Rethinking the Process

In today’s Irish Times, Fintan O’Toole is one of the few writers focusing on what comes next in the processing.. and he doesn’t like what he sees[subs req] –

The governments can try to restart the process as if nothing had happened, giving us two more years of posturing in which all excitement about the agreement’s radical ideals is stripped away. Or they can acknowledge the futility of trying to build shared governance on mutual hatred and begin a new political process that puts sectarianism where it should – not as a solution but as a problem.

What he sees should come as no surprise to anyone who has been paying attention to the last 7 years of the processing – Read the rest [apologies for the subs req link]-

Assuming that the IRA follows through on its July statement declaring an end to its war, we are almost certainly in for another long period of manoeuvring and wrangling in which the two governments try to act as marriage brokers between two reluctant partners. On the one side, Sinn Féin has no desperate need to get the internal Northern Ireland institutions re-established. Indeed, in the run-up to the general election in the Republic, it would probably welcome two years of talks, in which a rotating squad of prospective candidates gets to flank Gerry Adams on RTÉ News while he denounces DUP intransigence. On the other, the DUP itself, while it is undergoing a profound process of change, needs time to prepare itself and its voters for what it must do.

He argues that at the core of the Belfast Agreement, which may well reach its 10th Anniversary without being implemented, were genuinely radical proposals –

It defines Northern Ireland as a political space and seeks to do so in a genuinely radical, exciting way. It is, indeed, perhaps the boldest constitutional document ever agreed between sovereign states. It creates a space that is not ultimately claimed by any state, defines national identity as potentially both mutable and multiple, and rests sovereignty, not on history or geography but on that most complex and fluent of things – the collective mind of a majority of the population.

.. but that the combination of the processing that has dragged on since 1998, and is likely to continue, and the other aspect of the Agreement combined to undermine those proposals –

The conflict-resolution side of the agreement included a gamble that was worth trying but that has been lost. It built the internal architecture of Northern Ireland’s governance on a static notion of “two traditions” which were to be appeased and given “parity of esteem”. The hope was that even though sectarianism was built in to the power-sharing system by the requirement for simultaneous majorities on the unionist and nationalist sides, the experience of working the new institutions would in fact diminish it. But there has been no momentum and the divisions have been formalised, entrenched and deepened.

To get that momentum back, Fintan O’Toole suggests, will require a major rethink by government –

The governments can try to restart the process as if nothing had happened, giving us two more years of posturing in which all excitement about the agreement’s radical ideals is stripped away. Or they can acknowledge the futility of trying to build shared governance on mutual hatred and begin a new political process that puts sectarianism where it should – not as a solution but as a problem.

  • Dave

    That was a very long winded way of saying that the Belfast agreement is dead and now needs to be given a proper burial.

  • Henry94

    The logic of his position is Joint Authority. If the local parties can’t agree then the governments will have to take responsility.

  • circles

    Finally a commentator who sees that sectarianism is the problem – the spark that lit the firs in the first place. This is where the governments should have been working from day one, and not getting lead up the garden path by distractions (no matter how important). In my opinion this would have lead to disarmament of all sides a lot quicker if somone had have had the guts to get straight to the root of our troubles.

    I would however debate the “mutual hatred” assertion.

  • Keith M

    Henry 94 “The logic of his position is Joint Authority”. There’s absolutly no logic to “Joint Authority”, besides it it could never work. Two sets of outside meddling isn’t going to be any better than one.

    It comes down to one basic question; “can the people of Northern Ireland work together or not?”. If they can then a power sharding administration (without designation), is the best option. If they cannot, then cantonisation along either the Belgian or Swiss model, or even re-partition would be better options.

  • hensons

    republican riot and fintan says its the fault of SF and if only they behaved themselves everything would be ok. loyalists riot and, upon reflection, the GFA is dead.

    My eyes have been thrown so many time towards heaven over the past two days I thinking of making it my look.

  • smcgiff

    Repartition is a non-starter. What we’d be saying here is that we’ll divide the existing populations so that they’re so outnumbered that they’ll have to keep quiet.

    Joint authority, with all its many faults may just be the one government to work in the only place on the planet it possibly could.

    A JA would mean SF/Nationalist and (Unionists) signing up to NI being in JA for good and for glory i.e. both British and Irish.

  • T.Ruth

    The logic would appear to me to be that our future is to live pecefully together in a Northern Ireland that is within the United Kingdom.The Belfast Agreement is totally flawed and has failed to create the conditions for peaceful co-existence. The Unionist community,though it has a voting majority is ignored by the government and has become increasingly dismayed and disillusioned.
    The government must concentrate on building a relationship between our communities that enables both to pursue their cultural,social,economic and political aspirations on an equal basis. The constant stream of concessions to terrorism, the continued clandestine talks and secret agrreements with the representatives of terror only serve to sustain continued instability and fear.
    We need an Assembly in which all those who participate at Executive level can prove their democratic credentials.

