I’m going to preface this article by saying that I am not from Northern Ireland, I have never lived in Northern Ireland and I have never even visited the place. I’m also going to declare my support for the unification of Ireland in line with Ulster’s republican parties such as Sinn Féin and the SDLP. Nevertheless I am now going to defend the British imperialism-apologists also known as the DUP and the UUP because what Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers said at the Tory Party Conference today illustrated how she fundamentally doesn’t understand Northern Ireland.
The Tory Party Conference came to a close today with a number of speeches from cabinet ministers, leaders of the party in Scotland and Wales, and the Prime Minister himself. However the one thing that struck me about the conference, apart from the demographic uniformity of the conference (it’s a room full of old, white people), was the comments of the Northern Ireland Secretary Theresa Villiers. In her speech to the right-wing masses she was speaking about the need for the two sides in Northern Ireland to come together to save devolution and prevent direct Westminster rule, which given the historical context will probably not go down well
So far so good, nothing especially controversial but then she veered off into attempting to score political points: “One only has to look around Europe to see the terrible problems caused when an administration can’t live within its budget”. That’s correct she thinks that the current political problems in Northern Ireland are because “those taking a hard-line against welfare reform could end up running the devolved institutions into collapse as collateral damage”. What she is deliberately doing is two things: firstly she is continuing to perpetuate the Tory myth that welfare reforms are necessary in order to improve public finances and that the Conservative Party are the only party with economic credibility; secondly she is deliberately confusing the current reason for the political paralysis in Northern Ireland, the fallout from the murder of Kevin McGuigan, and welfare reform, which is a political debate about the Stormont House Agreement.
The welfare debate can be negotiated and worked out provided that both sides go back to the table to flesh out the mechanisms that they’ll put in place to mitigate the impact of the cuts on the poorest people in society. If the Good Friday Agreement can be signed then welfare cuts can be negotiated. However invoking the spectre of a Greek-style financial apocalypse, which could have been solved through debt cancellation and a bailout of the Greek people not the French and German banks, is irresponsible.
The idea of welfare threatening the devolution settlement was actually forced onto the Executive by the Tories who in 2013 said that should their welfare cuts not be implemented £114 million of fines would be imposed, which will happen each from the financial year 2014/15. In effect the welfare debate is more heated and more tense because both sides know that if agreement isn’t reached the Westminster Tory government would be ripping money out of their budget; I would argue that if these fines were not imposed and welfare reforms were devolved in full to Stormont, this impasse would not be as protracted as it currently is.
Now onto why the Northern Irish government is actually paralysed. In essence the political dispute arose as a consequence of the murder of former IRA member Kevin McGuigan; the dispute caught fire when the PSNI announced that they believed the Provisional IRA was involved in the murder with Sinn Féin saying that they weren’t, and the unionist parties saying that they were. As I have said before I am a republican, in both Ireland and Britain, but objectivity in these cases in crucial. If I were a unionist and somebody who used to fight with the IRA was allegedly killed by the IRA, who everyone had thought was no longer active, that would worry me; by the same token I’m a LGBT rights activist and if I was made aware of an anti-LGBT group that killed an anti-LGBT activist, I would be asking myself what they would do to someone who actually actually disagreed with them. It’s perfectly rational to be worried about getting a bomb in the post, especially if you are a unionist politician.
With this in mind there are two things to consider: either the DUP and the UUP are genuinely terrified and that Sinn Féin’s dismissal of their involvement makes you sceptical of their trustworthiness, or you are perpetuating fear among your constituents which would legitimise not wanting to work with Sinn Féin thus giving you political capital among your constituents. Either way, it is the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the political fallout of that murder that is the cause of Stormont’s current paralysis.
Therefore I would say only this: Theresa Villiers doesn’t understand Northern Ireland. If I, an English Sinn Féin supporter, can work out that the current political situation is not about finance, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, who has a financial and political interest to keep Northern Ireland in the UK, should understand what is going on. If you are in Northern Ireland, whether unionist or republican, my advice to you would be to demand Theresa Villiers’ resignation because either way she doesn’t represent your interests.