The good people of Northern Ireland have been without local assembly government for over a year now with politicians continually refusing to agree on much of anything to repair the situation. With the destructive Brexit changes looming, the citizens of Northern Ireland have no real voice in their future.
The hard work by so many that resulted in the Good Friday agreement setting up the Assembly has not proved to be helpful in providing a solution. Make no mistake: Unyielding bigots remain in Northern Ireland. It is not a theological dispute but it is certainly a Catholic/Protestant split depending on which team you are part of. Not only does this hard feeling complicate trustful negotiations, but it also separates people in their daily lives.
To their shame, neither Britain nor Ireland has done much of anything to restore the Assembly. They are both so concerned with Brexit they have no time to deal with the Northern Ireland Assembly.
It all started in January of 2017 when Arlene Foster, the head of the leading Unionist Party, the DUP, came out against any official recognition of the Irish Language, disappointing thousands of Irish. She was quoted as saying there are more people speaking polish in Northern Ireland and there was no need to focus on the Irish language. Then a scandal broke that connected Foster with a scheme to enrich Protestant farmers (it involved replacing oil with wood chips requiring boilers with the government compensating the farmers with huge payments. Sinn Fein, the Nationalist Party, demanded that Foster resign while being investigated.
The late Sinn Fein leader, Martin McGuinness, resigned in protest, and that was it for the Assembly since both major parties must be represented at the top of as Leader and Deputy. An election was called and much to everyone’s surprise, Sinn Fein captured 27 assembly seats to the DUP’s 28. That was a shock, especially to the DUP. Since then, several unsuccessful meetings have been held to reconstitute the Assembly.
Meanwhile the cast of characters in leadership has recently changed. Younger people not connected with the terrible violence of years ago are now in leadership. Martin McGuinness, who died of a rare blood disease, was succeeded as head of Sinn Fein in the North by a your woman, Michelle O’Neill. A surprise candidate, she has been a breath of fresh air without any of the baggage associated with the old days.
Sinn Fein is the only North/ South political party with seats in both legislative bodies. In the South, Gerry Adams, a controversial figure who has been in office for 35 years, is being replaced by Mary Lou McDonald as leader of the Sinn Fein. The election will be held on February 10 in Dublin. So now you have completely new leadership, both bright women, in one of the combatant parties.
There are several other new leaders who will be influential in finally resuming Northern Ireland Assembly activities. Britain has named Karen Bradley, a member of Parliament, to replace former Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire, who resigned for health reasons. No progress was made on his watch.
A chartered accountant before she entered politics in 2006, Bradley assumed the office on Jan. 8. She offers new possibilities that she can move the process forward.
There is relatively new leadership in the Republic of Ireland also. Mr. Leo Varadker became Taoiseach last year and has been quite active in speaking about Northern Ireland. His deputy leader, Tanaiste Simon Coveney, who is also head of Foreign Affairs, has also been active in the North and made a joint statement with Karen Bradley outside Stormont in early January urging a return of the Assembly.
It is inexcusable to allow the Assembly to remain closed. The 90 members are each still being paid a salary of approximately $60,000 a year with British leadership apparently afraid to stop the funding for fear of alienating some of their supporters. Theresa May’s Conservative party remains in power due to its ten DUP members of Parliament who have given her their vote to help their own cause.
Unfortunately, the curmudgeons who run much of the politics in the North are still influential and insist on staying in power. But the times are changing, new leaders have arrived, and hopeful signs are growing.