  • slug

    Reading everyones interpretation of the logic confirms the old saying: “To the kid with a hammer, the world seems like a nail”

  • circles

    “To the kid with a hammer, the world seems like a nail” – a cracker!!
    The logic would appear to me to be that our future is to live pecefully together in a united Ireland.The Belfast Agreement is totally flawed and has failed to create the conditions for peaceful co-existence. The nationalist community,though it has a voting majority on the island is ignored by the government and has become increasingly dismayed and disillusioned.
    The government must concentrate on building a relationship between our communities that enables both to pursue their cultural,social,economic and political aspirations on an equal basis. The constant stream of blockages thrown up by unionism, the continued refusal to talk to elected represnetatives will only serve to sustain continued instability and fear.
    We first need an Assembly in which all those who participate at Executive level can prove their democratic credentials – recognising the democratice rights of elected representatives.

    Hey T.Ruth – we almost agree!!

    Except that both your argument and what I have just written is simply a repetition of ancient positions that have been proven to led to a dead-end. We need soemthing a lot fresher than this if we’re goint to stand a chance of sorting urselves out.

  • Ling

    “It defines Northern Ireland as a political space and seeks to do so in a genuinely radical, exciting way. It is, indeed, perhaps the boldest constitutional document ever agreed between sovereign states. It creates a space that is not ultimately claimed by any state, defines national identity as potentially both mutable and multiple, and rests sovereignty, not on history or geography but on that most complex and fluent of things – the collective mind of a majority of the population.”

    How *do* you define what Northern Ireland is though? Population wise it’s mostly British, but with a very signifigant minority (exclusively) Irish. Geographically it’s part of the island of Ireland, though historically… well historically get’s a bit fuddled as the only time the island has ever been one country was under the British, before the English kings started invading 800 of those oft mentioned years ago the island was, what, five or so little warring kingdoms?

    If Ireland was connected by land to Britain the definition of what NI is would have been just as a redrawing of the England/Scotland – Ireland border.

    Ignoring the population for a moment it’s because of that coastline seperating the two islands that there’s a notion that there’s a clear definition of what ‘belongs’ to Ireland rather than the natural border wiggling that has gone on between land border sharing countries through population movements and/or invasions over the centuaries.

    Hrmm, sorry, that was a bit of a non-sequiter, but that paragraph got me thinking. Spend too long thinking about it though and you’ll just end up getting all existentialist about the nation state.

  • Henry94

    KiethM

    There’s absolutly no logic to “Joint Authority”, besides it it could never work.

    Did Orange rule work? Did direct rule work? Did the institutions work? Did Sunningdale work?

    What did work? We made most progress under the Anglo-Irish Agreement which was imposed over the heads of the unionists and the republicans. But it brought both to the table in the end.

    Joint Authority follows the same logic. It recognises the reality that the north is not ready for self-government but it leave the door open for a future outbreak of maturity.

    Let’s be honest. Unionists find it easier to deal with Dublin than with West Belfast and nationalists find it easier to deal with London than with Ballymeana.

  • slackjaw

    Fintan O’Toole’s article shows a realisation that the solution to entrenched identity politics is not a better class of entrenched identity politics.

    The present scenario gives precious little room for manoeuvre. Gregory Campbell was on Dunseith earlier on, and made some encouraging noises about the futility of zero sum politics, and then launched headlong into a bout of futile zero sum politics.

  • David

    When the Agreement was being negotiated everyone used to talk about the “3 strands”. Strand 1 (internal NI), Strand 2 (North-South) and Strand 3 (East West). All of these issues were very contentious before the GFA, but since then a lot of the heat has been taken out of Strand 2 and Strand 3. Strand 1 is where they made the mistakes.

    O’Toole makes 3 very good points about those mistakes:

    1. He talks of the “conflict resolution” side of the agreement. What he appears to be hinting at here is that the GFA Strand 1 structure is the type of thing that an ivory tower academic would come up with. It is unworkable in the real world. Enforced executive coalition has been tried in places such as the Lebanon before its civil war and Cyprus before its near civil war, neither of these are inspiring precedents. After the GFA a less rigid enforced coalition was tried in the Fijian constitution, but it has never proved workable, though all credit to the Fijians they took their disputes about the thing through the courts rather than onto the streets.

    2. He correctly refers to “the static notion of two traditions” as being the basis of the GFA. The GFA has thought that the best way to accommodate differences is to institutionalise them. The idea of creating a single sense of identity that we can all share is gone. People who do not fall neatly into one community or the other are treated as if they do not exist. Immigrants don’t exist. Changing opinions cannot be accommodated. Any idea of any third option, other than unionism and nationalism, has to be forgotten about. Here are 2 round holes, one green and one orange, if you’re a square peg, tough.

    3. Sectarianism is the problem not the solution.

    My own view is that the first step to creating a new future must be to break free from the dead hand of “conflict resolution” orthodoxy.

