I am so at home in Dublin, more than any other city, that I feel it has always been familiar to me. It took me years to see through its soft charm to its bitter prickly kernel - which I quite like too.

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End Games

Liam Kennedy
Three decades ago two eminent political scientists, John McGarry and Brendan O’Leary, gave as their opinion that power-sharing or consociation offered the best available framework for a settlement of the Northern Ireland conflict. Their work, optimistically titled The Future of Northern Ireland (1990), was written in the dark days of the 1980s. An IRA ceasefire, still less something like the Good Friday Agreement, was barely conceivable back then. Yet both came to pass in the 1990s. For once it was historically-minded social scientists rather than economists who performed well in the forecasting stakes. To many of us the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement of 1998 seemed to usher in a new era of peaceful politics in which power-sharing would prevail and the ultimate constitutional status of Northern Ireland would be left as an open, and perhaps not particularly pressing, problem. The opening section of the agreement called for a fresh start in which “we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all”. The prescience of the authors seemed all but confirmed. Looking to the longer term, they suggested “if consociation succeeds, it becomes dispensable; that is consociational democracy can facilitate a transition to ‘normal’ democratic competition, in which sectarian or ethnic divisions are diminished or transcended”. Has that promise stood the test of time? There is no doubt Northern Ireland is in an infinitely better place than it was during the shut-down, shot-up days of the Troubles. These gains should not be lightly passed over. But there is the paradox that despite the implementation of power-sharing (for periods) and a relative absence of political violence, the unionist and nationalist blocs seem as far apart as ever. Sinn Féin dominates the nationalist landscape; the DUP dominates unionist representation at Stormont and Westminster. Not only is there little sign of the withering of ethnic identities, at least as reflected in voting patterns, but some argue that people are more polarised than ever before. The fact that the Stormont administration fell apart and was self-suspended for three years between 2017 and 2020 is hardly reassuring. But had we a right to expect otherwise in view of the deep history of conflict? After all, it seems unrealistic to expect that a republican movement that fought for three decades for a “united” Ireland, thousands of whose members passed through the prison…

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