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THE TABLET

THE INTERNATIONAL CATHOLIC WEEKLY FOUNDED IN 1840

NORTHERN IRELAND

A FRESH LOOK AT A STALE CONUNDRUM

It is remarkable that a Catholic nationalist now heads the government of Northern Ireland. This is not because of anything that the Sinn Féin vice president Michelle O’Neill might do as First Minister – her powers now are little different to those she held as deputy First Minister two years ago – but because the founding purpose of devolved government was to secure Protestant unionist control of the territory. Northern Ireland’s boundaries were contrived to guarantee this, and until 2022 a unionist party had always been the largest in its parliament with the right to nominate the head of the executive.

Sinn Féin won that year’s election to the Legislative Assembly, so O’Neill is First Minister and the Democratic Unionist Party’s Emma Little-Pengelly her deputy. The nomenclature matters: in previous executives, Sinn Féin preferred to refer to its “Joint First Minister” or “Joint Head of Government”, to make it clear that no DUP First Minister could operate without their nationalist complement. The reversal of roles means much for each party’s amour propre. But whatever their prestige in Stormont, these are still the parties which have dominated, and periodically collapsed, devolved government in Northern Ireland since 2002. If its restoration is to count, something else will have to change.

O’Neill has promised “a new dawn” but also to “serve everyone equally and be a First Minister for all”. Little-Pengelly said that hospitals were her priority rather than constitutional politics. At a venal level, they share an interest in £3.3 billion of funding from Westminster to avert public sector strikes, which was conditional on their return to government. Both women, from families embroiled in the paramilitary politics of the 1980s and 1990s, reflect progress in Northern Ireland’s politics over the past 25 years and the recognition that most people’s day-to-day interests cross sectarian lines. Church and community leaders recognised this long before politicians: Anglicans, Presbyterians, Methodists and Catholics almost instinctively speak as one on social issues, and collectively reminded the restored executive of “the needs of the most vulnerable and marginalised of our fellow citizens”.

On most subjects, nationalists and unionists in Northern Ireland have far more interests in common than they do with the notional “Catholics” and “Protestants” of the Irish Republic and the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is not – as Margaret Thatcher was supposed to have claimed, and the DUP maintains – “as British as Finchley”, but many of the characteristics which make it a peculiar part of the UK also distinguish it from the rest of Ireland. These would not be eliminated by a border poll in favour of Irish unification, even if a Sinn Féin government in Dublin was willing to sponsor the project. History has made it a different place, whatever its eventual political arrangement.

Neither party need surrender its principles to recognise this fact – indeed, if they are sincerely held, both should embrace it. Would a prosperous, distinctive Northern Ireland more closely match the nationalist or unionist vision? Might it be its own thing altogether? These are the questions O’Neill and Little-Pengelly could fruitfully address, rather than the tired constitutional conundrum whose answer they have each decided already.

BOMBING THE HOUTHIS

RECALL THE LONG SHADOW OF HISTORY

Britain has embarked on a bombing campaign against the Houthis in Yemen without even an entry strategy, let alone an exit one. The absence of any clear idea of what they are doing and why, follows from the fact that the British effort is second fiddle to a larger US campaign – or campaigns plural, as it is also bombing targets in Iraq, Syria and Jordan, from which Britain has so far abstained.

ruthless Shia regime which still holds sway today. The revolution led to the siege of the American embassy in Tehran, whose personnel were taken hostage and held for 444 days. As Wikipedia dryly remarks, “The crisis is considered a pivotal episode in the history of Iran–United States relations.”

The Houthis have been harassing merchant shipping using the sea lanes parallel to Yemen’s Red Sea coast, and sometimes the Arabian Sea to the south. Whether or not acting on direct instructions from the Iranians – the Houthis are not saying – their stated aim is to force the rest of the world to pressurise the US and its allies, to put pressure, in turn, on Israel to agree a ceasefire in Gaza. Iran is Israel’s sworn enemy. A ceasefire would allow the survival of Hamas, which like Iran is committed to Israel’s destruction.

There is a framework, therefore, in which the Houthis’ tactics, while obviously illegal, make a sort of sense. But there are many other frameworks which could be applied to this unfolding conflict, not least a historical one which links the names of Iran, Britain and the US in a feud more than half a century old. It pre-dates the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, which overthrew the royalist Pahlavi dynasty backed by Britain and the US, and installed the fundamentalist and

But hardly less pivotal were the events that overthrew the elected government in 1953. Iran was moving slowly towards a democracy under its prime minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh, who wanted Iran to have a greater share of the oil revenue generated by the British-owned Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (now part of BP). Manipulated by the British, via MI6, the CIA organised and funded a coup. The pretext, taking advantage of a feverish climate of anti-communism in the US, was Mosaddegh’s alleged communist sympathies. And a generation of Iranians never forgave MI6 and the CIA. It is all the more unfortunate, therefore, that Britain and the US are the only two countries currently using military force against Iran’s proxy, the Houthis. History casts a long shadow.

British ministers talk about using the RAF, in conjunction with the US, to retaliate against Houthi attacks on shipping, in the name of freedom of navigation. But would things be different if the Houthis were not an ideological satellite of the reviled US enemy? If the aim is not punishment of an Iranian proxy, what is it? And how will anyone know if it has worked?

2 | THE TABLET | 10 FEBRUARY 2024

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