will probably still trot along to the polling stations, back their parties’ polar-opposite approach to government and then celebrate another victory for mutual contempt.

In fairness, I shouldn’t complain about this: it is, after all, an outworking of democracy. A majority of those voting have, since 2007, supported two parties who have no particular long term interest in governing together. So neither we nor they should be surprised when the resultant government leaves a lot to be desired.

But what about the other parties (three of whom have willingly placed themselves in the middle of the Executive circus)? One thing is certain right now – we are already in election mode and it suits the interests of both the DUP and SF to focus solely on a numbers game which will determine which of them receives the key to the first minister’s office. The result will depend on how many votes they can sway from those who voted UUP/TUV or SDLP last time, so policy and possible consensus won’t even be discussed. It’s a headcount. Nothing more. And both will play the game.

Can Alliance/UUP/SDLP spring a surprise in 2022? I think Alliance will do better than expected, but not as well as they hope. The SDLP should hold fairly steady – two MPs helps. I’ve no idea about the UUP, but only because I’m not entirely sure what the UUP stands for anymore. Overall though, I would be shocked – although I’d quite liked to be shocked, to be honest – if the DUP/SF axis doesn’t poll in the 52% + region again: although the keys to the FM office is harder to call right now.

All of which brings me back to my opening comment. No political/electoral change or consensus after 25 years suggests there won’t be any: or any of the significance required to engender hope. And history further suggests that no change and no stability usually leads to collapse and a return to the dreary steeples. And apparently we’re about to throw yet more money to transition paramilitaries into community groups. Really!!!!!

As I say, this is endgame territory and will remain so for some time. Worse, I can’t think of anything which gives me a single ground for optimism.

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Alistair Bushe