Forces of inertia

In his column in the Irish News today, the always stimulating Brian Feeney raises one of the major issues emerging out of the population study I referred to frivilously on Tuesday. He in effect poses a 64,000 euro question: should government ( whatever that is these days ) abandon the fiction of one community and break it down into a range of different social and sectarian profiles?

“What is needed from the devolved administration at Stormont is a set of policies to take account of the different population profiles in the Catholic and Protestant communities, to answer their different needs and stop following the outdated NIO mindset of trying to pretend that everything here would be OK if everyone started behaving as if they lived in England”.

I want to be careful here…. ….. because Feeney is not advocating playing the familiar sectarian numbers game, (although it’s easy to distort his point but please don’t), and conclude that is spite of huge Protestant disparities, Catholics would still be the bigger net gainers. So what?

Feeney argues that as ethnic social profiling is employed in English cities, why not the equivalent in NI?

As usual , he makes great play of blaming the British government, but under our local politicians does he seriously believe it would be any better? Without trashing his idea in the least, the problem lies in the political settlement which is creaking so badly at the moment – where instead of the shared future. political behaviour in the new Executive so far seems to work for a shared out future, a carved up one, where inertia rules.. The risk in Feeney’s otherwise perfectly reasonable proposal is that social data would be treated mainly as sectarian data and so reinforce the dreadful old zero sum numbers game.

Those prominent devisers of the Shared Future idea, Robin Wilson and Rick Wilford of Queens’ University commented wryly on how the politicians just don’t get it, in their devolution monitoring report for the Constitution Unit last May: (read the report in full)

“In January, five north Belfast Protestant clergy wrote to the unionist-oriented News Letter, complaining of the failure of the executive to tackle sectarianism. They wrote: ‘We have poor inter-community relationships, effective apartheid in housing across our villages, towns and cities; community division (exemplified in, but not confined to the physical structures of peace walls); slow pace of reconciliation; sectarianism and fractured educational provision. Our real angst is that a suggested programme for government almost totally fails to acknowledge these profoundly difficult issues exist.’ The response from the DUP junior minister in OFMDFM, Mr Donaldson, was that power-sharing was the ‘shared future’31—an interpretation which seemed to confuse politics as means with the ends it aimed to realise.

The draft programme for government had significantly replaced the language of ‘a shared future’ with ‘a better future’, inline with its prioritisation of the economy—a much more convivial focus for members of the political class than the challenge of tackling the communal divisions in which they were so deeply implicated. The revised PfG32 published by Messrs Paisley and McGuinness, introduced the clumsy circumlocution of ‘a shared and better future”.

From a progressive stance, Wilford and Wilson, as well as being among the closest and most expert observers, have long been the most devastating critics around of the present power sharing system.

.”The Agreement has tended to place these competing constitutional claims side by side, offering unionists the majoritarian ‘consent principle’ and nationalists the egalitarian ‘parity of esteem’. This has allowed the conflict to be pursued—albeit for the most part less violently—if anything with more alacrity than before.

The way ahead is to transcend these counterposed positions by defining a new, sui generis constitution for Northern Ireland which would satisfy seamlessly concerns for accountability and equality. This would replace the ‘either/or’ antagonism of unionism and nationalism by a ‘both-and’ alternative”

This is visionary stuff – far from what we’ve got or are likely to have. What Wilson and Wilford discount is that often in politics when there’s a will there’s a way, however flawed the system. That may seem like Micawberism. But the natural momentum of government, the policy examples that come from the still-definitive Westminster and above all public pressure from inside the tribes, may nudge the politicians into abandoning – painfully slowly and step-by-step – the bankrupt old numbers game. Who was it said that every day would be Groundhog day?

Feeney ‘s idea, rational in itself, is under the circumstances, almost as visionary as Wilson and Wilford’s Shared Future. Sadly, that’s the measure of how far we’ve got to go.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London