Good morning. To round off my week in Northern Ireland reporting on the region’s budget crisis — watch out for my story next week — I’m going to take a look at the first tentative signs . . . dare I say it? . . . of an incipient thaw after more than a year of political paralysis at Stormont.
Unionists care deeply about Northern Ireland’s place as part of the UK, of course, but for many on the mainland, it’s not mutual. We’ll review a recent poll on that subject and see why London’s legislation to deal with the legacy of the Troubles, and an IRA commemoration, are causing outrage. Stephen’s back on Monday (when it’s my turn to go on holiday!).
Stormont — cracks in the ice?
Democratic Unionist party leader Jeffrey Donaldson sent Stormont into the deep freeze last year in a row over post-Brexit trading arrangements. In February 2022, he pulled out the region’s first minister, torpedoing the executive and leaving caretaker ministers in place. Four months later, following a drubbing by pro-Irish unity party Sinn Féin in assembly elections, he refused to return to Stormont and caretaker ministers’ powers ran out at the end of October, leaving civil servants in charge. Since then, London, Dublin and all the other political parties have exhorted Donaldson to get the executive back up and running. He has refused — a stance that, mind you, did him no political damage in the recent local council elections.
But yesterday, after parties held a meeting with Northern Ireland’s top civil servant Jayne Brady, Donaldson was sounding more constructive than he has in months. Discussions, he said, have reached “an important stage”. Doug Beattie, leader of the small Ulster Unionist Party, was even more ebullient: the pace towards returning to Stormont has “ramped up”, he said.
All that contrasts with the typically hardline assessment of MP Ian Paisley Jr. Earlier this year, when London and Brussels agreed the Windsor framework to iron out problems with the post-Brexit trading rules, Paisley’s knee-jerk reaction was that it “doesn’t cut the mustard”. Last week, he was predicting that power-sharing at Stormont could still be “an Ice Age away” as he played down talk of a return to the executive by the autumn.
The UK government is still hoping the DUP will soon articulate precisely what it wants in order to go back in. But on June 19, British and Irish officials will meet in London at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Could that provide a high-level vehicle for a breakthrough to be announced? It’s far too early to say, but London is crossing its fingers as it expects in July to bring a promised legislative amendment to Westminster designed to assure unionists that their place within the UK is secure. No date has yet been set, but it looks like at least a desired choreography is emerging. July is also the height of the traditional unionist marching season celebrating Protestant King William’s victory over Catholic King James at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690. And height is the word. A huge bonfire that its builders hope will surpass even last year’s tallest bonfire is already being constructed, even though last year saw one bonfire builder, John Steele, fall to his death on a nearby site.
Getting Stormont back by the end of the summer will still require haggling with London over a financial package which all sides now accept will have to be part of the solution. Given Stormont’s deepening financial crisis, a cheque alone won’t cut it — any deal will probably have to be part of a far more profound look at how the region is funded. The DUP may want a deal in order to go back to Stormont, while everyone else wants to go back to Stormont in order to hammer out an agreement. But one thing may help concentrate minds: the prospect of a Joe Biden-backed US investment conference in Belfast in mid-September. After all, what politician wouldn’t want to be able to land a major investment in their constituency?
In short: There remain plenty of hard yards ahead on the long road back to Stormont. But perhaps we’re seeing the first tiptoed steps.
Never gonna give you up
Unionists may relish their UK identity but do Britons cherish it back? Not so much: the stark conclusion of a YouGov poll last week was that Northern Ireland is the place Britons are least interested in holding on to. In fact, fractionally fewer respondents would be upset at the loss of Northern Ireland than about losing Gibraltar (32 per cent vs 33 per cent).
Addressing a Westminster committee this week, former DUP first minister Arlene Foster gave short shrift to Ireland having changed its constitution to sacrifice its territorial claim to Northern Ireland, saying “for a lot of unionists, including myself, it was an illegal claim . . . it shouldn’t have been there to start with . . . it’s a bit like ‘when did you stop beating your wife, sort of thing’”. (For more on the so-called “constitutional question” this oldie-but-goody sketch from a pro-reunification Irish comedian is worth a watch.)
Meanwhile, the issue of dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past has also been making waves. The Council of Europe’s Committee of Ministers this week took London to task, noting “with serious concern the absence of tangible progress” to allay concerns about a UK bill on dealing with the legacy of the Troubles conflict and its compatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights.
Victims’ groups, political parties and Dublin have all called on London to drop proposals that would add up to an amnesty for Troubles atrocities and halt new inquests; London late yesterday said it had tabled “significant” amendments that it says directly address some key concerns. Rights groups were not immediately convinced: Amnesty International said it was treating victims “with contempt”.
The committee also asked London why, four years after a UK Supreme Court ruling that there had not been a human rights convention-compliant inquiry into the 1989 death of lawyer Pat Finucane, no progress had been made. Finucane was shot by loyalists in front of his family, including his son John, now a Sinn Féin MP, who has angered unionists and been criticised by Dublin for plans to attend an IRA commemoration this weekend.
Sinn Féin says all sides have the right to respect their dead; Irish foreign minister Micheál Martin insists the party “need to ask themselves some hard questions in respect of legacy”. If agreeing on the present and future is hard enough in Northern Ireland, the past appears no easier . . .
Now try this
I’m waiting for my holidays to catch up on Once Upon a Time in Northern Ireland, a BBC series that is being hailed as one of the best documentaries about the Troubles ever made. Watch it here. If anyone has any excellent recommendations about holiday reading for me (fiction or not), I’m all ears!
Top stories today
Read the full article here