In his 1724 book A General History of the Pyrates, Daniel Defoe described pirates running a ship’s ladder out over the Mediterranean, then telling their captives they were free to go. All they had to do was walk out over the waves. The concept of walking the plank is nothing new to Northern Irish politics. The events of the past few weeks have brought a host of unwilling captives to the mythical toe-along: , David Cameron, , , and even the ghost of Ian Paisley.
The prospect is that there might be the rather large splash of the assembly into the water, an event that would have enormous ramifications not only for Britain and Ireland but for various peace processes around the world.
While the does not necessarily mean a fatal fall through the air for the peace process, it certainly would put a dent in a moment of history that is not only iconic but of great psychological and moral importance on both sides of the border. If, as could happen, the power were to revert to Westminster in the next few weeks, the effects around the world would be enormous. Even if, as could also happen, a new election were to be called, the collateral damage that might be sustained is difficult to quantify.
Whether it’s absolutely true or not, the Irish peace process has been held up as a paragon of possibility for other countries around the world. Colombia. Mali. Chechnya. Syria. Even Israel and Palestine. Peace is one of Ireland’s greatest assets. It came, as Yeats said, dropping slowly. But it has landed – more or less – for 17 years and it has become a commodity. Peace attracts business. Peace attracts tourists. Peace also attracts the type of young people that want to hang around. Peace, then, makes presence, in the face of war making absence.
The latest impasse was sparked by the alleged IRA involvement in the shooting of the Belfast republican , but has deeper roots in the ongoing dispute about welfare reform, flags and emblems. It also has to do with the implementation of the , a series of crises in the education system, and the tie-in between paramilitary groups and criminal gangs. But at its core it is about a society coming to terms with history and memory.
There is a temptation in both Britain and the Republic of Ireland to infantilise the politics of Northern Ireland. The worst solution of all would be for the British government to suspend the executive. Not only would they isolate the northern politicians, they would thereby technically freeze out the Irish government too. Britain and Ireland are two countries that have made massive steps in the past two decades – picture the Queen bowing her head at the .
The assumed “parental” involvement would wreak havoc on the image of a country still trying desperately to come to terms with remembrance and reconciliation. If Westminster came to the helm, there is a great likelihood that the dustbin lids would begin to bang on the streets of Belfast once more.
The second “solution” – to dissolve and call for elections – seems to embrace a more democratic ideal, but here the sharks in the water thicken too. Northern Ireland doesn’t have two, or three, or even five sides. It is a rolling polygon, maybe even an with an infinite number of sides. Any period of electioneering is likely only to exacerbate the differences between the parties. The potential polarisation of a new election might only turn a short-term solution into a long-term problem.
The third “solution” is one that northern politicians, despite their reputations, are actually acutely tuned into: the diplomatic zig and zag. (Peter Robinson’s walkout was in fact an act of perfect brinksmanship – prop up the corpse until it can at least seem to breathe once more.) On Monday, the secretary of state, Theresa Villiers, and Irish minister for foreign affairs, Charlie Flanagan, will meet in Stormont to make an effort to solve the problems among the major players.
Politics in the north has become tired of itself. The same old tropes are thrown out again and again. The batteries are failing. The words are stalling. Very few of the current players are prepared to embrace contradiction. And the stock of younger figures prepared to get into the arena seems low.
One of the most acute sticking points is still the supposed active existence of the IRA. To what extent does it, along with other paramilitary organisations, still exist as an organised entity? So much of this comes down to language, but also the deep need for the people of Northern Ireland to trust what they have been told by the international monitoring committee. There have been , but a proper and public reassurance might steady the plank for a little while.
What it comes down to is not the Irish ability to talk but the much less rare ability to listen. In this situation it is best not to stick to the northern dictum of “whatever you say, say nothing”.
An international call for some level-headedness – from Clinton, Obama or Haas, or – might buy some extra room and might help. Either way, Stormont is on the brink. They are either walking up a ladder or along a plank.