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Sensemaker: A brewing crisis in Northern Ireland

Tuesday 22 June 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • The US, EU, and Britain imposed new sanctions on Belarus in a coordinated response to the dictatorship’s “repressive practices against its own people”.
  • The World Health Organization said that more than half of the poorer countries in its vaccine-sharing programme, Covax, are short of supplies.
  • Apple Daily, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper, may cease all operations this week after the government froze its assets under Beijing’s national security law.

A brewing crisis in Northern Ireland

It is real progress that political crisis in Northern Ireland can now take faintly comic forms: the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), the leading unionist party, has a leader who resigned last week after a catastrophic tenure that only lasted 21 days. It is now likely that Sir Jeffrey Donaldson is to be their next leader – so far, the only candidate for the position. But a load-bearing strut in the peace process is buckling – and it requires care and attention.

To take a step back: the events in Stormont since late April are deeply convoluted. 

In brief: 

  • Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, resigned in late April. Edwin Poots, her successor, was elected as a hardliner on the “Northern Ireland protocol” (NIP) of the Brexit agreement, which imposes new barriers on trade flowing from Great Britain into Northern Ireland – a feature of the agreement which is hated by unionists. She stayed on, temporarily, as first minister, until resigning on 14 June. 
  • Under the system in Northern Ireland, the government needs one deputy first minister and one first minister from the nationalist and unionist communities respectively. Without one, the other is automatically ejected. Foster’s resignation meant that Sinn Fein, the leading nationalist party, and the DUP would both need to re-nominate people to those posts. This means: a fresh opportunity for negotiations.
  • If the parties could not agree, the rules require a fresh election. Poots wanted to avoid that, since the DUP might be annihilated (in large part because of the NIP), so he agreed to terms set by Westminster for nominating a new first minister – particularly around an “Irish Language Act”, a piece of legislation desired by the nationalists. 
  • This was seen as all too high a price to pay by the DUP, whose parliamentarians voted by 24 votes to 4 not to go ahead with this plan. Poots, however, ignored them. He nominated someone to be first minister – a young fellow called Paul Givan – and was then forced to immediately resign because he had lost control of his party after 21 days.

Few outsiders will mourn the DUP’s trouble. But the principle on which Northern Ireland is built is called “consociationalism” – the idea underpinning power-sharing. But it is not clear that it can cope with a unionist community without a clear leading party to speak for it. If the unionist vote splinters, as it appears to be doing, they might not even have a party in the top two after the next election. 

It is hard to be optimistic about Northern Ireland when unionism is so unhappy with the NIP, which is so difficult to fix. But when unionism lacks political leaders who can speak for the community, or lead them to a deal they can live with, a solution seems impossible.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Cryptocurrencies
I remain unconvinced that cryptocurrencies are a net positive for humanity. Aside from the fact that it is intensely wasteful, it is a new medium of exchange that seems to be largely creating disruption in the criminal enterprise sphere. Letting people send money to other people outside the banking system is, it turns out, a massive opportunity for ransomers and blackmailers. I feel like I write this every week, but every week there’s a new development in this sphere: “monero” is a “privacy coin”, which means that it is more untraceable than bitcoin. The FT (£) reports that monero’s key attribute is anonymity. It was launched with an argument that “bitcoin’s traceability was a ‘critical flaw’,” adding that “privacy and anonymity are the most important aspects of electronic cash”.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Political noise
The House of Commons education select committee claims to have identified that white working class pupils are “neglected”. The issue, I would submit, is not one of neglect. Every policy intervention in schools for at least 15 years has been viewed through the prism of its likely effect on the white working class: the problem is just that it is very difficult to get graduates to go live in run-down towns. The report also posits that the lack of achievement in white working class areas might be because of discussion about white pupils enjoying “white privilege” – which is obviously a lousy attempt by this fairly useless committee to rustle up some interest in their otherwise tedious report, which largely calls for things that educationalists have been saying for two decades. As Kim Johnson, a Labour MP on the committee who disowned the report, put it: “I’m not happy about the whole section on white privilege. The inquiry cherrypicked data. I think they were trying to create a bit of a culture war.”


New things technology, science, engineering

The mega-heist
The BBC has a rather amazing yarn about an attempt by North Korea to steal one billion dollars by hacking the central bank of Bangladesh. And the hacking effort begins as so many of these things do: with a phishing attack. “In January 2015, an innocuous-looking email had been sent to several Bangladesh Bank employees. It came from a job seeker calling himself Rasel Ahlam.” The whole thing is pretty remarkable.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

Social care crisis
One of the biggest failures of the UK state over the past year was in social care, where the virus was allowed to run riot. Social care has, in truth, been in crisis for years – and the austerity drive hammered the service particularly hard. People relying on the state get little support – and the provision is mean enough that people with resources to spend are made to burn through them before receiving public assistance. Johnson promised a plan – and the government was supposed to be holding a “summit” today to go through the options. But the summit (a ‘meeting’ in non-Whitehall English) has been cancelled. This is the topic that holed Theresa May’s 2017 election campaign. Ministers need to increase spending on social care – and that probably means higher taxes. There’s no clever third option. 


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Foreseeable consequences
A group of Tasmanian devils, a rare species of little otter-faced-dog things, was transplanted to a small island in an attempt to secure the species, which is being ravaged by a deadly facial cancer. But the island had been home to a large number of penguins – and, whoever could have foreseen this? – it turns out that the devils have had a whale of a time. The introduction of the devils to the island has had “a catastrophic impact on one or more bird species”, according to BirdLife Tasmania, a local conservation organisation. They have “eliminated” a colony of shearwater, for example. Let’s hope it is worth the price in saving the devils, at least.

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can. 

Chris Cook
@xtophercook

Photographs by Getty Images


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