The dangers of patronage politics

Interesting thread over on Slugger about the dilemma which the England – Northern Ireland game presented for northern nationalists.

It highlights an intriguing article by Eamonn McCann which is well worth a look:

It’s because some Nationalists are uneasy at their own acceptance of Northern Ireland that they feel they have to make a show of rhetorical opposition to it.

It is because, in practical terms, they have endorsed the legitimacy of the Northern Ireland State that they denounce symbolic representations of it all the more loudly.

The campaign to obliterate Northern Ireland having halted, they turn to battle on who’ll rule the roost within it. Communal hostility replaces the struggle for an all-Ireland. This is a pattern of play which corresponds ever more closely with the political mind-set of the Mad Mullahs of Orangeism.

It’s in this context that militant Nationalism comes to be expressed in a desire to see blue noses ground into the dirt, even by Brits. In fact, especially by Brits.

It is now the main perspective of a growing tendency within Nationalism that a united Ireland can best and maybe only be brought about by England hammering the Prods until they see that there’s no point persisting with, as Robin Livingstone would put it, Our Wee Pravince, and reconcile themselves instead to an all-Ireland arrangement.

I think McCann is right to call Livingstone on his comments, and also to point to the dangers for nationalism of the north’s communal sectarian mode of politics.

In a normal democracy, the public elects leaders who seek to win a mandate, take office and exercise power.

In Northern Ireland, real power is exercised by the British Ministers. Local politicians are reduced to a kind of patron-client relationship, bargaining for the loyalty of their supporters. in effect, mass politics in Northern Ireland have failed to move on from the era of the mob at the palace gates, to the era of democratic citizenship.

This clearly underlies the crisis within unionism, and many would argue that northern nationalism is no more than a parallel version of the same thing.

However, republican ideology traditionally has argued for the unity of Catholic and Protestant against British rule and for an Irish Republic.

That ideal might never have been realised but it has served as a check on nationalist sectarianism. Indeed, one could argue that at some times in Irish history moderate nationalists have been more sectarian than republicans, because they have operated within the patronage system, rather than trying to break it down. A good example of this is the role of the Ancient Order of Hibernians in supporting Joe Devlin in West Belfast in the early part of this century.

The real innovation in the Good Friday Agreement is not in creating a system of sectarian patronage, which already existed, but drawing republicans into it.

McCann’s rebuke is an implicit warning that Sinn Fein could be reduced to a sectarian party competing for patronage with the unionists.

Thre are, however, reasons to think that Sinn Fein will overcome this danger. The most obvious is the party’s growing role in the Republic. The SDLP’s John Hume always avoided intervening in southern politics, because it would endanger the Irish government’s patronage of northern nationalists.

The fact that Sinn Fein is prepared to take this risk is the clearest sign that it is is willing to break the mould of the north’s patronage politics.






2 responses to “The dangers of patronage politics”

  1. Experiments in Living avatar

    in terms of being able to invest in northern ireland, and provide better opertunities for its people, would dublin really be able to do more for N.Ireland then London would ? I think to often thats a question which isnt addressed….

  2. Tom Griffin avatar

    The debate often seems to come down to the financial argument.
    It may well be that London is better placed to throw money at the problem, but in the long run, that isn’t a sustainable basis for economic and social progress.
    What Northern Ireland really needs is functioning democracy, with real decisions being taken by politicians accountable to the electorate. I don’t think that can happen via Westminster, where the north is simply too marginal.

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