I am generally positive about my return to Northern Ireland, and decision to stay here. Things are much better than when I was growing up and there’s a lot more going on here these days. There’s an active tech scene and the quality of life is pretty decent. That said, this time of year is one that always dampens my optimism. TLDR: This post brings no joy. This is the darkest timeline.
First, we have the usual bonfire issues. I’m all for setting things on fire while having a drink, but when your bonfire is so big it leads to nearby flat residents being evacuated to a youth hostel for the night or you decide that adding 1800 tyres to your bonfire is a great idea, it’s time to question whether you’re celebrating your cultural identity while respecting those around you, or just a clampit (thanks, @Bolster). If you’re starting to displace people from their homes, or releasing lots of noxious fumes that are a risk to your health and that of your local community you need to take a hard look at the message you’re sending out.
Secondly, we have the House of Commons vote on Tuesday to amend the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill to require the government to bring forward legislation to legalise same-sex marriage and abortion in Northern Ireland. On the face of it this is a good thing; both are things the majority of the NI population want legalised and it’s an area of division between us and the rest of the UK (and, for that matter, Ireland). Dig deeper and it doesn’t tell a great story about the Northern Ireland Assembly. The bill is being brought in the first place because (at the time of writing) it’s been 907 days since Northern Ireland had a government. The current deadline for forming an executive is August 25th, or another election must be held. The bill extends this to October 21st, with an option to extend it further to January 13th. That’ll be 3 years since the assembly sat. That’s not what I voted for; I want my elected officials to actually do their jobs - I may not agree with all of their views, but it serves NI much more to have them turning up and making things happen than failing to do so. Especially during this time of uncertainty about borders and financial stability.
It’s also important to note that the amendments only kick in if an executive is not formed by October 21st - if there’s a functioning local government it’s expected to step in and enact the appropriate legislation to bring NI into compliance with its human rights obligations, as determined by the Supreme Court. It’s possible that this will provide some impetus to the DUP to re-form the assembly in NI. Equally it’s possible that it will make it less likely that Sinn Fein will rush to re-form it, as both amendments cover issues they have tried to resolve in the past.
Equally while I’m grateful to Stella Creasy and Conor McGinn for proposing these amendments, it’s a rare example of Westminster appearing to care about Northern Ireland at all. The ‘backstop’ has been bandied about as a political football, with more regard paid to how many points Tory leadership contenders can score off each other than what the real impact will be upon the people in Northern Ireland. It’s the most attention anyone has paid to us since the Good Friday Agreement, but it’s not exactly the right sort of attention.
I don’t know what the answer is. Since the GFA politics in Northern Ireland has mostly just got more polarised rather than us finding common ground. The most recent EU elections returned an Alliance MEP, Naomi Long, for the first time, which is perhaps some sign of a move to non-sectarian politics, but the real test would be what a new Assembly election would look like. I don’t hold out any hope that we’d get a different set of parties in power.
Still, I suppose at least it’s a public holiday today. Here’s hoping the pub is open for lunch.