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Northern Ireland now Belgium on the Bann

(Newton Emerson, Irish News)

Ian Paisley made a telling slip in the House of Commons on Monday when he referred to "our country", before correcting himself to "our little province of this country".

Nobody else in the chamber batted an eyelid, although a Scottish MP would have needed the Sarjeant at Arms at his elbow to survive a similar mistake.

This is hardly the first time that Ian Paisley's instinctive Ulster nationalism has broken free from his conflicted subconscious. There has long been a strong streak of self-rule in unionism and Paisley's preferred version lies right on its outermost fringes. From the 'Tara's lost tribe of Israel' lunacy in the 1960s, through to the threatened declaration of independence by the Ulster Workers Council in the 1970s and the independence movement which emerged from Ulster Resistance in the 1980s, the DUP leader has always been a presence lurking just behind the stage. His consistent hostility towards the British government, combined with an equally consistent ambivalence towards the wider community of the United Kingdom, underscores the fact that Ian Paisley is barely a unionist at all. He is still British, of course. But it is a distinctively Irish form of Britishness that can only find its home in a distinctively British part of Ireland. So Northern Ireland is Ian Paisley's country. The Union merely serves for now to prop it up.

If Sinn Féin joins a Stormont executive under Ian Paisley – or under Peter "devolutionist" Robinson, who has an Ulster nationalist backstage history of his own – republicans could find it surprisingly easy to prise DUP unionists away from the Union. The catch is that they can only do so by making Northern Ireland succeed as a distinct political entity. There is ample evidence in the St Andrews document that both sides are thinking along these lines. Not one change the DUP requested to the Good Friday Agreement can be even remotely described as integrationist. Instead, the DUP asked for unique regional tax rates, executive scrutiny of north-south and east-west bodies and more funding for Ulster-Scots. This amounts to economic, political and pseudo-ethnic separatism.

Sinn Féin asked for a peace dividend, devolution of policing and justice powers and an Irish language act.

This amounts to pretty much the same. Both parties asked for procedural changes at Stormont that will copper-fasten purely tribal voting and both appear to trust each other with a veto over council reorganisation. This is a particularly revealing insight into how Sinn Féin and the DUP envisage making 'the statelet' work.

There has been regular speculation in recent years over the prospect of Northern Ireland becoming another Yugoslavia or another Sicily. In fact, our fate may be to become another Belgium.

That equally absurd and unhappy little country comprises two hostile peoples in two contiguous ethnic-majority laagers sharing an uneasily neutral capital city.

It is held together by EU money and the resentful realisation that although neither half can stand alone, neither France nor Holland want their halves of it back.

A complex system of compulsory community representation backed by courts of arbitration keeps sectarian politics at bay. This is where a deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP could take us. Three council areas west of the Bann will be 'greened', three east of the Bann will become the land of the Ulster-Scots, and Belfast will be our Brussels. Like the Belgians, we will lead completely separate cultural lives within our little cultural cantons, while local and regional power-sharing arrangements keep sectarian politics at bay.

Unlike the Belgians we will at least still speak the same language, although Sinn Féin and the DUP's divisive linguistic posturing suggests that they find this a matter of some regret.

Northern Ireland will never become an independent sovereign state – although if it did join the United Nations it would be more populous than 51 other members.

But there are also no foreseeable circumstances under which it can ever be fully integrated into the United Kingdom, fully integrated into a united Ireland or successfully repartitioned between the two.

Hence we are locked in a Belgian limbo, unable to make our side of the Bann less 'foreign' without making the other side more 'foreign' and unable to secure enough common ground on either side to build a bridge over the Bann and hold the crossing open. It is an ugly prospect but it is a prospect that majorities in both communities have clearly voted for, whether they realised it or not.

Unionist or nationalist – our Waterloo will end in a draw.

October 20, 2006
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This article appeared first in the October 19, 2006 edition of the Irish News.


This article appears thanks to the Irish News. Subscribe to the Irish News



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