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With Sinn Féin's eyes on the South and Unionists lurching right, the North is paralysed

(Suzanne Breen, Irish Mail on Sunday)

Twenty years after the IRA ceasefire, there will be no street celebrations or rallies to mark the anniversary of the ending of the conflict.

The contrast between that giddy day when crowds gathered in West Belfast with champagne and carnations to greet the Provisionals' historic announcement, and the glum reality of today, couldn't be greater.

The best that can be said of the North is that people are no longer being killed. There is nothing else in which we can take pride. Political, social and economic progress has been zero.

When our politicians hold themselves up as role models for conflict resolution on the world stage, they invite only ridicule. Yes, the war is over but, a staggering two decades on, people still haven't made peace at either grassroots or government level.

Squabbling at Stormont is a daily sport. Believe Sinn Féin propaganda and there's no challenge the party hasn't or won't meet for the sake of the peace process.

Yet the Stormont administration teeters on the brink of collapse and it's a crisis largely of Sinn Féin's making. It is sacrificing the North's well-being on the altar of Southern political expediency.

The party's refusal to implement welfare reform will cost the Executive £100 million in penalties from the British government this year. That means drastic cutbacks.

The man who was the North's most senior NHS official, John Compton, came out of retirement to warn that as a result of the money Stormont is losing, the safety of hospital patients could be put at risk. Other vital public services are in jeopardy.

Sinn Féin's position on welfare reform isn't that of a principled party of the left. This is opposition for the optics only. Martin McGuinness actually reached a deal with Peter Robinson on welfare reform which would have averted the crisis.

Sources say Gerry Adams then stepped in to veto it. The orders from Dublin were that Belfast couldn't compromise on the issue before a Dáil election. For Sinn Féin to implement cuts in the North, while opposing austerity measures in the South and savaging the Labour Party's record, would look hypocritical.

Throwing the North to the wolves has no political repercussions for the party. Here, it is electorally unassailable. Sinn Féin polls almost twice as many votes as the SDLP.

With the nationalist North sewn up, the South has long been the target of Sinn Féin's electoral ambitions and the prospect of being in government in 2016, the centenary of the Easter Rising, would be the jewel in the crown.

There is a growing belief that Sinn Féin's refusal to compromise on welfare reform will bring down Stormont and lead to the re-introduction of direct rule from Westminster.

But the political paralysis in the North is far from being Sinn Féin's fault alone. Long gone are the days of the 'Chuckle Brothers' when the Rev Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness impressed the world with their famous friendship.

Peter Robinson and McGuinness barely exchange a civil word nowadays. There has been a huge hardening in the DUP's attitude. Unionists just won't do business with Sinn Féin.

The party has suffered a series of humiliating defeats. It hasn't been able to deliver the peace centre at the site of the former Maze prison or an Irish Language Act.

Stormont passed a bill preventing ex-prisoners guilty of serious offences from becoming special advisers to government ministers. It was a massive slap in the face for Sinn Féin.

The hardening of the DUP's attitude follows the significant swing to the right of unionist grassroots who are angry over restrictions on flying the Union flag from council buildings and what they see as the 'greening' of the Northern state.

The 'on the runs scandal', where it emerged that ex-IRA members had literally got away with murder, also caused fury. The DUP vote fell 4% in May's council elections with the hardline Traditional Unionist Voice and other loyalist parties making gains.

The DUP is just as firmly focussed on prospering at the polls as Sinn Féin. If stopping the electoral slippage means stalemate at Stormont, the party's attitude is 'so be it'.

Unionists and nationalists are as polarised at grassroots level as they are in government. In those heady post-ceasefire days, Van Morrison's 'Days Like This' became the unofficial anthem of the peace process.

The song was the backdrop to Northern Ireland Office advertisements showing young lovers and happy children playing across the sectarian divide.

That vision never came to pass. Around 95% of children still go to religiously segregated schools and less than 10% of marriages are between Catholics and Protestants.

The reality of love across the divide can be all too obvious. Dee Sturgeon, a Catholic, set up home with his Protestant girlfriend in the loyalist Ballygomartin area of West Belfast.

Last weekend, a 10-strong UDA gang wielding hatchets and iron bars burst into the house. In a frenzied attack in front of his girlfriend and their 11-week-old baby, the thugs broke Sturgeon's arm and almost severed a finger. "You will never be back here again, you dirty Fenian b*****d," they shouted.

In both republican and loyalist areas, Van Morrison's unofficial peace anthem never caught on. The old familiar songs of the past are as popular as ever. Kildare band 'The Druids' played at the Ardoyne Fleadh in North Belfast last weekend.

To rapturous cheering from the 5,000 strong crowd, they introduced the song, 'Go on home British soldiers' with the words: "It's about time they got all their Orange comrades together, it's about time they loaded up the bus, it's about time they all f****ed back to England."

On the other side of the divide, Orange bands belt out the 'Famine Song' with gusto. And now anybody challenging unionist sectarianism – even moderate Alliance politicians – find their photographs joining the Pope and the Provos at the top of Eleventh night bonfires.

Sporadic paramilitary violence remains. Last week, two loyalists survived a UDA murder bid in a turf war between feuding factions in North Belfast. Dissident republicans also shot a 24-year-old man in the legs in a punishment attack just yards from the entrance of the Ardoyne Fleadh.

But a return to all-out conflict isn't on the cards. The British intelligence services are firmly in control of loyalist paramilitary groups. After the 2009 gun attack on the British Army base at Massereene in which two soldiers were killed, dissident republicans appeared to be about to embark upon a serious campaign.

That has proved beyond them. Their capacity is currently restricted to sending letter bombs, planting mainly hoax devices, and other low-level activity. The intelligence services have had huge success with 50 dissident republican prisoners currently in Maghaberry jail.

For ordinary people, the greatest disappointment since 1994 has been the lack of economic progress. Too few jobs have been created and those that have come are overwhelmingly low-paid, low-status ones in call centres and the service industry.

The North still has the lowest productivity, lowest living standards, lowest wages and largest proportion of people with no qualifications in the UK. The peace process has long lost its power to inspire. Nobody dares to hope for a better future nowadays. The overwhelming feeling is that this could well be as good as it gets.

September 2, 2014

This article appeared in the August 31, 2014 edition of the Irish Mail on Sunday.

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