Where have Northern Ireland’s leaders gone?

April 9, 2021 | by Field Team

What does recent unrest mean for Northern Ireland's political future? Field's Clarke Heron provides some of his analysis on the reasons behind this unrest and their significance.

The last week saw scenes on Northern Irish streets sadly reminiscent of the dark days of the 70 and 80s. Such has been the progress since the Good Friday Agreement that the images we have seen of burning cars and buses and police under attack from masked assailants, are no longer so easily disregarded as ‘the norm.’

But how have we got here?

As is always the case in Northern Ireland, there is no single cause, however there was almost a sense of inevitability as grievances within the loyalist and wider unionist communities simmered before boiling over. The perception amongst many in the UK – especially Remainers – is that this is all about Brexit. And whilst it is true that tensions over the impact of Brexit and The NI Protocol on Northern Ireland’s position within the United Kingdom have left many within the Unionist community feeling betrayed and exposed, there is a lot more to this springtime of violence. Add to that a localised Police crackdown on criminality among Loyalist groups and in particular the decision of the Public Prosecution Service (PPS) not to bring charges against any of the 24 Sinn Fein politicians that attended the now infamous Bobby Storey funeral last June flouting COVID rules during the height of lockdown and a reaction was sadly inevitable.

That this reaction was violent, crossed both communities and has involved younger generations who have known only the relative peace and stability of Northern Ireland post 1998, is an indictment on the leadership or lack thereof in both Unionist and Nationalist circles.

Policing in NI is inherently political, however the decision of the First Minister Arlene Foster (alongside the leaders of the more hardline Traditional Unionist Voice  and Progressive Unionist Party) to call for the resignation of the Chief Constable, stating that he has lost the confidence of the unionist community, has thrown fuel on the fire and undermined the Police Service of Northern Ireland.

This is largely DUP electioneering ahead of next year’s Assembly elections – to tap into the traditional unionist siege mentality, get the party on the front foot and steer headlines away from the protocol. Arlene Foster does not enjoy the untouchable position of her predecessors or even which she enjoyed earlier in her tenure before the RHI scandal that brought down the institutions in 2017. As a result she has leaned away from the centre and towards the hardline to ward off the challenge of Jim Allister’s TUV and consolidate the DUP’s electoral position.

Similarly, Sinn Fein chose to play to the traditional Republican elements of their base over the Bobby Storey funeral, in part to guard against potential losses to the SDLP, rather than align themselves with wider public opinion over COVID-19 restrictions. This undermined the Executive’s position on COVID guidance and drove a further wedge between the offices of First and Deputy First Minister within an already fractured Executive.

What does it mean? No one expects a return to the violence of The Troubles, too many have gained too much from peace for that. This week marks the 23rd anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement that brought that peace. But gone are the days of political heavyweights in Northern Ireland – think Trimble, Hume, Paisley, McGuinness – who could lead and more accurately drag, their supporters and communities with them in directions that more often than not they didn’t want to go. The current political class has so far demonstrated none of their predecessors political dexterity.

So as Northern Ireland prepares to mark its centennial year, the violence of the last week is a sharp reminder that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have a lot more work to do, however it’s not clear right now whether we have those capable to do it.

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