Brexit makes Northern Ireland institutions work almost impossible

One thing we know about Julian Smith is that he did something very bad in a previous life. His soul-sapping stint as chief whip in the most chaotic parliament in living memory has been rewarded with the assignment of re-establishing the Northern Ireland institutions.

That challenge has been made virtually impossible by the other two things Smith has sacrificed some life expectancy for: Brexit, and keeping the 10 Democratic Unionist party (DUP) MPs onside in order to deliver Brexit.

There has been a longstanding tendency in Westminster to generally ignore Northern Ireland. Ignoring it until it becomes a problem inside the region is not new, but Northern Ireland is now the central challenge of Brexit, and the failure of Britain’s entire political and media class to properly understand it has evolved from tendency to pathology.

So it is that over the past few days, everyone from the new prime minister to senior political journalists has blithely asserted that the government should focus on getting the Stormont institutions up and running. As most of Irish history bears out, people in Westminster confidently asserting that things “should” happen on the island of Ireland have not necessarily led to those things happening.

At this moment, Brexit and the associated confidence and supply deal with the DUP that keeps the Tories – just about – in power have changed the structural overlay of Northern Irish politics so dramatically as to make getting the institutions back up and running a virtual impossibility.

The parties are still formally talking about going back to work, overseen by the British and Irish governments. They are attempting to do a deal on the latest incarnations of the perennial challenges: identity and culture, specifically recognition of the Irish language. But also on dealing with the legacy of three decades of intercommunal murder. The latter is becoming especially noxious as the warm fuzzy feeling engendered by the novel first decades of peace wears off and is replaced by unprocessed trauma and anger over unpunished evil.

These are not new issues, but they are now much harder to manage. Until the UK’s decision to leave the EU, and to do so in a way that increased the likelihood of a visible border and divergence between the two parts of Ireland, Northern Ireland’s delicate management was predicated on the appearance of honest brokering between the frequently juvenile main parties and the appearance of joint effort between the UK and Irish governments.

Those appearances are now impossible to keep up. The British and Irish governments are not just in a state of tension on some unrelated matter: they are in open diplomatic dispute over how Northern Ireland should be treated after Brexit. Meanwhile, Sinn Féin and the DUP have glaringly different incentives. They always have done, but now they have separate routes other than the devolved institutions to pursue their constitutional preoccupations, thereby reducing their willingness to compromise and restart an imperfect and unloved executive.

Sinn Féin sees Brexit as an opportunity to point to British poor faith – not just to nationalists but to all of remain-voting Northern Ireland. Successive governments have been most helpful in this regard. If one were to design a caricature Tory administration to spook not just Sinn Féiners, but moderate nationalists and unaligned centrists in Northern Ireland, it would be hard to better a Boris Johnson-led one relying on the votes of the DUP’s mostly outre Westminster contingent.

Modern Irish republicanism relies heavily on grievance, both real and imagined. It is unlikely to waste a legitimate one. Added to which, recent Westminster amendments on equal marriage and abortion mean social reforms long blocked by the DUP will become law in late October if Stormont is not restarted. Which is another incentive not to go back quickly.

It is more unclear what the DUP wants. Despite Johnson’s tub-thumping turn at its party conference and his bullish rejection of the backstop, the party probably doesn’t trust him. It knows a no-deal Brexit is an enormous risk for both the Northern Ireland economy and the long-term consent towards the union of moderate nationalists and the growing number of unaligned others, but what can the party do to stop it? It may cling, barnacle-like, to the confidence and supply deal that gives the DUP some claim of influence, but it seems unlikely that Johnson – or, for that matter, Dominic Cummings – will be as solicitous of its views as Theresa May.

Even while rumours emerge of minute progress and possible deals at Stormont, managing Northern Ireland’s competing nationalisms is becoming ever more difficult as British politics itself veers into nationalism. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland – long treated with delicacy and deference to the strictures of the Good Friday agreement – has become a matter of national concern, with even liberal commentators decrying Brexiters for their indifference to “losing” Northern Ireland.

And in darker portents, Tory MPs and tabloids demand amnesty for British soldiers being investigated over Troubles killings, ignorant or indifferent to the effect on Northern Ireland. This summer, banners in support of “Soldier F”, charged with murder on Bloody Sunday, began appearing in loyalist areas of Northern Ireland. Not quite a decade ago – but in a different era – a Conservative prime minister apologised for Bloody Sunday in the House of Commons.

As Smith will find out, Northern Ireland’s unique political ecology requires the most delicate of balances, both internally and between Britain and Ireland. At the minute, it faces what might be called a hostile environment.