Talks on a deal to get the Northern Ireland assembly up and running again are due to start next month. Not everyone expects a positive outcome.
Thinktank Democratic Dialogue suggested last week that if the talks fail London and Dublin will put in place a bilateral arrangement to govern the north between themselves. It would not be the kind of joint authority that nationalists have often advocated but nor would it be the kind of direct rule that unionists would be comfortable with.
This kind of plan B might well be necessary as a fall back position to encourage Ian Paisley’s DUP to make the leap towards power-sharing with Sinn Féin.
Some nationalists might well be tempted to go further and opt for bilateral rule as the most attractive option.
After all, a deal with the DUP that sticks will mean that nationalists have to try and make the Northern Ireland state work, after decades in which the reality of a ‘failed political entity’ was one of their strongest arguments.
Republicans in particular have long regarded the downfall of the old Stormont Parliament in 1972 as one of their most concrete achievements. It is not surprising therefore that some are still unhappy with the idea of Sinn Féin ministers sitting in the new Stormont.
Nevertheless, the great majority of nationalists and republicans are if anything more likely to support devolution than unionists and, arguably, rightly so.
After all, the advent of direct rule may have reduced discrimination against nationalists, but in principle it was no more an advance for republicanism than the arrival of British troops in 1969.
Both events might have been seen at the time as signs of growing instability that foreshadowed British withdrawal. In fact that instability only deepened Britain’s role.
The British government was able to assume the role of mediator between and patron of the two communities in the north.
This patronage relationship is the essence of unionism, but that does not mean it has only been applied to unionists. When nationalists, often with good reason, urge the British to pressure or persuade unionists, they are competing for British patronage. The extreme of this tendency is the view sometimes expressed that a united Ireland will be made economically viable by a continued subvention from the UK Treasury.
Patronage is the only form that British rule in Ireland has ever assumed because no part of Ireland has ever really been integrated into British democracy. As soon as the United Kingdom came close to universal suffrage, at the 1918 election, most of Ireland voted itself out.
The north remained, but succeeded neither in integrating into the British political system or establishing a functioning democracy of its own.
In the south, even after independence, the impact of patronage politics persisted for a long time. This fact is taken up by a new book by UCD Professor Tom Garvin, entitled Preventing the Future: Why was Ireland so poor for so long?
Garvin argues that much of the conservatism associated with De Valera’s Ireland was actually the product of institutions which originated under British rule. It was the British who conceded a dominant social role for the Catholic Church and a land settlement which emphasised uneconomic small farms.
This picture, of a society where chronic political dissent is bought off through official patronage, designed to secure social peace rather than economic growth, surely has an undeniable resonance with post-Troubles Northern Ireland.
The alternatives for the north, ultimately are British dependency or Irish democracy. Ireland cannot replicate British patronage, but that patronage is not ultimately a good thing for the north’s economy or its democracy.
The Republic can be a model for and ultimately a partner in a functioning economic and political system in a way Britain cannot.
What has to happen for a united Ireland to be viable? There has to be some kind of rapprochement between the two communities, one that doesn’t rely on the offices of the British. The influence of the British security apparatus has to be minimised. There has to be a strong enough economy to minimise the need for outside subvention.
Devolution can help to deliver all these things. For that reason a functioning Stormont need not be seen as strengthening British rule.
The truth is that anything that strengthens the north’s democracy is a step towards the Republic, while anything that perpetuates dependency perpetuates the Union.
[This article originally appeared in the Irish World]