I have Fandango to thank for this title – he has been posting regularly on this subject from his west-coast-USA vantage point. I am myself interested in current affairs, and normally have some nonsense or other to spout about one of the UK’s topical news stories. So, I like to join in. Maybe there’s something in your world that you’d like to post about?
I thought when I started posting on this theme that there would be weeks when I couldn’t think of a winner. That’ll probably still be the case. What I didn’t expect, however, was to have a week where there were multiple winners. They are both very topical and certainly both very postworthy, so I will post on both stories and let you decide.
My first winner this week really is a big deal. I was going to relegate it in favour of my other winner, but… it is that big a deal. I’m referring to a top story in the UK these last few days, and goes to the people of Northern Ireland.
The island of Ireland has an eventful history. It was a colony of the UK’s for more than five hundred years. In that time there were lots of rebellions against British rule, and the rebellion which finally made the difference was a hundred years ago, which ultimately resulted in the creation of an independent Irish state.
This new state did not cover the whole of the island, however. A partition was drawn up which meant the north-east corner of the island remained British. It was one of those impositions which didn’t really satisfy anybody, but most people could live with it.
The reason that the north-east corner was singled out is again steeped in history. While most of the island was catholic, there were mass migrations, mainly from Scottish Presbyterians, into that part of the island, dating from the 1600s. The result was a large population there who were protestant and who considered themselves as British as anybody still on the mainland. Over the years this population became so numerous it outweighed the locals. And so when the Irish gained independence, the island was split into two – Ireland (an independent state) and Norhern Ireland (which was to remain a province of the UK). That north-east corner of the island forms a large part of the traditional Irish region of Ulster, which is where that name comes from.
But the two new countries had very different views of the world. The two extremes were the Nationalists (i.e. a single Irish nation) and the Unionists (a union between England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, the UK), with most people somewhere in between. Not only was there sentiment by Nationalists that the two countries shold be unified, but in Northern Ireland, the Unionists held the balance of power and intended to keep it that way. Discrimination against Nationalists there was rife – for example you could not do a particular job if you happened to be the wrong religion. Go figure! So much so that the province erupted into violence in 1970.
Whilst the war is now over, the divisions still remain. The agreement which ended it, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA), did little more than to paper over the cracks. While most of us think of politics as people competing to give us better healthcare, or better education, politics in Northern Ireland still splits along sectarian (Nationalist/Unionist) lines.
One of the legacies of the GFA was a Northern Irish Assembly, which largely allowed the province to self-govern. My own thought is that it was probably for the best. Calls for a straightforward unification have subsided in recent years in favour of developing a pluralistic society. And in the UK, Northern Ireland was never central to people’s thinking. I’d guess that most of the UK has only a passing interest in what happens there.
And so, we had this assembly in a society where divisions still exist. Unsurprisingly, the assembly was also split along those same lines. In fact, the divisions are so great, that three years ago the two sides decided to stop talking to each other altogether, and walk out. So the assembly got suspended. Three years ago. It has not convened since.
Now, as a UK taxpayer, I am mildly pissed. But no more so than when other taxpayer money is spent badly. If I were a Northern Ireland resident, however, I would be very pissed indeed. Because the guy I elected to represent me had decided not to represent me! That the politicians’ first resort was to stomp out of the room rather than to work out a way of talking to the other side. The first resort should be to try to move things forward.
But – and this is where the different sects are so entrenched – the people of Northern Ireland voted again for those same politicians. The assembly collapsed in January 2017, and there have been several elections since, one election to this assembly itself, plus six or seven more where the public could have rejected the warring parties. In our general election a month ago, thank goodness, the main protagonists both lost ground, but not enough ground for them to fall by the wayside.
The people who won the 2017 Assembly elections are still paid their normal salary – anything between £50k-£120k (USD 65k-160k) – despite having not even taken their places. An option was for the British government to take back direct control, but the tension is such that this would have just fanned the flames. I think even they were reluctant to do this, happier instead to let the bureaucracy bumble along, without any particular direction.
It all sounds very schoolyard-ish. Johnny did this. Ah, but Jimmy did that… But frankly, if Northern Irish people continue to vote for these people, then they deserve what they get. If I voted for somebody to represent me, I would at least want them to turn up to represent me!
If you’re in the UK, you will possibly know why I chose this subject today. If you’re not, then I guess the story will not have been so prominent. As you might imagine, there have been various attempts to re-float this assembly, the latest of which was last week. These are not just attempts by the UK government, but collaborative attempts by both Britain and Ireland. Everybody else is aware of the problem that is caused when there is a vacuum, everybody else wants there to be self-government in Northern Ireland. Everybody, it seems, except the Northern Irish themselves.
However, the latest plan, so far, has been received positively – our recent General Election now means that the Unionists have a far weaker hand, and I can’t help thinking that this must be a factor in their return. The new UK Government has the numbers to hold a gun to their heads – get back talking, or no money for the province. Whether or not this was the case, the assembly met Saturday again, for the first time in three years. There is lots of unease, still, but cautious optimism.
Now, the Conservatives full name is the Conservative and Unionist Party, which gives a strong hint where they ultimately stand. Whatever else they might agree to out of pragmatism, they view the province as British territory. I, fortunately, have no such allegiances. I’d be happy if we cut ourselves loose from each other – make Northern Ireland a country in its own right, independent of both the UK and of Ireland. If they then choose to elect a government which declines to govern, that is their problem.