It’s the next 100 days that matter for Northern Ireland

Well, it’s been 100 days since Donald Trump took office (thankfully, we’re still here). In Northern Ireland, it’s been 105 days that we’ve been without a government at Stormont.

Let’s not trade places with our American friends. We haven’t crossed that Rubicon just yet. There are, however, basic similarities between Mr Trump’s chaotic White House and Northern Ireland’s political vacuum over the last three months.

Once an election is over, reality starts to sink in.

The campaign rhetoric was the easy part. Build a wall. Repeal Obamacare. Ban Muslims. Many Americans were fired up by these simple promises; they found such ‘political incorrectness’ refreshing.

As Mr Trump has discovered, governing is not the same as campaigning. Governing, actually, involves a lot more work, focus and nuance. That’s why funding for the border wall with Mexico lies in doubt, the attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare failed spectacularly, and the infamous travel ban was struck down by the courts.

Ahead of our Assembly election on 2 March, political parties here used rhetoric that served them well on the campaign trail, but have made it much, much harder to form a new government.

DUP leader Arlene Foster memorably vowed not to feed the crocodile, taken as a clear signal that her party would stand firm against any proposal to implement an Irish Language Act.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill warned that there could be “no return to the status quo.” This meant that Arlene Foster could not be renominated as First Minister, and the institutions must be run on the basis of “equality, respect and integrity.”

After nearly two months of post-election deadlock, and now in an awkward prelude to another election on 8 June, the two main parties are deciding if and how they should reposition themselves.

This week Arlene Foster had an “uplifting” meeting with Irish language students in Newry. In an attempt to soften her previous position, she made the effort to thank her hosts: “go raibh maith agat.” This was certainly a respectful gesture.

The ball is back in Sinn Féin’s court. Its commitment to “equality, respect and integrity” can be used in two ways. The sheer vagueness allows it to cover anything and everything. If it’s minimally interpreted, then anything can be sold as different to the status quo. If it’s maximally interpreted, then the bar can be raised endlessly higher.

Talks are on hold until after the general election, and they have a ‘deadline’ of 29 June to reach a deal on forming a new government.

Will they succeed? It all comes down to this: do they want to campaign or do they want to govern?

If they choose to campaign, then in Northern Ireland we are left with a zombie government (I’ve already written about this here). It is only if they choose to govern that some of our biggest problems can even start being tackled.

Going by interviews conducted in the lead up Donald Trump’s 100th day in office, it already sounds like he misses his old life. “I thought it would be easier” being president, he said this week. But he opted for a new life the minute he became a candidate for political office.

His predecessor, John F Kennedy, once said, “We choose to go to the moon … and do the other things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard.”

Candidates chose to put themselves forward to be elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly in March. Voters gave parties a mandate to govern. If politicians are afraid to govern, they might have considered a different career route in the first place – if they simply want to do something easy.

So, which option will they choose: the ease of endless campaigning or the difficulty of governing? It won’t take another 100 days to find out.

 

About Jamie Pow

Jamie is Deputy Editor of Northern Slant and a PhD student at the Senator George J Mitchell Institute for Global Peace, Security and Justice at Queen's University Belfast. His interests include elections, peace building, and making democracy work better. All views expressed are his own, not those of the University.


Also published on Medium.