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Northern Ireland may beat Scots to the exit

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  • Northern Ireland may beat Scots to the exit (Paywall)

    It’s not a question of watching the wrong, Scottish, pot boil. The almost complete absence of reports in yesterday’s London-based “national” newspapers on the Northern Ireland election shows the capital is barely aware of what’s going on across the Irish Sea now the bombs aren’t going off.

    England is clearly fed up with Scotland, dispatching a schoolmarmish Theresa May to inform the Scottish National Party that “politics is not a game”. Quite right: it is the pursuit of long-term objectives by whatever means are available in a democracy — just ask Nigel Farage.

    Yet there is now a distinct possibility that the people of the six counties of Ulster could jump the queue to be the first out of the United Kingdom. In the EU referendum, 55.8% voted to remain.

    Couldn’t a Celtic Euro-belt around nationalist England, comprising Scotland and all of the island of Ireland, keep everybody happy one day — except perhaps for a hostage Wales?

    Having swept up so often after May when she was home secretary, the little-known Northern Ireland secretary, James Brokenshire, may find himself the boy with his finger in the dyke, trying to save the Union.

    This is a lot to extrapolate from three-quarters of a million votes cast to elect 90 members of a devolved legislative assembly in which the share of the dominant Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) went down just 1.1% and Sinn Fein gained a comparatively measly 3.9%.

    Even so — after the Brexit vote, after Trump — last Thursday in Ulster saw another poll in which voters served notice that the late 20th-century boundaries, of conventional wisdom or geography, no longer apply.

    This is a crisis for Unionism. Its power base is eroding while nationalists are happy to sit back and watch
    This was no accident. Repeated resort to ballot boxes has made Northern Irish voters expert at rearranging a rainbow spectrum of political parties fashioned to accommodate sectarian divisions and co-dependency with Westminster and Dublin.

    In this election, Northern Ireland rejected both power-sharing and the implicit acceptance of a permanent Unionist majority. In the reduced 90-seat Stormont assembly, the DUP have 28 Seats, Sinn Fein 27, the SDLP 12 and the Ulster Unionists 10.

    In crude terms of unionist/ nationalist blocs, the nationalists have 39 seats to the unionists’ 38, a one-seat advantage reversing the DUP’s edge over Sinn Fein.

    Crucially, for the first time, unionists do not have an effective majority. If the assembly gets going, the DUP’s weakness will soon be tested by proposals to liberalise abortion and same-sex marriage in the province.

    But that is a big “if”. The Belfast or Good Friday Agreement is a magnificently wrought web to force the political representatives of the two communities to work together.

    This election happened 10 months after the last one because the Sinn Fein deputy first minister, Martin McGuinness, refused to go on working with the DUP first minster, Arlene Foster, after the “cash for ash” scandal over renewable energy subsidies raised suspicions of incompetence and corruption.

    As McGuinness, who is gravely ill, has withdrawn from politics, the shadow of the gunman has receded from Sinn Fein. The party’s new Northern Ireland leader and first or deputy first minister designate is 40-year-old Michelle O’Neill. She is from a strongly republican background but has forged her career as a democratic politician in the roles of mayor and, most recently, minister of health.

    O’Neill is refusing to work with Foster for the same reasons as McGuinness, but it would probably be a humiliation too far for the DUP if Sinn Fein were to force out their leader.

    If there is no breakthrough or change in the next few weeks, Brokenshire will have to dissolve the assembly and resume direct rule from Westminster.

    In the short term, this could suit all sides. There is little chance that the British government can act as an honest broker because Brexit is its priority and the DUP is Northern Ireland’s Brexit party.

    The eight DUP MPs are Mrs May’s firewall against defeat at the hands of Conservative rebels on such matters as House of Lords amendments to the article 50 bill triggering EU withdrawal.

    The Dublin government, such as it is, is paralysed too. Beset by local scandals, Enda Kenny’s minority administration is guttering to an end. In any Irish general election, Sinn Fein is set to make gains, perhaps becoming a partner in a coalition government.

    This is a crisis for Unionism. Its solidarity and power base are eroding while nationalists are happy to sit back and watch it happening. Northern Ireland’s voters have raised their heads from the trenches and are looking around for alternatives.

    The British government offers bland assurances but no guarantee that the UK leaving the EU, the single market and, probably, the customs union will not mean a hard border with the republic against free movement of goods and services.

    In that case, the obvious alternative is a hard border at British ports against crossers from Ireland or Northern Ireland — a sure way to enhance a sense of belonging together.

    The latter is already half out of the door. Contrary to its vow to Scotland, the UK government has declared since the 1980s that it has “no selfish, strategic or economic interest” in maintaining the Irish part of the Union.

    Things are shifting. Unionists no longer enjoy a de facto majority. This disregarded Stormont election opens up a possible direction of travel.

    The Northern Ireland Act 1998, which enshrines the Good Friday Agreement, simply states that “the secretary of state shall exercise the power [to call a referendum] if at any time it appears likely . . . that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be a part of the United Kingdom and form part of a United Ireland”.

    This does not exclude holding a referendum to test the mood. After that, referendums can take place every seven years.

    A united Ireland would make an independent Scotland within the EU more viable. The pots are boiling. David Cameron’s referendum lit the fires; now Theresa May must play the sorcerer’s apprentice.