Why is everybody so ignorant about the politics of Northern Ireland?
It's complicated but it's important. So why don't we know more about it?
Towards the end of last week, Northern Ireland secretary Karen Bradley gave an interview to Parliament’s in-house magazine. She can’t have been expecting a particularly robust chat, so maybe her guard was down when she breezily told her interviewer she didn’t know much about Northern Ireland when she got the job.
“I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought for example in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice-versa,” she said.
“So, the parties fight for election within their own community.
“Actually, the unionist parties fight the elections against each other in unionist communities and nationalists in nationalist communities.
“That’s a very different world from the world I came from…”
Yeah, no shit.
Is this a level of honesty unusual in our lies-and-obfuscation-ridden political culture? Maybe, but how would you feel if your heart surgeon casually let slip that they’d given ventricles a quick Google down the pub at lunchtime and it would all be fine?
Or, say, that one of the most fiendishly complex political situations in the world, one set in the aftermath of a slow-motion civil war that still has thousands of its surviving victims waking up screaming, had been entrusted to someone who knew less about it than somebody who dozed though Patriot Games a few years ago?
Now look, nobody’s saying politics in Belfast are straightforward: summing up the deeply weird legacy of actions by the British there going back to the seventeenth century isn’t something you can really do on the back of a fag packet, and even the most gifted civil servant would struggle to put together a briefing doc that would make for a manageably small PDF.
But is it too much to ask that someone selected for an office that, with the devolved institutions currently suspended, performs many of the same functions as the old Governor Generals, has even basic knowledge of the place she’s being sent to run? Not knowing that good old Norn Iron has two entrenched blocs of voters who’d as soon vote for a party from the other community as they would for the Crushing Small Animals Party is, well, kind of a blind spot.
It’s not that long ago that Irish Republicans launched a mortar attack on John Major’s cabinet in Downing Street, or came within minutes of blowing up Margaret Thatcher in Brighton, or – going slightly further back – actually murdered a Northern Ireland Secretary in the Houses of Parliament. If there was a group that had a track record of trying to kill people who worked for the same party as you, and in one case assassinated someone in the job you were going into, wouldn’t you be in the least bit curious about the place? I don’t know, if I’d been hired by the Handsome Writer Content Agency and the Hideous Writer Content Agency had a history of envy-inspired murder attempts, I’d at least look into them.
So where does this myopia come from?
Northern Ireland holds a slightly awkward position within the UK’s constitutional setup; there are plenty of people who see it as being as British as Finchley, as Margaret Thatcher used to say, but there’s also a fair amount of people who, to put it mildly, disagree.
Both groups tend to regard any London government going with at best mistrust and at worst open hostility, not just because anyone from south of Carlisle is inherently unlikeable but because there’s a sense in your bones that London doesn’t really care.
This weird combination of indifference and a tin ear manifests itself all the time, for example, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s casual assertion that border checks post-Brexit will be no big deal (then why not have them at the end of your driveway mate), or – of course – our friend Karen’s ignorance of the political divide.
On an everyday level, we have the levels of awareness that can be genuinely shocking: how’s about Channel 4’s video of Londoners struggling to sketch Northern Ireland’s border with the Republic, or the routine that every single Northern Irish person in Britain goes through where people who forensically follow American politics to the last detail are surprised we use the Pound and not the Euro (I once almost got punched for telling someone we use the teeth of soldiers killed by the IRA as currency, but I now accept that was needlessly provocative).
What’s going on here?
The six counties may be in the UK, with MPs and everything, but in truth the statelet is a weird phantom limb left behind by British Empire that only twinges when London needs something – like the government’s deal with the evangelical psychos of the DUP – or when Rory McIlroy is doing well in the golf.
It’s no secret that Britain hasn’t quite gotten over losing the empire, and definitely hasn’t established a vocabulary to talk about it without a bunfight, so when faced with making sense of a quasi-imperial possession that persists to this day, you folks tend to be kind of at a loss.
Northern Ireland’s politics, rightly or wrongly, are determined by our obsession with our history: the years 1690, 1922 or 1972 just aren’t as far away there as they are in Britain where, outside of fantasies about 1940, most people couldn’t give a toss about their history, and certainly don’t let it determine how they chose down the polling booth.
This is what Bradley didn’t get: Northern Ireland has made huge strides away from the sectarian rigidity of the past, but the notion of retail politics where parties compete for votes based on different tax policies or levels of enthusiasm for overseas wars just isn’t feasible. When the core question of your politics becomes a constitutional question, it becomes easier to just yell at each other about abstract notions of eternal and inviolable identity than actually address any of the material realities that led to this kind of polarisation in the first place.
Remind you of anywhere?
That’s why, while it may be fun to run through the politics of Northern Ireland in practical detail, briefing you on the precise ideological distinctions between, say, the DUP and Traditional Unionist Voice, or on what sets Sinn Fein apart from Republican Sinn Fein, it doesn’t really matter. All you really need to know is that the oddness of Northern Ireland’s political system, even when it is working well, is based on tribal loyalties, or least is sufficiently based on it for the liberals of Belfast to be held hostage by their more conservative peers in the countryside.
Karen: how hard is that to understand?
“Northern Ireland’s politics, rightly or wrongly, are determined by our obsession with our history”
Listen, it’s fun to mock, and Bradley is doubtless a pleasant enough person doing her best in one of the toughest yet least-rewarded jobs in politics.
Her casual admission, though, points to a wider lack of care about Northern Ireland. From Brexiteers’ baffling confidence that the border issue will just kind of sort itself out – tell that to the first border guard to lose a leg – to the ongoing political deadlock in Belfast, where the government remains suspended over a renewable energy scandal and subsequent squabbling over the Irish language, this fragile and still poverty-stricken place just isn’t getting the leadership it needs.
From the failure to move away from de facto segregation to the lack of infrastructure investment (what motorways there are are mysteriously clustered in Protestant constituencies) to the ongoing legacies of the Troubles in mental health and domestic violence, this troubled wee place doesn’t have a fighting chance without somebody serious at the helm, whoever and wherever they are.
And someone who doesn’t get the fundamentals but gets the job anyway just isn’t going to cut it.
A brief rundown of the key political parties in Northern Ireland
The DUP (Democratic Unionist Party)
A supposedly God-fearing party that’s a refuge for the dodgy, the incompetent and the weird, the DUP has shown its signature political vision by staunchly backing Brexit, a policy that has made a united Ireland more likely than at any point since 1922. They love being part of the UK so much that they refuse to accept the same laws on same-sex marriage and abortion as the rest of the UK.
A party with more bodies on it than Jack the Ripper flying the Enola Gay, Sinn Fein are at an interesting point. They used to get on like Che Guevara, but a combination of a new, post-Troubles generation of leaders and a desire to do better in the Republic has led them to clean up their act. Would make everything from the Irish language to the recent absence of white Christmases a human rights issue if they could.
UUP (Ulster Unionist Party)
Once the only show in town for Unionists, the UUP were cucked wholesale by the DUP for the crime of daring to compromise with Nationalists. Now a shadow of their former selves, they wait for the unlikely moment when the voters of Strangford suddenly develop a taste for their plummy South Belfast tones.
SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party)
Confusingly, nothing to do with either the British Labour Party or the old Social Democrats, this was the moderate nationalist grouping that got owned by Sinn Fein in a similar way to the DUP and the UUP. Which is really bloody sad, as former leader John Hume’s record is pretty unimpeachable, making him hard to take the piss out of. He deserved every atom of his Nobel prize.
Cross-community, anti-sectarian, boring. ‘Let’s be friends,’ but a political party.