Stormont could be the next territory for British politics' Ukip crisis. Photo: Flickr/Maryade
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Ukip fills a vacuum left by Westminster parties in Northern Ireland

Absent-minded protagonists? The UK parties are contributing to a political crisis in Northern Ireland.

As the Northern Ireland Assembly tinkers on the brink of disintegration this week, only one member of the UK government is at talks, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Theresa Villiers. Former Irish Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, a key player in the Peace Process, voiced concern that Northern Ireland’s political crisis is being ignored by Westminster, saying “I do understand political considerations are elsewhere,” referring to the threat of Ukip and the general election. He further used his political weight by writing to John Bercow, the speaker of the House.

This immediate disinterest is compounded by long-term political marginalisation of the Northern Irish electorate. The Labour Party refuse to allow candidates to run in Northern Ireland, despite support there, the Liberal Democrats don’t run and the Conservatives have allied with the Ulster Unionists, ruling out cross-community support. The only parties that organise across the whole of the UK are Ukip and the Green party. 

The growing Ukip support in Northern Ireland, demonstrated by the defection to Ukip of Bob Stoker, former Ulster Unionist Lord Mayor of Belfast, last week, puts into sharp relief the fact that this is a deliberate policy by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to avoid elections in Northern Ireland.

"Ukip’s door is open – so people should come and join Bob in creating a people’s revolution in politics," deputy leader of Ukip, Paul Nuttal said, "Your old parties locally are as stale and self-interested as the old parties are across the water." He added that Ukip would contest in all 18 Northern Irish constituencies in May.

On a local level the Northern Ireland Assembly is evidently in need of change anyway. That Stormont is "not fit for purpose", in the words of First Minister Peter Robinson, is demonstrated by the frustrated talks taking place this week. The majority party, the DUP, boycotted the first day in protest over the attendance of Irish Government Foreign Affairs Minister Charlie Flanagan. 

"No self-respecting unionist will be present in any meeting to discuss internal Northern Ireland business where a seat at the table is given to the Irish representatives," the party quipped the evening before the talks were due to start. "The refusal of the DUP to attend here this morning shows their utter contempt for this process, their contempt for the two governments and their contempt and lack of respect for all of the other parties in this process," retorted the Sinn Fein Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The fragile political system set up on Good Friday 1998, and consolidated in two subsequent agreements, was probably not meant to be permanent. Sectarianism was necessarily institutionalised by ensuring that both ‘sides of the community’ had, in theory, equal power. This has meant that the Sinn Fein and DUP are perpetually in a coalition government together, which puts into question democracy at a local level, but also cripples efficient decision-making.

As the First Minister Peter Robinson wrote in September, these "exceptional operational elements" make any decisions "time-consuming and sluggish". "The structures required cross-community agreement for every significant issue," he added, "a process that would have tested and defeated less divergent coalitions".

It still might defeat this coalition. In 2013 talks on Flags and Parades, two divisive issues, came to nothing. This week talks have dealt with the issues of flags, parades, handling of the historical trials extant from the Troubles, and, crucially, the looming welfare cuts. In what has rightly been called a budgetary crisis, Stormont’s budget for April next year is still £200m over what the Con-Lib coalition prescribed. Nick Clegg has warned that if an agreement cannot be reached, the government may have to go into "emergency mode".

As one commentator has noted, Stormont is outsourcing its functions to a panel comprising most of the Stormont representatives, and thus reducing its credibility. The private sector in Northern Ireland is also in despair at the situation. A "Make it work" plea, signed by prominent Northern Irish business and voluntary sector representatives, was published in the Belfast Telegraph on Monday. "Time is running out for us to make this place work, before our confidence, investment and tourism dries up again. Our people deserve forward-looking, efficient government," spokesman Peter McBride said.

"The most important thing a British government can be is an honest broker," Ed Miliband commented in 2012. "It is very hard to be an honest broker if you are also an electoral participant." Theresa Villiers shared a similar sentiment in her conference speech in September when she said that is right that Northern Ireland politicians "take ownership" of Northern Irish problems "if we are to have lasting solutions".

While Westminster parties feign an interest in allowing Northern Irish people to self-help, in practice they are denying them the right to organise political alternatives to the unworkable Northern Irish parties, and denying them the ability to integrate into the Westminster party system. This is seen most keenly with regard to the Labour Party. In 2003 the party conceded that they were discriminating against Northern Irish people by not allowing them to become members. In 2007, after legal pressure, the Northern Ireland Constituency Labour Party was set up. It is the only CLP that is not allowed to run candidates.

However, there is a history of appetite for cross-community left-wing political representatives. The Northern Ireland Labour Party contested elections from 1924 to 1987, with a high-point in 1958 when it returned four MPs to Stormont, leading the Northern Ireland Prime Minster Basil Brooke to declare in 1962 that the enemy (socialism) was "at the gate". However, the party was crippled by its stance on divisive religious issues, such as Sunday Observance, where hard-line Calvinists wanted to close playgrounds on Sundays, but Catholics opposed it. Finally, support for the moderate NILP dwindled fatally during the Troubles as politics became polarised.

Northern Ireland’s 57.6 per cent voter turnout at the 2010 general election (compared to a UK average of 65.1 per cent) was the lowest of any region of the UK in a General Election since 1945. This disengagement may reflect an important truth: there is no political option that can deliver real change and that is not defined by the old political grooves created during the Troubles. 

"It is not a sticking plaster approach which Stormont needs, but root-and-branch change, whereby mandatory coalition and its crippling mutual vetoes are ditched" the Tradition Unionist Voice party leader has said. And his warning should be taken seriously: "It is inevitable that one day the present unworkable Stormont will implode."

UK parties can no longer see themselves as impartial "brokers" in Northern Ireland. Indeed, the current political crisis has been facilitated partly by this disengagement.

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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”