Northern Ireland revisits the success of ‘constructive ambiguity’

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The writer is an FT contributing editor

In the tortured politics of Northern Ireland nothing is truly settled. The enduring worth of the Good Friday Agreement was to show that the conflicting claims of unionism and nationalism could be managed. Tony Blair, who with Bertie Ahern, then taoiseach, choreographed the 1998 accord, called it constructive ambiguity. After a nearly two-year detour, this week’s deal to restore a power-sharing executive at Stormont has put the province back on that path.

The agreement, which ends the paralysis of Belfast’s institutions resulting from a boycott by the Democratic Unionist party, rests on an abundance of smoke and mirrors. In that, it respects an enduring message of Northern Ireland’s troubled history. Forcing its politics to follow straight lines is a certain invitation for conflict.

Much of the credit for the latest squaring the circle goes to Chris Heaton-Harris. The UK’s Northern Ireland secretary has been more than a touch flamboyant in his claims for the deal struck in the last few days, but for the most part he has shown himself that rare thing in the present cabinet — a minister ready to eschew populist grandstanding for the dogged pursuit of an intelligent policy.

Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s leader, says that his party’s boycott of the Belfast executive ultimately proved its worth. Rishi Sunak’s government, with a nod from Brussels, has agreed to additional changes in the post-Brexit trading arrangements set out in the Northern Ireland protocol and modified in the subsequent Windsor framework.

The promise is that checks on trade between the British mainland and the province will now be unobtrusive to the point of invisible. Northern Ireland’s adherence to the EU’s single market regulatory regime will not disrupt trade across the Irish Sea should mainland Britain diverge from EU rules. And the government is putting into law its declaratory commitments to “copper-fasten” Northern Ireland’s place in the union.

Donaldson’s analysis is right as far it goes. A less generous interpretation of events, however, is that the DUP has been handed an excuse to escape the cul de sac into which it had backed itself.

The essential architecture of the post-Brexit regime remains in place. The decision of Boris Johnson’s government to take the rest of the UK out of the single market and customs union required the creation of a “hard” border with the EU. To maintain the open frontier between the province and the Republic of Ireland envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement, that border has been drawn in the Irish Sea.

Northern Ireland, in other words, has been made a special case, marked out for different terms than England, Scotland and Wales. This is the exceptionalism that unionism, with its essential claim to Britishness, has always feared. Yet it is unavoidable. No other part of the UK has a land border with the EU — nor a large proportion of the population professing allegiance to another state.

The return of a functioning executive at Stormont will undoubtedly benefit Northern Ireland, not least by triggering the release by the UK government of £3.3bn in funding for public services. This is not to say it will reassure the unionist community.

The new executive will see Sinn Féin leader Michelle O’Neill take the post of first minister, with a DUP nominee as deputy first minister. The two posts wield equal authority under power sharing arrangements but the symbolism — a visible end to the Protestant hegemony established more than a century ago at the partition of Ireland — will not be lost on nervous unionists.

Under cover of the smoke and mirrors, Donaldson has belatedly acknowledged Northern Ireland’s organising political reality. At partition in 1921, Protestant unionism counted for two-thirds of the population. Catholics, mostly nationalist, are now more numerous. That does not translate into an automatic vote for Irish unity — opinion polls indicate many Catholics would back the status quo — but, however much it is “copper-fastened” by Westminster, unionism cannot now assume its own permanence. It has to argue its case.

If Donaldson has come to understand this (and how the DUP leader must rue his support for Brexit), many in his party would like to hold on to the old politics of defiance. He will be alert to the danger to his own position. While a member of the more moderate Ulster Unionist party, he opposed the Good Friday Agreement and was instrumental in the subsequent removal of David Trimble from the UUP leadership. Now he is looking over his own shoulder at “no surrender” unionism.

The latest accord has put Northern Ireland back on the path of politics. There is nothing to say the journey will be smooth. If Sinn Féin avoids triumphalism, there is an opportunity to start rebuilding trust across the two communities. That is not to say it will be taken.

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