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Sunday 15 January 2017


Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have angry supporters to placate

Only Martin McGuinness could have held that dysfunctional coalition together

Former Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness Photo: PA

'What's going on in Northern Ireland?" Even as they ask that dutifully, I can see the life draining out of the faces of my interlocutors, British or Irish, terrified they might get a lengthy explanation.

I'm very unusual in loving and being fascinated by the place, not least because over the past few decades I've learned there so much about the positives and negatives in human nature. I've encountered degrees of hatred and cruelty I've never experienced elsewhere, along with astonishing courage, kindness and forgiveness.

If you've observed up close how an ideology obsessed with ethnicity and territory - what Germans called blood and soil - could make neighbours kill neighbours, you are constantly reminded that we can never take peace for granted and that savagery is never far from the surface with our species.

I was never one of those Panglosses who thought the Good Friday Agreement meant we could all relax. Nor did I think that the ruthless IRA leader Martin McGuinness grinning at Ian Paisley, a vain old bigot flattered into power-sharing after decades as a sectarian rabble-rouser, meant that local politicians had finally got the hang of give-and-take.

There's no getting away from the simple fact that on major issues, the two biggest political parties in Northern Ireland are diametrically opposed: the DUP wants to stay part of the United Kingdom, to leave the EU and to hold on to a conservative society; Sinn Fein wants a united Ireland and these days has become a party of social radicals who go on about minorities and gay marriage; and culturally, they're on either side of an enormous chasm.

There's no getting over the fact either that many members of the DUP had family and friends murdered by the IRA under the leadership of McGuinness and Adams, or that Sinn Fein has brainwashed supporters into believing that Republicans were the most oppressed people ever.

Where they have common ground, even if it's never admitted, is that it suits both of them to be kings of their respective sectarian castles. In government together they have achieved almost nothing, and have colluded in treating the British Treasury like an old bloke from sugardaddy.com.

For years, British governments turned a blind eye to such gross waste in Northern Ireland as, for instance, the £1.5bn or so providing duplicated services in a rigidly sectarian society, but those days are over and it is now making the province pay the almost £500m squandered over grossly incompetent handling of the Renewable Heating Incentive (RHI).

Local civil servants, special advisers and politicians from all parties - particularly Arlene Foster, the relevant minister when this scheme was devised - behaved culpably in ignoring the gaping flaw that allowed the RHI in effect to pay people to waste energy. If your business bought a wood-burning boiler, the more you burned, the more you earned: locals called it "cash for ash". Some citizens had the bright idea of running boilers round the clock in empty sheds. A week ago, a 20mx12m shed containing eight boilers and 14 tonnes of woodchip was destroyed in a fire in Fermanagh.

But though the finger can justly be pointed at Foster and her DUP ministerial successor, Sinn Fein ignored the issue until early December when a BBC Spotlight programme blew the gaff. Just under 2,000 people benefited from the scheme, and obstacles have been put in the way of publishing their names, but there's evidence swirling around of supporters of the DUP and Sinn Fein cleaning up.

This scandal has utterly horrified the salt-of-the earth, frugal, rural Protestants who form the bedrock of Foster's support and her leadership rating slumped among unionists from pre-RHI 63pc to 43pc. She failed to take responsibility, own up and grovel, and instead was stubborn and truculent and even blamed misogyny. The irony is that Foster has indeed endured years of misogyny, but no longer did, for, like Thatcher, once she was in power, she was fully in control of her party and the men did as they were told.

Where Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson certainly had played their part in stirring the sectarian pot, Foster could reasonably see herself as an innocent victim forced by circumstances to work hand-in-hand with a man whose minions tried to murder her father and blew up her school bus and who has never admitted doing anything wrong.

Still, though there was no warmth, she and McGuinness would have managed to keep the show on the road had it not been for his illness. In addition to being civil to unionists and making friendly gestures that some of them appreciated, McGuinness had the temperament to keep the executive going while it suited his party, and the status to keep the IRA hard men quiescent even when in recent times they were fuming.

Sick of being sniped at as weak by the young leader of the SDLP (keen to out-green the Shinners since it went into opposition), their perception has been - sometimes reasonably - that the DUP has been churlishly failing to make previously agreed concessions on culture and language. It was reported from a recent private meeting of hundreds of Republicans with Adams, that the loudest cheer came when one of them said: "Bring the institutions down now."

So once it was clear McGuinness had to resign, the Republican leadership decided to seize the opportunity to galvanise the troops by forcing an ethnic drum-beating election on the pretext that it was intolerable of Foster to refuse their demand that she stand aside while the RHI inquiry she had agreed to was in progress.

It's highly unlikely that the election can be averted. The future is likely to be that both the DUP and Sinn Fein throw vicious accusations at each other yet end up back on top, that the ensuing stalemate will be impossible to resolve, that ultimately a reluctant British government will have to impose direct rule and that Theresa May will show her displeasure by cutting the Northern Irish budget even more heavily.

That's what's happening in Northern Ireland.

But at least the IRA won't go back to war. It would play too badly down south.

Ruth Dudley Edwards' 'The Seven: the life and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish Republic' was published by Oneworld on March 22

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards