This week, Northern Ireland votes for its representatives, with the deadline looming for a reconstituted assembly. Politicians agree on one thing – that the approaching devolved government will be a battle a day. Is there any cause to look beyond fatalism and hold fast to the ‘audacity of hope’?
A deadline approaches for the reformation of a National Assembly in Northern Ireland. The timescale of this particular story can be told as events in the period since the cessation of the operations of the formal Assembly, when its rival parties became mired in the repercussions of a spying scandal.
This week, as voting begins, politicians there have stated that the one thing they can agree about is that even if the Assembly is formed, it would involve a battle a day. These were the pessimistic words recently of Peter Robinson, deputy to Dr Ian Paisley of the majority Democratic Unionist Party (DUP).
The Good Friday agreement
Widening the story, we might consider the period since the time of the peace-seeking Good Friday agreement of 1988, and beyond that to “the troubles” of the two decades previously which the agreement attempted to put out of reach
At its core, the agreement aimed to achieve a constitutional future for Northern Ireland determined by the majority vote of its citizens, through the commitment by all parties to “exclusively peaceful and democratic means”. The achievement of an equitable democratic way of life for all citizens, equitably achieved has progressed in a series of zig-zag moves on the ground. At present, the zigging is towards the re-formation of a constitutional assembly for Northern Ireland, lost in an earlier zag.
A historical digression
Students of history will be all too aware of the centuries-long struggles between the westernmost islands off the European mainland. The history has been one of invasions, military campaigns, rebellions in the name of imperial conquests, religious and nationalistic freedoms. In earlier days this was the history of Roman and Norman colonizers from the East, and Viking adventurers from the North. The general movement was to drive indigenous tribes westward. The westernmost of the islands, Eire, or Ireland, suffered particularly in the process.
To its east, the largest of Europe’s offshore islands, Britannia, established an uneasy truce among its tribes, but in Ireland the ancient battles remain unresolved. The northern province of Ulster or Northern Ireland after a complex history, remains an integral part of the United Kingdom. Indeed, the rationale of its majority political parties is the primacy of the Union. However, equally vehemently, a minority within Northern Ireland subscribe to the dream of a united republic of Ireland. One well-known simplification is along religious lines. In the vocabulary of Northern Ireland politics, nationalists and republicans are variants of catholic opposition to the dominant and protestant Unionist parties.
The zigs and zags towards peace
Outsiders looking in (such as myself) can point to the progress in the quality of daily life since the pre-agreement days of bombings, bloodshed, hunger-strikers, military and para-military conflicts. Recently there has been increasing willingness by the Irish and British parliamentary leaders to seek a power-sharing arrangement in Northern Ireland, and generally to implement the Good Friday Agreement.
The political process internally has been marked by remarkable twists and turns. One critical aspect is the status of Sinn Fein, which has emerged as the party with the majority of seats representing the republican voice in the Assembly, as the military activities of the IRA have diminished. Sinn Fein leaders Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have appeared to be restricted in what they can achieve. They have to be aware of opposition coming from within the republican movement where many remain unconvinced by any any deal that has the blessing of the British Government (arguably even one approved of by the Irish Government).
Furthermore, the aging but implacable leader of the DUP, Dr Ian Paisley, remains suspicious of fudges, and has steadfastly opposed the Good Friday Agreement. Yet it now falls to Dr Paisley and Sinn fein to find a way forward . He has vehemently insisted that Sinn Fein remains indistinguishable from what he sees as the continuing terrorist threat of the IRA. Now some ‘wriggle-room’ has to be found in a situation which requires him to deal with other leaders with whom he has literally refused to sit down. He exemplifies the characteristics of a fundamentalist leader who is deeply suspicious of fudges and compromises.
Beyond Fatalism: The Audacity of Hope
The peace process, before and since then, has remained a matter of immense importance to those communities directly influenced. The key question is ‘can anything be done, by anyone, to make an improvement to the prospects of the communities involved?’.
The progress of Sinn Fein at the expense of the SDLP, and that of DUP over the Ulster Unionists since the signing of the agreement, indicates that voters have moved to what might be seen as polarized positions, leaving a weakness in the political centre ground. If so, the process is quite the opposite to what is happening on mainland Britain, as New Labour, and then Cameron’s New Conservatives moved to the centre ground with increasing tendency for cross-dressing (stealing each others political clothes).
I began this post with the one point stated as uniting the parties recently, namely that any Assembly would be temporary, and would involve constant battles. This seems pretty much business as usual.
The leaders remain unable to achieve some transformational step that will win widespread support. More obviously than in many political struggles, the opposition to change comes from within their respective constituencies. Voters are choosing the leaders they prefer (I hesitate to use my more repeated term, the leaders they deserve).
I found myself turning to Barack Obama and his striking testamental expression of the audacity of hope. When he was asked recently whether it were possible to work with people across ideological lines, this was his reply:
It is possible. There are a lot of well-meaning people in both political parties. Unfortunately, the political culture tends to emphasize conflict, the media emphasizes conflict, and the structure of our campaigns rewards the negative… When you focus on solving problems instead of scoring political points, and emphasize common sense over ideology, you’d be surprised what can be accomplished. It also helps if you’re willing to give other people credit – something politicians have a hard time doing sometimes.
Perhaps the leaders will continue their zig-zagging way towards a peaceful and stable future in Northern Ireland. We should applaud them when, as suggested by Obama, they reduce the point-scoring and increase the efforts at problem-solving. When more and more people become dissatisfied with politicians who seem to place ideology over common sense, and are unable to see the merits in any suggestion from anyone of an opposing view. And eventually we may get the leaders we deserve.