“If we are serious about a truly shared future..”

The Irish News frontpage story [subs for now] picks up on SDLP leader Mark Durkan’s speech at the British Irish Association Conference at New College, Oxford. And the Sinn Féin response from Northern Ireland deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness. Adds UUP leader Reg Empey’s response. Added The DUP responds and the Alliance Party reportedly welcomes the speech. From the speech. [link added]

A formula for ‘sufficient consensus’ was a necessary confidence measure in the agreed rules for the [pre-1998] Talks. Therefore, it was not exceptional that such cross-community decision-making protections were also built into the institutions which resulted from those negotiations. As with d’Hondt, the referendum and the need to persuade and reassure was a strong consideration.

I remember, at the time, saying that the system of designation was necessary because of what we were coming from but should not be necessary where we were going. I argued that such measures with their arguably sectarian or sectional undertones should be bio-degradable, dissolving in the future as the environment changed. Most, if not all of us, had such future adjustments in mind when we wrote the review mechanisms into the Agreement.

As we move towards a fully sealed and settled process we should be preparing to think about how and when to remove some of the ugly scaffolding needed during the construction of the new edifice.

We need to reflect on the dangers of the decision-making protections acting as decision making prevention on more and more important issues. The possibilities for political realignment with new or changing party offerings in the future could be stunted by permanent reliance to the present degree on designation. If we are serious about a truly shared future then we have to allow for truly shared politics where parties can – and have to – appeal across the traditional divides. The fault-line in our society will still be there but it should not determine the party political cleavage for future generations.

Protections of rights, interests and identities will still be needed but not only for, or only as, either unionists or nationalists. In the stance-off over other issues recently, little attention is being paid to the rut that the Bill of Rights debate is stuck in. There are those who dismiss the need for such a bill or for it to be robust and extend to some social and economic issues. Maybe they and the rest of us need to start thinking about how a sound Bill of Rights in Northern Ireland might offer more productive and articulate protection for all our rights in a new democratic society than vote-locks and tit-for-tat vetoes in perpetuity. ‘One man-one vote’ was the start of a journey – made longer and harder than it needed to be. ‘One side- one vote’ should not be the final destination of that journey.

That would probably have to be accompanied by poet Michael Longley’s process of civilisation.

And, of course, some people would “just have to be tolerant of that..”

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