Will Northern Ireland’s culture wars kill power-sharing?

Westminster’s general indifference to what goes on in Northern Ireland is blinding it to the fact that the political process there is rapidly losing momentum.

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Westminster’s general indifference to what goes on in Northern Ireland is blinding it to the fact that the political process there is rapidly losing momentum. The past few months have been dogged by serious disagreements about welfare cuts between the Democratic Unionists and Sinn Fein, unhappy bedfellows in the cross-community, power-sharing executive. But the real problem is that Northern Ireland’s culture wars are now in full flight. These are proving even harder to resolve.

Step forward the DUP’s veteran republican-baiter, Gregory Campbell. In a cringeworthy performance at their annual conference over the weekend, he returned to a favourite theme, poking fun at the Irish language, historically supressed under British rule and therefore spoken by many nationalists, not just the Sinn Fein activists he was taking aim at.

He said the nationalist movement’s “wish list” of an Irish Language Act and a Bill of Rights, enshrining equality, should be treated like “toilet paper”. Creditably, Campbell was upbraided yesterday by none other than Kyle Paisley (son of Ian) and a Free Presbyterian minister, who said his provocative remarks were "shameful".

Nevertheless, the Sinn Fein President, Gerry Adams, rose to the bait, describing unionist recalcitrants like Campbell as “bastards” and promised to “break them” with equality. It may be that Adams, the acme of the disciplined, message-conscious politician, was throwing red meat to the republican movement’s soft flank, which sees these sorts of attacks from unionists, and the lack of movement over equality issues more generally, as weakness on his part. Indeed, one of Northern Ireland’s keenest unionist watchers, Alex Kane, ascribes similar motivations to the DUP and Campbell in triggering this dispute.

So, a manufactured row, with synthetic howls from unionists for the strength of Adams’ language (Northern Ireland remains very prim), serves a useful purpose. Even if it raises the political temperature still further.

Sinn Fein does, however, make a reasonable point when it accuses unionists of not embracing the equality agenda. Northern Ireland was, after all, designed to be a hegemonic, sectarian state with in-built privileges for loyal Protestants. For them, equality is a zero-sum equation: when nationalists gain, they lose. This explains the soft-pedalling on a bill of rights and the Irish language.

In the background to these culture scuffles are the talks on finding a longer term settlement around contentious marches, the bearing of flags and dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. They grind on under the chairmanship of former US presidential hopeful Gary Hart, with little sense of progress.

With the general election only a few months away, there is not likely to be any. Northern Ireland’s 18 Westminster seats are keenly fought and both unionists and nationalists are already exploring electoral pacts to maximise their side’s representation.

Indeed, some of this heightened animosity is explained by Peter Robinson forever looking over his shoulder after losing his own Westminster seat to the Alliance party in 2010. He fears any sign of weakness on his part will benefit Jim Allister’s hardline Traditional Unionist Voice, not to mention the risk of a resurgence from the once-dominant Ulster Unionists.

However it would be a mistake not to recognise that the current power-sharing arrangements are under severe stress. Adams warned back in August that the political process “is in trouble” and that it faces “its greatest challenge since the Good Friday Agreement negotiations in 1998”.

It doesn’t help that David Cameron is seen to be semi-detached from the whole thing, a rare point of agreement between unionists and nationalists. Moreover, Theresa Villiers, the current Northern Ireland Secretary, is held in low regard, both among Northern Ireland’s idiosyncratic political class and back at the Westminster ranch.

Tonight, there is a meeting in Portcullis House to discuss building a “pro-Agreement axis” with speakers from Sinn Fein, the nationalist SDLP, the centrist Alliance party and various Labour politicians. There is a growing fear that the power-sharing deal agreed in 2007 is subject to the “seven year itch”.

Yet, there is no Plan B for either nationalists or unionists, or, for that matter, Westminster or Dublin. But neither is there a point when the current dispensation blossoms into a mini-Westminster.

Northern Ireland’s very existence remains the ultimate point of dispute and is not readily reconcilable. The genius of the Good Friday Agreement – its creative ambiguity - was in providing either side with enough of a story to tell their respective communities about how their aspirations – and their competing cultures – will be maintained.

Yet 16 years on from its signing, is it still enough?

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office.