    Under this orthodoxy “power sharing” has been reduced to mean some sort of enforced coalition between unionist and nationalist parties in a devolved executive.

    This type of power sharing is unworkable. There are a legion of divided societies on earth, yet none of them have been able to work this type of arrangement.

    Just because the orthodox type of power sahring is unworkable, this does not mean that power sharing as a concept is unworkable. There are a lot of other ways in which power can be dispersed and shared between people. Decentralisation is one of the main workable methods of power sharing. Allowing a limited level of veto and requiring super-majorities for certain issues is also possible.

    There are many possibilities for Strand 1 that have been tried and tested in other countries.

    What Strand 1 should not contain, however, is any provisions that treat us all solely as parts of 2 communal blocs. That is where the GFA failed.

  • Keith M

    Henry 94 “Did Orange rule work? Did direct rule work? Did the institutions work? Did Sunningdale work?” You can add the Belfast Agreegment and the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and the broad answer is “no”. At least under “orange rule you had 50 years of peace.

    Why didn’t they work? Because they all used the premise that the people of Northern Ireland could work together. There is no proof that this is true, and a a huge weight of evidence that they can’t.

    When people cannot work (or even life) together, why force them to? The examples of Lebannon and Cyprus have been given, but there are others (you can add Sri Lanka and the Indian sub-continent).

    Northern Ireland has effectivly become two little fifedoms, with nationalist controlling the North and West and Unionists the East and North. Belfast is split. This is a very similar model to Belgium, and they’ve managed to co-exist in a federal (and very deloved) state. This could work in Northern Ireland.

    SMcGiff “Repartition is a non-starter. What we’d be saying here is that we’ll divide the existing populations so that they’re so outnumbered that they’ll have to keep quiet.” For “keep quiet” read “the peace” and hey presto you have the solution.

    I would enact and enforce a very comprehensive bill of rights to protect the minorities and with this (and a peaceful environment) everybody wins.

    The problem may be Belfast, and here I think a weighted majority (say 67%) would ensure that a stable cross community administration could be formed.

  • Comrade Stalin

    Keith, I don’t want to live in a canton where the unionists are banning dancing and sex and forcing everyone to go to church six times a day. Equally I don’t want to live in a canton where I’m forced to speak an old, quaint language, where there’s nothing on TV except GAA and where fiddle-dee-dee music pours out of speakers all day.

    What am I supposed to do in your suggested proposal ?

  • slug

    David – very sensible post. I agree 100%.

  • Keith M

    Comrade “What am I supposed to do in your suggested proposal ?” Try reading it and take note of the section on a bill of rights.

  • lib2016

    Great idea, Keith! When is the referendum?

  • slug

    The govt has plans to give more power to local authorities and reduce their number to 7. The changes should be in place before the next council elections. This is a useful thing to do and I think should be part of the way forward – a way of ‘decentralising power’ to use David’s expression (above).

  • Keith M

    lib “When is the referendum?” No referendum is required and if the lesson of failure of the Belfast Agreement is probably learnt, there won’t be one on any new arrangement. (Best not to put people into pro and anti camps from the off).

  • Cahal

    Keith, are you serious about repartition. I think it is an idea which deserves much more thought from all the major parties.

    I’d say it is a lot more popular than people think (if it was done right with a bill of rights etc as you suggest). To be honest it is the only ‘final solution’ I think workable/possible.

  • David

    Regarding repartition.

    We are all in the EU now, so everyone has the right to live and move wherever they want. In these circumstances it seems to be impossible.

    Greece and Turkey had population exchanges following their war in the 1920s, so some form of repartition with population movements is something that has been tried before with some degree of success. The Turks were removed from all of Greece while the Greeks were removed from all of Turkey except Istanbul after the exchanges.

    It was a very drastic solution and is currently out of fashion. The displaced peoples of Bosnia are supposed to be able to return home. In practice they are rarely able to.

  • smcgiff

    Repartition –

    NI Cedes west of the Bahn – ROI Cedes Dublin 4.

  • aquifer

    Fintan has a point or three. Where are the hammer and anvil that will forge a new political community?

    We need to privilege non-sectarian politics in the way that the British system privileges the biggest political gang, often supported by a minority of the population, but providing strong government and ideologically driven policy innovation. This has given us the national health service, an open job market with low unemployment, and a high rate of home ownership.

    We just need a system that clearly includes enough of the non confessional middle, or some from both sides of the sectarian divide, to provide strong government.

    We don’t need every big political party included every time, or if we must have such, we also need a clutch of independents and small parties to stimulate non-sectarian political debate, and to provide scrutiny and drive policy innovation.

    Most of all, we need a strong demonstration by the state of a commitment to the rights of the non-identified citizen.

    A state that cannot mobilise a cherry picker to take some flags down or overpaint threatening slogans invites ethnic challengers.