In Northern Ireland, Even Economic Policy Is Divided Along Sectarian Lines

No longer do soldiers patrol the streets of Northern Ireland. Those days are gone. Yet, despite the Good Friday Agreement, recent attempts to make progress on key issues have only resulted only in political gridlock.

Consider the past. In late 2012 civil unrest broke out among Protestant communities following Belfast City Council’s decision to fly the Union flag only on designated days. Clearly, serious issues from Northern Ireland’s past remained unresolved. This spurred a high-profile attempt, chaired by American diplomat Richard Haass, to address these.

As cross-party agreement on Haass’s proposals approached, the court case against former IRA-member John Downey made headlines. Downey, who was accused of the 1982 Hyde Park bombing, revealed a Government-sanctioned administrative process by which hundreds of on-the-run Republicans implicated in terrorism could ask whether they faced arrest if they returned to the UK. Cross-party agreement swiftly fell apart. The unresolved issues of the past were, yet again, left unresolved.

To be sure, Northern Ireland also suffers from non-sectarian problems. A swollen public sector, the highest public spending per-person in the UK and a huge budget deficit are all dampening the nation’s economic prospects. This is not helped by the fact that Northern Ireland must levy the British corporation-tax rate of 20% that makes it an unattractive place to invest in comparison with the Irish Republic’s rate of 12.5%. Further, Northern Ireland has the UK’s highest unemployment rate, at 7.2%.

In December 2014 a solution to such problems was unveiled, entitled the Stormont House Agreement. The document focused as closely on enacting fiscal and welfare reform as it did on dealing with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s violent past. The success of the one was effectively tied to the other. Given the problems Northern Ireland suffers today, this surely seemed like a neat solution to both.

It wasn’t. Though fiscal and welfare reform is as important for Northern Ireland as dealing with the past, in making their success interdependent, the Stormont House Agreement failed to grasp the dynamics of Northern Irish politics.

Catholic parties are economically left-wing and the Protestant parties are economically right-wing

While the four main parties in Northern Ireland are divided primarily along religious lines, they are also strongly divided between left and right on economic issues. The rub is that the Catholic parties are economically left-wing and the Protestant parties are economically right-wing. Unsurprisingly, in March of this year, progress on the Agreement was stymied when Sinn Féin blocked welfare reform, claiming that the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) had broken promises to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

What’s more, the Stormont House Agreement assumes that cross-party determination to deal with the past is a big enough incentive to gain a settlement on the much more contentious issue of fiscal and welfare reform.

This ploy was misjudged. The economic impasse revealed that the only thing both sides agree on is that the past can be dealt with another day. After all, it is an issue with huge political mileage – one which Northern Ireland’s sectarian political parties are evidently not yet willing to give up.

If a long-term settlement on either issue is to be achieved, deeper change is needed. Focus must first be put on strengthening communal ties within and between Catholics and Protestants. In a nation where so-called ‘peace walls’ divide communities, this means that trust should be built. One place to begin is the education system, which is still hugely divided. More cross-religious integration in schools would foster the will for grassroots change in future.

Economic views must also be decoupled from religion. Chances are slim that an economically right-wing Catholic would vote for the DUP or that an economically left-wing Protestant would vote for Sinn Féin. This fails to provide citizens with a democratic means of addressing issues such as unemployment and poverty which some argue play a larger role in perpetuating division than religion. Further, since this also provides Catholic and Protestant parties with an almost-guaranteed electorate, little incentive is left for politicians to make too many compromises when there are few votes to be lost.

This is a grim situation. Westminster and Dublin are calling for the freshly elected Northern Irish party leaders to review the Stormont House Agreement as soon as possible. But short of huge structural change, Northern Ireland looks doomed to political gridlock once again. 

More about the author

About the author

As well as a regular contributor on politics for Disclaimer, Liam has written for the New Statesman, Prospect Magazine, the Huffington Post, When Saturday Comes and the Sunday Express.

He is currently back at school completing an MA at the Department of War Studies at King’s College, London.

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