The seemingly forced resignation of Sajid Javid as Chancellor, substituting one casino capitalist for another, has understandably owned the front pages when it comes to Boris Johnson’s Cabinet reshuffle; but perhaps the removal of Julian Smith as Northern Ireland Secretary should warrant a little more attention than it has so far received. Having played his part in the restoration of the Executive at Stormont after three years of suspended animation, Smith’s stated Remain stance and conviction that a no-deal Brexit would have an especially disastrous impact on Ulster probably didn’t help, regardless of the key role he appears to have played in helping repair an apparently intractable situation.
However, this Downing Street regime isn’t merely engaged in the traditional power struggle between No.10 and the Treasury (see ‘Yes, Prime Minister’); as the PM demonstrated when expelling 21 rebel MPs from the Conservative Party last year, any divergence from the Cummings script that can be perceived as disloyalty is swiftly dealt with. Julian Smith’s dismissal highlights how a minster’s better-than-expected performance cannot even save them if they express an opinion contrary to the consensus. Indeed, following the favouritism extended to the DUP as a means of shoring up Theresa May’s decimated numbers in 2017, it’s a miracle anyone has managed to bring the opposing factions together again. But perhaps the scant coverage given to this particular dismissal also reflects what a busy, transitional time it’s been on the island of Ireland lately; maybe the appointment of the third Northern Ireland Secretary since 2018 was bound to be overshadowed by other events.
A week which saw Northern Ireland’s first same-sex wedding ceremony take place also saw 52-year-old Paul McIntyre charged with the murder of Lyra McKee, who was shot dead as she observed a riot on the infamous Creggan estate in Derry last April. The province was united in its outrage at the death of the 29-year-old journalist, with the priest conducting her funeral earning a standing ovation as he angrily noted the assembling of Northern Ireland’s political class in its Sunday best at the service; Nationalist and Unionist politicians could be brought together to virtue signal their disgust at a senseless murder, yet couldn’t overcome their differences to revive Stormont, mothballed since the resignation of Martin McGuinness in January 2017.
As a rising star of political journalism and a prominent gay rights campaigner, Lyra McKee had seemed to embody the changing climate in Ulster, highlighting the coming of age of a socially-liberal generation too young to have experienced The Troubles and too focused on the future to be weighed down by inherited sectarian baggage. That Lyra McKee should be cut down by a gunman representing a diminishing number of ideological antiquarians was a cruel blow, yet not without its significance; the overwhelming revulsion at the backward-looking violence of her killer underlined just how much the gun and the bomb have been comprehensively rejected by the Nationalist community bar a tiny handful of dead-end dissident Republicans.
Just as recent social legislation in the Republic has now been belatedly echoed in Ulster, the post-Brexit political frontrunners of the North are finding shared aims in the South. Sinn Féin, for so long tarred by the toxic brush of its terrorism associations, has successfully shed its past reputation and repositioned itself on the political spectrum to the point where it has now become established as the dominant party on the island. The result of last weekend’s General Election in the Republic, hot on the heels of more Nationalist than Unionist MPs being elected to Westminster for the first time ever, saw neither of the two parties that have dominated Irish politics since partition – Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael – gain a majority. The former won 38 seats whilst the latter managed 35. Yet, sandwiched between them with a staggering 37 seats, is Sinn Féin. The party that was traditionally accompanied by the suffix ‘The political wing of the IRA’ has smashed the mould in the Republic after a century, mirroring aspirations and ambitions on both sides of the border.
Although many hinted the new, broader appeal of Sinn Féin – binning the old romantic Republicanism in favour of focusing on left-of-centre social issues (particularly housing) – might secure the party a record showing, the pitiful placing it had suffered during last year’s European elections hardly suggested it would ascend to the position it now holds in Eire with such rapidity. As things stand, neither Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael can contemplate a formal coalition administration with each other, but one of them will have no choice but to enter into such a partnership with a party that won almost a quarter of the vote, a party that was seen as something of a pariah in the Republic not so long ago.
Over the border, Sinn Féin’s detachment from the party’s old allegiances on home soil was further emphasised by the news that Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill and her Sinn Féin colleague Gerry Kelly have received death threats for their appearance at a recruitment event for the Police Service of Northern Ireland. O’Neill’s response to dissident dinosaurs still associating the province’s police force with the RUC or even (more accurately for those spending their days living in the past) the Black and Tans, was succinct. ‘These people have no politics, no strategy and nothing to offer,’ she said. ‘They are at war with the community and are now threatening political representatives…These groups have nothing to offer.’
Those who had directed the armed struggle brought it to an end with the Good Friday Agreement, though this was a bitter pill to swallow for some lower down the pecking order who’d had a good war. Obstinate opponents continuing to cling to ye olde Republican mythology have been very much in a minority ever since; and as the country moves further away from 1998, let alone the savage carnage that typified the three decades before it, dissidents will find little support in their retrogressive attempts to preserve the spirit of 1916 in amber. Even the old-habits-die-hard singing of ‘rebel songs’ has been severely admonished by Sinn Féin’s leaders in Dublin and Belfast, recognising the negative connotations such dirges have and how contradictory they are to the aims of a party with its eyes fixed on the road ahead rather than behind.
The question of Irish Unification is in the air again as a result of all these events, something that was undoubtedly kick-started by Brexit. Standing still and maintaining the status quo is no longer an option. However, Boris Johnson’s fanciful idea to revitalise the province – i.e. building a literal bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland – has been scuppered by the realisation that the proposed route of the 28-mile site would risk disturbing a WWII munitions dump in the middle of the Irish Sea. A more realistic proposition would be a plebiscite on unification, something that – regardless of Sinn Féin’s strong foothold in both North and South – is bound up with the Good Friday Agreement and would still require the British Government playing a substantial part in proceedings. After all, we remain the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. But for how much longer?
© The Editor