There is a central contradiction in the politics of Northern Ireland this year: Never have politicians had less influence in how the Province is run, yet never has the region’s largest party ever had more influence over how the UK will be governed.
Left in the lurch after the collapse of devolved government in January, civil servants have now been running departments without democratic masters for almost 10 months in what is an unprecedented situation in the 96-year history of Northern Ireland.
That dramatic implosion after almost a decade represented the end of the longest unbroken period of devolved government since 1972. The generational compromise between Ian Paisley’s DUP and Martin McGuinness’s Sinn Féin came to an end not amid some familiar debate about the border, flags or parades but a financial scandal involving Arlene Foster’s former department.
The fact that the ‘cash for ash’ affair was the catalyst for Sinn Féin pulling down a Stormont to which the party appeared increasingly wedded but to which its supporters had become increasingly detached may have signalled that a decade of devolution had led to some element of ‘normal politics’ taking over from decades of tribalism.
Those who believed that ten years of electing politicians to an institution which was responsible for running most public services in would lead voters to prioritise good governance could have pointed to March’s election as evidence of a changing political culture.
The association of Mrs Foster with a financial scandal (for which she says she is not to blame and which is now the subject of a public inquiry) contributed to the DUP losing almost a quarter of its MLAs and coming in just one seat ahead of Sinn Féin. In a stinging psychological blow to unionism, for the first time in Northern Ireland’s history a unionist majority was not returned at Stormont.
But the illusion of a new era in Northern Irish politics was shattered in June’s snap General Election. Shorn of any pretence of responsibility for governance – and in the wake of the death of Mr McGuinness, the republican who most embraced devolved power – the DUP and Sinn Féin fought an explicitly Orange/Green election.
Voters responded, pushing turnout up and enabling the DUP and Sinn Féin to between them redraw the Northern Ireland electoral map, with the west going to republicanism and the east to the DUP (with the exception of one seat held by independent Lady Hermon and Sinn Féin’s West Belfast stronghold) as the UUP and SDLP were wiped out.
Then, due to extraordinary Parliamentary arithmetic, the DUP’s 10 MPs found themselves in a position the outsider Ian Paisley could scarcely have imagined when he entered Parliament in 1970: Kingmakers who effectively chose the Prime Minister. That influence and the party’s high price for its support – £1 billion of Government spending in Northern Ireland – confirmed to the party’s supporters the wisdom of their choice but came at a price as elsewhere in the UK the party was dissected and denounced.
All the while, in the background the Brexit time-bomb ticked. Three weeks ago the DUP briefly flexed its muscles in temporarily scuppering a Brussels-London agreement on stage one of the negotiations over fears that it would lead to a border in the Irish Sea. But Mrs Foster’s party quickly, if grudgingly, accepted an altered though ambiguous text.
As 2018 beckons, there is little immediate prospect of Stormont returning. Meanwhile, like some hovering sword, Brexit’s unknown implications hang over the least politically stable part of the UK and the one part of the UK which shares a land border with the EU.
The DUP argues that it will all be fine in the end – and it has an unprecedented chance to shape the UK’s post-EU future – while Sinn Féin sees in the constitutional upheaval the first evidence for years of the potential to win mass converts to its dream of a united Ireland.
As that grand political chess unfolds, Northern Ireland’s people live under the rule of what most of them still seem to view as the benign dictators of the Northern Ireland Civil Service. In Northern Ireland, there has been an unorthodox interpretation of ‘taking back control’.