It’s not the local politicians who are tearing Northern Ireland apart

When Belfast renamed its small suburban airport after George Best in 2006, it wasn’t just to honor a local hero who was a global footballing icon. Northern Ireland was then enjoying a peace dividend resulting from the reconciliation of its formerly warring communities and an economic boom that unleashed the talents of the people.

A decade and a half later, Northern Ireland is in a quietly unfolding crisis linked to a Conservative Party melodrama that has left the UK in a stricken state. This week, the seventh Tory MP to serve as Northern Ireland Secretary since the 2016 Brexit referendum has some big decisions to announce.

Chris Heaton-Harris is an ambitious former member of the European Parliament and political operative who rode a wave of pro-Brexit headlines in the lower ranks of the UK cabinet. As Northern Ireland secretary, he shut down local government last week and now plans to call a new election. He has a lot of blame to blame on the region’s political leaders who once again failed to put in place a power-sharing government.

Decentralized administration is the keystone of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement (GAA). To turn the corner from 30 years of unrest, as the terrorist campaigns were called, it provided a formula allowing Protestant and Catholic communities of Northern Ireland to govern together.

Breakdowns have been as common as partnerships ever since. There has been no agreed budget for the region for 10 years. The black hole in public spending has widened further and further.

Yet Mr. Heaton-Harris can point to anything he wants. Party differences in Northern Ireland are not the main reason why the chasm is looming now.

London policy is what broke Northern Ireland. As voters face the prospect of a winter election no one wants, much will be said about how time is wasted. However, the most important divisions within the Conservative Party will not appear on the ballot.

The first turning point was the Brexit referendum itself. By withdrawing from the EU, the United Kingdom took with it Northern Ireland. This broke the founding principle of the GFA, which was that anyone in the region could be British or Irish or both. This concept was underpinned by the principle of common citizenship in the EU.

This common identity platform replaced the Anglo-Irish Common Travel Area, which for decades gave British and Irish citizens the right to live and work on the separate islands.

Returning to the common travel space after Brexit was not enough. Barriers to daily trade and connections have been erected or will be required. These imposed choices were reversals of the post-Troubles peace dividend. Unsurprisingly, political and community tensions have started to rise again.

Johnson’s exit deal with the EU contained a Northern Ireland provision that could have given Belfast the best of both worlds

The second turning point was the advent of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister in 2019 and the absolutist Brexit formula he chose to pursue. It was very successful for him initially and he won a general election with a massive parliamentary majority.

Mr Johnson’s exit deal with the EU contained a Northern Ireland provision that could have given Belfast the best of both worlds, arbitrating between the UK and EU economic blocs as the only place that is part of both.

Instead, the Northern Ireland protocol has become for Tory politicians – and their occasional allies in the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) – a poison pill. In their feverish way they now refuse to swallow this and the elixir has become a noxious cloud choking politics in Belfast.

Not content with bringing this ruin, politicians like Mr. Heaton-Harris are pushing.

The third turn is now served. An election that few analysts consider as solving the real problems.

To retain its dominant role in unionist politics, the DUP insists the protocol must be scrapped. The prospect of him resuming his role as the largest party and thus assuming the role of prime minister is slim but a possibility.

On the other hand, the complicated electoral system in Northern Ireland could see voters push the Cross-Community Alliance party into a digital second, creating a new form of deadlock that would spell the end of the system as a whole.

The 25th anniversary of the GFA hangs over the London government like a test of its nerves. US President Joe Biden has hinted at his desire to travel to Belfast to mark the milestone next spring. Officials in London believe that means resolving protocol negotiations with Brussels by the end of January.

Ahead of a messy local election with no confidence on the ground, London would have to orchestrate a series of miraculous moves to achieve this turnaround anyway.

Given his background, the likelihood of Mr. Heaton-Harris succeeding is very hard to see. As I was trying to answer a question last week about what the peace dividend was and why it was symbolized in part by the name of an airport after Manchester United star Best, the moment felt very hollow.

It would be a comfort if someone with the political equivalent of Georgie’s legendary dribbling and striking skills were on the Belfast stage today.

Posted: October 31, 2022, 04:00