Parties unite to ensure division…

THEY may come from radically different perspectives, but Newton Emerson and Eamonn McCann agree that the sectarian balancing act or tribal carve-up that passes for local politics leads only to political instability and increased social segregation.Recent commentary has focused almost entirely on what proposals would be necessary to get the DUP and Sinn Féin into government. Few have considered the implications for increasing apartheid – on the ground and in the Assembly – that would result from this arranged shotgun marriage.

McCann considers the internal contradiction of the Agreement – that republicans see it as a stepping stone towards a united Ireland, while unionists see it as copper-fastening the union with Great Britain – the main weakness contributing to instability. Although it tries to be all things to all men, it cannot be both, he argues.

McCann writes: “The fact was rather obvious that these two propositions could not simultaneously be true and that the peace thus established must be inherently unstable.

“But it was considered at the time, and to some extent still is, the height of irresponsibility to draw attention to this obvious fact.”

Another perceptive ‘enemy of the peace process’ and opponent of political doublethink, Newton Emerson, argues today that Sinn Féin and the DUP depend upon each other for their power. He highlights the sectarian charade that takes place in those other seats of little power, local councils, in which the tribal parties don’t even attempt to represent all sections of the community, just their own. Unionism defines itself against nationalism/republicanism and vice versa.

Those who look for political leadership see the politics of separation dominant at present, so it’s little surprise that social segregation has actually increased since ‘peace’ arrived on Good Friday 1998. If unionism and nationalism cannot reach out to each other, it is less likely that individual unionists and nationalists will either. And those individuals who do not identify with unionism or nationalism are actively discriminated against in this new version of equality anyway, even though their numbers may be increasing. But poor leadership is par for the course here.

So how will the DUP and Sinn Féin govern Northern Ireland together from the extremes? Answer: they won’t. They don’t even talk, so how would they lead together? Each will look after their own, and never the twain shall meet.

Emerson writes: “As long as their openly ethnic agendas diverge all is well between them and because it is the aim of both parties that those agendas should diverge then all is well almost all of the time – so much so, in fact, that occasional set-piece battles must be fought as a distraction.

”Anyone who has ever witnessed these council chamber sham fights can attest to their ritual quality. Sinn Fein and the DUP know the real enemy is not those who stand across the divide but those who stand against the divide, for the divide is the source of their power. They know the other party knows this as well.”

Emerson believes that putting the DUP and Sinn Féin in charge of Northern Ireland will only lead to greater apartheid than that which already exists. He warns of a local version of Balkanisation:

“History has a word for how Sinn Fein and the DUP would rule us. That word is ‘apartheid’ – and a coming together to drive us apart would not make our version any less disgraceful.

”In every council in Northern Ireland Sinn Fein and DUP members have long referred openly to ‘Protestant’ parks, ‘Catholic’ bus routes, ‘Protestant’ streets, ‘Catholic’ shops.

”Do you think they aren’t itching to formalise those distinctions?

”Do you think they’d never give each other helpful little pushes over that slippery slope?

”Do you think the British and Irish governments would stop them? The British and Irish governments put just such formal distinctions at the heart of every Good Friday Agreement institution.

”They have demonstrated that they will humour any lie and ignore any crime to preserve them.”

His assessment is accurate, and the results can be seen even in yesterday’s proposals by the British Government, as it demonstrates its own complicity in preserving sectarian structures in a restored Assembly. In Annex B, the British proposals for changes to Strand One (internal) matters, we read:

“Community designation. An amendment to the 1998 Act would provide that an Assembly Member would not be able to change community designation for the whole of an Assembly term from that expressed at the time of nomination for election, except in the case of a change of membership of political party.”

This effectively means that ‘community designations’ – a euphemism for sectarian labels – are forced on candidates from the time they announce that they are standing for election to the Assembly. This pigeon hole becomes the candidates permanent political home, despite the fact that this system has failed before.

As someone else wrote, you might as well hand out Rangers and Celtic shirts to Assembly members as they walk into Parliament Buildings for the first time. Except now, you get it when you hand in your nomination papers and can’t take it off until you’re kicked out of office. Imagine MPs in Westminster or TDs in the Dail being asked to wear big badges with ‘Black’ or ‘White’ on them at all times in their respective parliaments, even if the member was Asian, Muslim or anything else.

You might think that as the Review of the Agreement is still officially ongoing, there would still be scope to challenge sectarian designations. Not so, says the Government, always ready to change the law in deference to tribalism, in a paragraph yet to be commented upon elsewhere:

“An amendment to the 1998 Act would provide for the Assembly to appoint a standing Institutional Review Committee, to examine the operational aspects of the Strand One institutions. Matters to be reviewed in this way would be agreed among the parties. The Committee’s reports would be considered by the Executive and Assembly, and, where agreed changes required legislative steps outside the scope of the devolved institutions, by the British Government in consultation as appropriate with the Irish Government.”

Since the DUP and Sinn Fein (and definitely the SDLP, which came up with sectarian labels in the first instance, and possibly the UUP) are content with the designations from which they derive their respective vetoes, republicans, nationalists and unionists will inevitably collude to protect them. Designations will therefore never make it onto an Institutional Review Committee agenda, and we have the precedent of a previous committee set up in the wake of the November 2002 debacle if anyone is in doubt about how they would kick ideas into touch.

The peace process is driven by an elite group of territorial politicians who don’t want to share power, but to take it and selfishly carve it up. If the politicians at the top don’t want to integrate, that is their choice. But the Government is not helping a public disillusioned with politics to make a different choice at a grassroots level. Disgracefully, community relations – an area in which the UUP and SDLP could not agree a strategy while in OFMDFM – is not even mentioned in yesterday’s proposals.

If there is another Assembly, it is fairly obvious that the Office of First and Deputy First Ministers will be joint in name only until greater trust exists – and the UUP and SDLP are in no position to lecture no-one about co-operation in OFMDFM. This would be a far from a perfect situation, but tolerable in the short term if that is what is required to bring about stability.

What is unacceptable is the joint effort by the two political tribes – backed by the British Government – to prevent sectarianism in a restored Government from even being challenged in a future Assembly.

The vested interests of various people will ensure that the politics of separation stay around for as long as possible. After all, they depend on it.