THE BLOG

Calm Before The Stormont - The Curious Lack Of Coverage From Northern Ireland

17/05/2017 17:34
PA Wire/PA Images

At one of the most fascinating junctures in Northern Ireland's recent political history, it is only Jeremy Corbyn's links with the IRA making headlines. The politics of the day are left largely unreported.

The lack of coverage persists in spite of a fraught political landscape following the snap Assembly elections in March this year. After the late Martin McGuinness resigned in protest over the Renewable Heat Incentive scandal, there was a surge of support for Sinn Fein, resulting in the first election since the Partition in which unionist parties did not win a majority of seats.

As it stands, Stormont is without a working government and the population is facing direct rule from Westminster. A number of deadlines for reaching a power-sharing agreement have passed and a resolution looks unlikely before the new deadline of 29 June. And of course, in 20 months' time, the people of Northern Ireland will be leaving the EU, despite having voted 56% in favour of remaining.

Already, Sinn Fein have called for a referendum on Northern Ireland leaving the UK and the case for leaving after Brexit is far stronger in Northern Ireland than Scotland. Many in the North feel that the economic impact of leaving the United Kingdom for a united Ireland in the EU would be preferable to Brexit (the Scottish Nationalists, for their part, don't have a confirmed route back into Europe). Even two years ago, the possibility of a border poll would have been unfathomable, but after a strong showing for Sinn Fein in March and an impending hard Brexit mandated from Westminster, calls for a referendum are getting louder.

The prospect of a return to a hard border with the Republic looms large in Stormont and platitudes around a 'practical solution' to the border questions are failing to reassure the Northern Irish population. This week, David Davis re-confirmed the Government's rejection that the Irish border should be tackled before talks on a trade deal can begin, revealing a willingness to politicise the issue in the negotiations.

But because coverage has largely discussed the issue of Northern Ireland in reference to the UK's own negotiating position, we're missing a quiet revolution from Northern Ireland borne out of a new wave of identity politics in the country.

The 2011 census found that 38% of people view themselves as British, 25% as Irish and 20% as Northern Irish, dividing into three identities rather than the traditional two.

The emerging Northern Irish identity represents a growing demographic unbound by traditional sectarian ties and governed instead by views on Brexit, the economy, and social affairs. As the General Election approaches, all of the parties will be targeting this group with those on the Left buoyed by the Assembly results in March.

Nuance will be required to translate the results on 9th June into accurate commentary on the future of politics across the water given that Sinn Fein's abstention from sitting in Westminster always curtails their performance in the Generals. Nevertheless, the results will show if the Unionist parties are loosening their grip on power in Stormont, may reveal the extent of the Brexit backlash, and might hint at the possibility of a referendum on the horizon.

Not for the first time, Westminster ignores the Irish question at its peril.

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