A functioning Assembly and power-sharing government at Stormont are the core visible components of the Good Friday Agreement (GFA). If they cease to function temporarily, then it can be said that the GFA has been suspended; the longer that suspension lasts the more surely we can say that the GFA has ceased to exist, or at least matter.
We are now, it seems, in a situation where Northern Ireland is transiting between the GFA’s suspension and its extinction, between the breakdown that occurred just prior to Martin McGuinness’ demise and the impending imposition of direct rule and the mothballing of Stormont that will follow.
Why this has happened will long be a matter of debate but essentially it comes down to the question whose answer sparked the Troubles and kept them going for so many long, bloody decades.
Is Northern Ireland a reformable entity? Are Unionists capable of making Northern Ireland a warmer place for Nationalists or are they intellectually and emotionally trapped in a permanent zero sum game where every gain for Nationalists is a loss for Unionists and thus must be resisted and defied?
The equivalent question for Nationalists answers itself, I think. Reform, and pretty mild reform at that, was the initial demand made by the civil rights movement way back in the mid to late 1960’s and it only hardened into violence, republicanism and revolution when faced with Unionist obduracy and Loyalist/state violence.
The argument over the Irish language encapsulates this tension. The demand made by Sinn Fein for greater recognition of Irish is essentially a cultural demand, not a political one. I am grateful to Liam O’Rourke in the Irish Republican Education Forum for reminding me of what The Economist magazine had to say about this issue way back in 2008, nearly a full decade ago:
Sinn Fein’s enthusiasm for Irish is partly a response to a revival in the language…….More important, Irish gives Sinn Fein a popular issue to cover its climbdown from traditional demands for Irish unity.
Revolutionary parties make cultural demands when they no longer have the strength or backing to make political demands. Arguably, then, the demands for the recognition of Irish in Northern Ireland are a informal admission of the Provo’s wider political defeat and of their willingness to accept life in a reformed, friendlier but still British, Northern Ireland.
But Unionists either cannot or will not see this. They prefer to see the demand as an attempt to brand Northern Ireland, to quote that Economist article again, ‘not as British as Finchley’. But then we always knew that, didn’t we? I went to school for a while in Finchley and I can be a witness to that truth.
This is a familiar cycle. Nationalists make what they feel is a reasonable demand. Unionists say ‘no way’ and Nationalists reach for the pike hidden in the thatched roof.
Except we live in different times. Whatever else it was. the Good Friday Agreement was fundamentally a mechanism to copper fasten the defeat of the Provisional IRA, not just by self-decommissioning its weapons, or disbanding the bulk of its organisation but by the IRA accepting the political credo of its enemies.
I am talking here about the principle of consent, the belief that Ireland can only be made one when the two parts of Ireland agree (and realistically we are talking not just about a majority of the population of Northern Ireland but a majority of Unionists – the so-called double veto).
The IRA accepted that principle which was made real in an all-Ireland referendum in 1998, the first time since 1921 that the people of Ireland, all the people, voted as one (71% approval in the North, 94.4% in the South).
So, the Executive and Assembly up at Stormont may well fade into the nether regions of the memory banks but that reality remains, a reality that both undermines the legitimacy of republican violence and which makes it easier for the British and Irish states to suppress it.
So, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement may topple but that truth will live on. It will soften the blow in Dublin and London should the institutions disappear. Tears will be shed, for sure, but they won’t last long.