In case you missed it, Theresa May indicated almost complete contempt for the people of Northern Ireland and their interests when she decided on her snap election for June 8th. Orthodox analysis of her decision features the weakness of Corbyn-led Labour, the need to free herself from the grip of Tory Eurosceptic wild men (the MPs described by John Major as “bastards”) and the possibility that Labour would find a new, electable leader in the aftermath of a poor showing in the UK local elections in May.
Although Tory politicians like to parade their great affection for the Union, their actions have brought that Union to its most parlous state in centuries.
With no power-sharing executive in the North, and no Assembly there either, Northern Ireland is politically decapitated in the run up to the General Election in June. Voting pacts on each side of the Orange-Green divide will quite likely transform the “first past the post” General Election into a traditional sectarian headcount. One of the great ironies of the Sinn Féin abstention policy is that any chance of the non-Unionist voters in Northern Ireland having any say (or perhaps even a vital swing) in Westminster deliberations on the future of Northern Ireland and its future relationship with the Republic is reduced by every Sinn Féin success in the General Election.
While Nicola Sturgeon can speak for Scotland and the SNP can use its votes in Scotland’s interests, Sinn Fein is struck dumb in political terms by its abstentionist policy, as are all those elect Sinn Féin candidates.
Theresa May put little or no value on reinstating power-sharing in Northern Ireland when she performed a spectacular U-turn to seek a June election. There is no prospect now of the DUP and Sinn Féin resolving the slightly irrelevant disputes that divide them until the autumn. This means that the “cash for ash” affair, leapt on by Adams as a pretext to end power-sharing, has become the catalyst for a process of marginalising the interests of Northern Ireland (and consequently the whole of Ireland) in the political calculus of the Westminster Establishment.
If, as appears likely, the current impasse between the DUP and Sinn Fein is not resolved this side of the Marching Season, the status of Northern Ireland as an irrelevant backwater in the United Kingdom is yet again underlined. Just as the Unionists were left alone to misrule that backwater for a half century from 1922 to 1972, on condition that it did not trouble the UK as a whole, the real Tory contempt for Norther Ireland is underlined by their seeming indifference to the crisis that they have created for its people by pursuing Brexit and leaving the European Union.
The ridiculous thing about Tory backwoodsmen MPs is that their rhetoric about the unity of the United Kingdom is in direct proportion to their support for a hard Brexit. Very few of the “hard Brexiteers” really give a fig for the interests and prosperity of the people of Northern Ireland or even for the long-term interests of unionist farmers and milk producers.
Any general election campaign lasting six to seven weeks is fraught with risk for early favourites. So much can change in the mood of the electorate, including the onset of monumental electoral fatigue. While it does not now appear that anything can happen to put Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street, that does not mean that the Tories’ massive opinion poll lead might not fall victim to a general feeling of anger and resentment against the ruling establishment.
In real terms, a huge number of English households’ incomes have declined in the last ten years. For millions of English voters north of the line from the Severn to the Wash, there is little or no light at the end of the tunnel of Tory austerity.
Balancing the British budget by sustained lopping of public expenditure offers practically nothing to huge swathes of English society who watch with their noses pressed against a freezing window the grotesque process whereby the rich and the fat cats grow wealthier while they themselves must go without.
If Theresa May can carry off an electoral landslide in spite of the same anti-establishment dissatisfaction that led to Brexit, she will be lucky. The old adage that “a referendum is a process by which you get an answer you didn’t expect to a question you didn’t ask” may yet apply to a general election which the Tories seek to convert into a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn.
UKIP, in my view, is finished, its purpose served. Its voters were never pro-establishment; they are natural voices of opposition. The Lib-Dems could easily out-perform present expectations on foot of favourable local election results in May. The Labour vote may, despite Corbyn, prove more resilient over the next six weeks than Tory head office has calculated. It is not entirely impossible that Theresa May might simply end up roughly where she is, if not worse off.
If Theresa May fails to greatly increase the number of Tory MPs on June 8th, she may in retrospect turn out to have weakened her own position and to have heated up the conflict on Europe within the Tory party.
In any event, a Tory landslide could have two possible outcomes; a strengthened Prime Minister with enough support to carry a very soft Brexit through the House of Commons, or else a “tails up” Tory party in which the hard Brexiteer “bastards” are more numerous and more demanding and less tolerant of any compromise with the EU.
It is only when you consider the studied indifference of the Tories towards Northern Ireland and the silliness of Sinn Féin having brought down power-sharing on the “cash for ash” issue (which they did with full, conscious knowledge of the impending Brexit crisis) that the enormity of the Sinn Féin miscalculation becomes apparent.
If they continue with their intransigence and bring about a new set of Assembly elections in the autumn, Sinn Féin may increase their Assembly seats by two or three but may well find that the DUP increase their share of the seats by four or five. Northern politics would have become more polarised and more irrelevant after this wasted year of playing “political chicken”.
Lastly, when I wrote here last week about Sinn Féin and Scappaticci, I did not dwell on the reasons why he has escaped the normal IRA retribution for suspected informers. Gerry Moriarty in the Irish Times posed that question and suggested that killing Scappaticci might, by itself, simply draw attention to the extent of informer penetration in the pre-ceasefire IRA.
A slightly different explanation is that Scappaticci has made himself untouchable by taking out “an insurance policy” in the form of a detailed account of the real involvement of the current Sinn Féin leadership in the murder and terror in the years of “armed struggle”, to be released if anything happened to him.
That might better explain the deafening silence of the “Republican movement” in relation to Scappaticci. Just a thought.