A century of Northern Ireland: can it survive another?

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This year, Northern Ireland marks 100 years since its establishment in 1921. The anniversary has raised old issues of identity and political strife, as well as the future of the region as a nationalist First Minister after next year’s Assembly election becomes a realistic possibility. 

The centenary has been marked with a backdrop of deep division, a mood which has characterised so much of the region’s history. At a commemoration event, Catholic Primate Archbishop Eamon Martin said that partition “institutionalised difference”, remaining a symbol of “cultural, political and religious division between our communities”. 

Irish president Michael D Higgins declined an invitation to that event, saying its title – an event to “mark the centenaries of the partition of Ireland and the formation of Northern Ireland” – politicised the issue. Higgins also noted his disappointment at being addressed as the president of the Republic of Ireland rather than that of Ireland. His absence, alongside that of Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill, shows the delicate political situation that still exists across the whole island.

From its creation, Northern Ireland formalised division

From its creation, Northern Ireland formalised division, embedding separation with a border between the North and the Republic. As it was born of violence, so fighting continued, with the bloodiest period coming during the Troubles, when around 3,500 people died. This ended in 1998 with the Good Friday Agreement, largely ending organised violence in the region.

This unstable history – physical clashes mirrored by intense political friction – continues into the present, where an August Lucid Talk poll found that 68% of voters are in favour of a border poll, with 37% believing it should come in the next five years. The volatile environment could be exacerbated by next year’s Assembly elections: Sinn Féin are polling as the largest party, which would entitle them to nominate the First Minister. It would be a huge symbolic victory and the first nationalist to hold the role. 

That person could be party leader Michelle O’Neill. If the defining theme of this decade is a potential border poll, then that of the last is surely the shift in Northern Ireland’s political leadership. O’Neill succeeded Martin McGuinness, a Troubles-era Sinn Féin figurehead, in 2018. 

Peter Robinson, a DUP founding party member, stepped down as their leader in 2016 to be replaced by Arlene Foster, succeeded since by Edwin Poots and Jeffrey Donaldson. These changes speak to a subtle but important shift in Northern Irish politics: both main parties have moved on from their Troubles-era leadership, vital in moving to a more cooperative future which leaves behind the toxicity and mistrust of an era dominated by armed struggle. In practise, however, this is challenging, three years of deadlock after the 2017 Assembly election symptomatic of enduring political and social fault lines.

If non-sectarianism is the future, it has a long way to go

As another Stormont vote approaches, the non-sectarian Alliance party are polling in third place, perhaps signalling new trends in identity as the peace generation comes of age. Their rise comes as fresh issues of belonging are thrown up in a post-Brexit world. In the 2020 power-sharing agreement, some demands for an Irish Language Act were met after years of DUP resistance. This eventual acknowledgement and institutionalisation of Irish identity, with similar provisions for the Ulster Scots language, starkly exposes the failure of efforts to build a cohesive society over the last century and more recently a preference for institutional paralysis over tough questions of leadership. Gridlock in government generally means the debate over controversial issues moves out of formal structures.

Examples of this are numerous; earlier this year, loyalist violence broke out in response to the Northern Ireland Protocol, part of the UK’s Brexit agreement with the EU. Many unionists have criticised the measure, which means that there are some customs checks on goods flowing between Northern Ireland and Britain, for diluting the union. If non-sectarianism is the future, it has a long way to go. 

After a century of existence, the only thing clear in Northern Ireland is the lack of stability. Institutionalised division has meant a failure to reconcile deeply engrained identities. While the largest unionist party’s support wanes, the nationalist cause appears to be picking up momentum as Sinn Féin surge across the island. With Northern Ireland increasingly isolated from the British mainland and governmental attitudes to the region remaining largely indifferent, it seems unlikely. at present that it will survive a second century.

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