What future for Northern Ireland? [OPINION]

What future for Northern Ireland? Its stability is based on the peace agreements signed in 1998, ending 30 years of civil war by sharing power between Protestant Unionists, loyal to the United Kingdom, and Catholic nationalists who want to reunite Ireland. Despite sometimes long episodes of deadlock at the level of the Regional Assembly (Stormont) between the representatives of the two communities, this consensual approach has borne fruit, with a gradual moderation of the rhetoric on both sides. We are no longer at the time of the terrorist actions of paramilitary groups (the IRA and its opponents), nor of the fiery speeches of the pastor Ian Paisley (1926-2014), leader of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), who notably accused Pope John Paul II of being the Antichrist, in October 1988. Northern Ireland nevertheless remains divided: only 7% of children frequent mixed schools Welcoming Protestants and Catholics, dozens of "walls of peace" separate rival communities in Belfast's red-light districts. Republic of Ireland flags continue to be burned on Fires of joy – pyres of pallets and tires built and then set on fire by the disaffected Unionist youth, also involved in riots April 2021.

During elections on May 5, the nationalist Sinn Fein (SF) (active in both parts of the island) became Northern Ireland's largest party for the first time, leading some to raise the possibility of a unified Ireland in the relatively near future. Under the 1998 agreements, the position of premier at Stormont went to Michelle O'Neill of the SF, with a deputy premier appointed by the DUP, but the unionist party immediately refused to take part in assembly votes, crippling thus its functioning. At the heart of the problem is the DUP's opposition to the protocol Northern Irish treaty negotiated by London as part of Brexit to settle trade relations between Northern Ireland, the rest of Great Britain and the EU (of which southern Ireland remains a member). Complex relations: on the one hand, it is between the two parts of Ireland that the border of the EU now lies, but the establishment of a physical border has been deemed perilous for peace in the North. On the other side, Brexit has made the free movement of goods impossible without checks as before: Northern Ireland having remained in the EU single market (unlike England), the checking of goods arriving from other parts of the UK has become compulsory. London therefore opted for a compromise – a maritime border with customs controls at the ports of Northern Ireland. If this solution is accepted by the majority of the new deputies (On 53 90, including the SF), the DUP sees it as a humiliation, seeing it as a border internal in the United Kingdom which would threaten the sacred union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the country.

How to unblock the situation, seeing the apparently irreconcilable interests of the various domestic and international actors? The positions of the Unionist and Nationalist parties are fairly well defined, as well as that of the EU, but it is up to the British government in London to find a solution. Accused by the DUP of treason by signing the Northern Irish protocol, Boris Johnson's team say they are ready to modify the Northern Irish protocol unilaterally in order to save Stormont from paralysis and ensure its stability. An attitude castigated by the SF, attacking Johnson for capitulation to the DUP, however a minority, while suspecting him of using the question of Northern Ireland to settle accounts with the EU. For their part, Brussels and Dublin strongly criticize London for failing to bonds to an international treaty. Johnson's position is therefore very delicate and the negotiations promise to be tough.

As for the future of Northern Ireland in the long term, the question of reunification will not go away, especially if the SF also becomes the dominant political formation in the South, or its president Mary Lou McDonald is convinced that these are the last days of the partition of the island created by the British in 1920. However, if one can imagine the possible organization of a referendum in the North within a few years, it is difficult to see how it could lead to reunification with the South without an overwhelming majority in favor (an unlikely demographic scenario), given that the untouchable principle of the 1998 peace accords remains that of consensus between unionists and nationalists. During a recent conversation with well-known commentator and activist Eamonn McCann, the podcaster Eamon Dunphy claimed that "the puzzle that is the North seems impossible to solve", resembling "a Rubik's cube when you don't know how to do it". McCann countered that the analogy has its limits: in the case of the cube, we know the solution exists. As for Northern Ireland, it is not sure…

peter banister

source: ARTE Regards

This article is published from Selection of the day.

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