Northern Irish politics in the era of the Stormont Executive seems to be defined almost exclusively in terms of ‘crisis’. Any little event within our current political establishment precipitates a call to arms. Whether it is parades, paramilitaries or rather more mundane aspects of government, for example passing a budget, politicians on either side of our political divide seem wholly incapable of performing the basic task of governing without plunging the executive into yet another crisis.
Our latest crisis, sparked by the the Chief of the PSNI’s claim that the IRA continues to exist and operate with impunity, is a fine example of why our political system is fundamentally broken. We no longer have political crises; the Executive itself is a crisis, lurching from one to another with such fluency that crisis in Northern Ireland politics in fact means that everything is running as normal.
Peter Robinson, Mike Nesbitt et al are of course correct to be concerned about the murder of former IRA man Kevin McGuigan Sr and the alleged IRA links to the crime. The IRA should remain firmly in the past, where their brand of ‘politics’ rightly belongs. Arrests of senior Sinn Fein figures allegedly involved in the murder, who have since been released, is a further cause for concern.
However by forcing the government to a standstill over what are, it must be remembered, thus far unproved allegations of IRA involvement is not an attempt on the part of the DUP and UUP to resolve some of the issues which continue to plague Northern Ireland, but an exercise in political point scoring. By forcing the power sharing government to the brink with his resignation Mr Robinson has revealed his true nature as someone who wants this government to fail.
Not that this means that Sinn Fein are acting in a manner befitting a party of government. Sinn Fein need to be transparent if any of their members, regardless of their seniority within the party, have any involvement in a terrorist organisation, if they are truly committed to the peace process in Northern Ireland.
This all reveals the dysfunctional nature of our government: not a government in crisis, but a government of crisis. While the focus of our politicians over the last few years has been on flags, parades and paramilitaries, issues of the past, they have failed to address the issues of the present and future. By focusing on these crises, our political establishment ignores the present crisis which is the key driver behind many of our problems.
Northern Ireland remains mired behind the rest of the UK. Our growth has been stunted of course by the Troubles and its consequences. But we are now nearly 16 years on from the Good Friday Agreement. Having a political system that simply prevented violence was enough then. It is not enough now.
Expectations are beginning to rise. Sectarian positions are now supported by a minority of people, while most people’s concerns focus on increasing prosperity. Our politicians have done nothing to support this ambition. Unemployment remains stubbornly high- 6.5%, 1% higher than the UK average. In the poorest areas of the country this figure jumps to nearly 8%.
While these figures are worrying, the statistics of youth unemployment are simply shameful. Youth unemployment has consistently hovered around 20% and even higher. Politicians have done nothing to help alleviate this figure, instead focusing their energies on the other, more convenient crises with a sectarian theme.
Sectarian ‘crises’ serve a purpose for our politicians. Voting patterns in Northern Ireland remain stubbornly tribal, with Protestant and Catholic areas predictably voting for Unionist and Republican parties respectively. This is the intention- to keep people’s focus on obscure, materially irrelevant issues of nationality and religion and away from the real problems which they are incapable of fixing and unwilling to address.
This is the true crisis of Northern Irish politics- our politician’s reticence and inability to fix the problems which really affect everyone in society. We are at risk of creating a vicious cycle of unemployment and sectarian violence for our youth. These are the people of the future- and they are being overruled by concerns and politicians who belong in the past.