It can be safely said that the government in Northern Ireland set up by the Good Friday agreement in 1998 is barely working and could be in serious danger of collapse. There is deep resistance within the Unionist community, especially among the political leaders, to cooperating with Nationalist politicians, and very little trust between the sides.
Since early this year there have been a number of skirmishes between the sides and in fact among all the political parties. First there was the issue of bribes being taken by Unionist politicians, then it was a disagreement between the parties concerning welfare cuts.
In May, a prominent and well-liked former IRA man, a community worker, was shot and killed in the Markets area of Belfast. Three months later, another former IRA man was shot and killed in the Short Strand area of Belfast. An inspector from the Police Service of Northern Ireland (PSNI) made a public statement that the Provisional IRA (which is supposed to be on cease fire) was involved with the second killing in retaliation for the first killing.
The provisional IRA is linked with Sinn Fein and an uproar ensued on the Unionist side, with assertions that Sinn Fein should not be in government if they were involved with such a killing. No proof has ever been offered of this connection and the chief of the PSNI has said that the IRA is no longer operative.
But that statement did not slow down or inhibit the various Unionist parties in their making of a huge issue out of the killings. First the minor unionist party, the UUP, said it would leave government if Sinn Fein was not kicked out of the Parliament. Then, not to be outdone, the largest Unionist Party, the DUP, said it was also leaving government. Peter Robinson, the DUP leader and also the leader of the Northern Ireland government, and four ministers left their posts, using words like “step aside” rather that quit so that they were still technically still in their positions.
The whole episode was a farce and an attempt to embarrass Sinn Fein. Still, threats were made, calls were made to David Cameron, Britain’s prime minister, and continuous fighting took place within Unionist ranks.
Martin McGuinness, leader of Sinn Fein in the Northern Ireland Assembly, has told the Unionists to “put up or shut up,” adding that if they have any evidence, they should produce it.
All of this makes great headlines, but it does not help us understand what is really going on while progress on budget items and other important matters are not being addressed by the assembly.
Britain’s current Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, issued threats to everyone and finally set up a three-person panel to investigate all paramilitary activities. The Unionists think they have won, and that the evil Sinn Fein will be found out. This writer very much doubts any such thing will be uncovered and, predictably, the Unionists will complain even more loudly.
This is not good government. The Unionists have no proof or even any real evidence that Sinn Fein was involved, but they are nonetheless willing to shut down government to gain some sort of advantage.
There will be a Northern Ireland Assembly election next year. Let’s hope there will be changes. In the meantime, the good people of Northern Ireland will continue with their daily lives and try to ignore all the confusion.