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Stormont and Ireland

Submitted by on 26 Jul 2011 – 11:34

StormontDr John Coulter is a columnist with the Irish Daily Star and Tribune magazine.

Home Rule Means Rome Rule! That was the provocative political slogan kicked around the Emerald Isle by Irish Unionists in the summer of 1911.

It was meant to signify that if Britain handed Ireland over to self government, it would result in a Catholic-dominated state which would victimise the Unionist population who were overwhelmingly Protestant.

A century later and with British Isles in the grips of an economic crisis, the same slogan could also be shouted. Only this time, the ‘Rome Rule’ is a reference to the 1957 Treaty of Rome, which established the original European Economic Community, the forerunner of the modern European Union.

Scotland now has a majority Nationalist government with a referendum on independence firmly on the political agenda. While early polls suggest the ruling Scottish National Party will lose that referendum, even a reasonable vote for the pro-independence lobby will inevitably mean increased devolved powers for the Holyrood Parliament.

And that will have a knock-on effect for the Democratic Unionist/Sinn Fein power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland’s Stormont Parliament, as well as the Labour controlled Welsh Assembly.

A major plank in the SNP campaign will be an independent Scotland within the EU. But with the eurozone having to cough up billions in bailouts for Greece, the Republic of Ireland and Portugal for starters, how many other struggling economies within the EU will be prepared to foot the ever-growing bailout bill?

Earlier this year, a new peace process to heal eight centuries of bitterness between Britain and Ireland was unveiled with the Queen’s visit to the Irish Republic. A poignant symbol of this new Anglo-Irish era was Her Majesty laying a wreath at Dublin’s historic Garden of Remembrance, dedicated to those who had died fighting Britain in the cause of Irish freedom.

But the so-called Celtic Tiger is no longer the global example of how a thriving EU capitalist economy should function. The credit crunch and property market bust has left that Southern Irish economy resembling nothing more than a strangled kitten.

Irish politics in the third millennium represents the art of the impossible. Left-wing Republicans and Right-wing Unionists have ensured Northern Ireland’s longest period of stable, devolved administration since the original Stormont Parliament was axed in 1972. Ironically, this year marks the 30th anniversary of the 1981 Republican hunger strikes which brought the island to the brink of a second Irish Civil War.

The lifetime of the present Assembly term will see a series of commemorations for both Republicans and Unionists, which on paper, could place massive strains on the Stormont Parliament. But do not underestimate the influence of the credit crunch.

The Queen’s visit should not be misinterpreted as Britain signalling its desire to finally quit Northern Ireland. Rather, it should be seen that the financially crippled Republic may wish to cement closer political ties with its centuries-old foe.

If the EU bailout is not sufficient to get the Republic on its feet again economically, who could the Southern Irish turn to? Step forward the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association, a body of some 50 plus regional and national parliaments which has been quietly, but steadily growing in global influence since 2000.

Ironically, this year also marks the founding of the CPA in 1911 as the Empire Parliamentary Association with Ireland – then entirely under British rule – as one of its founder members. It became the CPA in 1948.

Talk of the Irish Republic rejoining the Commonwealth and becoming a British dominion again under the Crown might at first be met with hysterical laughter.

That same laughter would have been heard 30 years ago when Bobby Sands, the Provisional IRA hunger striker and Fermanagh and South Tyrone Westminster MP, was dying in the Maze Prison if he and the nine other IRA and INLA members who died had been told that one day his political representatives in Sinn Fein would prop up a partitionist parliament at Stormont. But Sinn Fein did and still does.

And that same laughter would have been heard in 1985 when then DUP leader Ian Paisley senior – now Lord Bannside – issued his notorious ‘Never, Never, Never’ speech following the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Imagine telling Paisley then that one day he would sit in a power-sharing Executive as First Minister with top Provisional Martin McGuinness as his deputy. Paisley did, and his successor Peter Robinson still does.

The 1985 Hillsborough Agreement, which set up the Maryfield Secretariat, gave the Republic its first major saying in Northern Irish affairs since partition in the 1920s. Unionists and Loyalists were too busy protesting against the Agreement to notice that it also provided a window for Unionism to have its biggest role in the running of the Republic since the Protestant Ascendancy was established in Ireland following King William’s victory at the Battle of the Boyne in 1690.

The 1998 Good Friday Agreement and 2006 St Andrews Agreement provided massive influence for cross-border co-operation in Ireland. As well as numerous cross-border bodies, the UK and Ireland enjoy the benefits generated from the British Irish Council, the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, and the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Given this increasing high level of Anglo-Irish development, it is only another small political step for the Republic to establish a link with the CPA.

Britain paying a major slice of the Republic’s multi-billion euro bailout has even sparked rumours Southern Ireland may even leave the eurozone and re-introduce the Irish punt. Again, this would be another small step towards teaming up with Britain and having sterling as a common currency.

However, yet another twist was added to the financial dealings with the recent high profile visit to Britain of Chinese premier Wen Jiabao, who hinted at the communist bastion’s own desire to bail out the euro itself.

Both Britain and Ireland have a rich history of sending Christian missionaries to evangelise China and the Chinese community is regarded as the largest of the ethnic minorities in Ireland north and south.

Fantasy politics as it may seem, but a Southern Ireland back as a British dominion, propped up financially by Chinese-backed euros, may well be the only scenario which guarantees the future of what is now the Republic as a stable entity.

Could history record that this extraordinary process began because an aging Royal decided to go for a walk in Dublin’s Croke Park, the home of the Gaelic Athletic Association and the scene of Ireland’s first Bloody Sunday in November 1920 when British forces shot dead 14 people at the park in reprisal for the IRA killing of 14 agents earlier that day?