This isn’t a triumph of politics

I have always been a fan of Alex Kane’s writing but his latest opinion piece in the News Letter (reviewing Frank Millar’s book) is amongst his best. The whole article is here but this part caught especially caught my eye:To me, therefore, what we have now it isn’t about the triumph of politics. We have, rather, agreed to a two-peoples-one-state solution in which, I fear, we will continue to live apart and, consequently, grow further apart. It is turning into the triumph of the “us-and-them” solution, in which both communities will continue to return the same champions to battle over the same unresolved issues. This means, inevitably, that further down the line another generation of republicans will feel the need to lift the torch, up the ante and kick-start the “struggle.”

His rather pessimistic analysis is one I whole heartedly share. I very, very much doubt the conflict here is solved: it is being temporarily managed with less violence. To suggest that violence is gone forever is to ignore the lessons of our own history let alone that of the Balkans etc.

  • Half Pint

    There are a lot of points on which I would disagree with Alex Kane but he is a first class writer and his pieces in the NL are not transparently party political – as was the case with the column Iris Robinson put her name to.

  • cynic

    Ever sadder is that almost all of us are happy with that. Then we can just pretend that ‘themmuns’ don’t exist.

  • Brian Walker

    “Sunningdale didn’t work, because neither side was actually ready for it.”

    “So when Mallon described the Belfast Agreement as “Sunningdale for slow learners,” he was utterly inaccurate. Peter Robinson got it about right when he told Millar, in December 2002; “We have to deal with whatever the electorate throw up. Therefore you have to have a system which isn’t dependent on the good behaviour of those who are elected. That’s the reality. It must be a system that has sufficient shock absorbers to be able to deal with the kind of bad behaviour we have seen from the Provisional IRA.”

    These quotations are the texts of traditional Tory passivity and pessimism typical of unionism down the decades. I’m tempted to suggest that in their turn Faulkner Trimble and Paisley tried a different tack out of sheer boredom as much as anything else. But Kane’s case has a certain force, it can’t be denied. There is always a strong argument for saying what happened had to happen so he’s not easy to refute. But that argument does not invalidate counterfactuals. On Sunningdale and the subsequent years, it is possible to argue that not one but several missed opportunities could have opened up if the Mason security clampdown had been accompanied with imaginative politics, based on an amendment of Sunningdale itself and the Convention, whose failure led to a disastrous loss of momentum for decades.

    In 1974, many of us were saying, ” five whole years of mounting violence and political chaos, this can’t go on!” Little did we know that it would be allowed to continue – more or less fatalistically – for another twenty-odd years, while we waited on the pleasure of the likes of Messrs Adams and McGuinness, Paisley and Robinson. “Whatever the electorate throws up” was fearful and indeterminate not mutually implacable and the controllers of the political system failed to install sufficiently robust “shock absorbers,” by their own deplorable choices.

    But the worst failures in my book lie less with the local parties than the governments; in the lack of consistency from British governments who were fixated on managing decline on all fronts, and the failure of successive Irish governments to give united political form to what they all knew to be true: that whatever the gross defects of the northern polity, it’s transformation lay in the all- round acceptance of the consent principle.

    Beware of politicians who rather than offering leadership blame the electorate instead and like the Duke of Plaza Toro led their regiments from behind. The future relevance of this debate lies in impressing on politicians not to lapse back into bad old habits. Indeed, it is true that there is all too little in the local parties’ pasts that suggests anything other than separate development. The best hope for the future is that the onging practice of good government will of itself begin to break down barriers and build new relationships. They key – today, and as it should have been around 1974 – is to keep up momentum.

  • The reality is that no other political-framework would have worked.

  • runciter

    We have, rather, agreed to a two-peoples-one-state solution in which, I fear, we will continue to live apart and, consequently, grow further apart.

    Partition is what makes this inevitable, not the GFA.

    The GFA has the advantage of offering a peaceful way out.

  • Alan

    “The future relevance of this debate lies in impressing on politicians not to lapse back into bad old habits.”

    Yet the only way of doing that impressing is by becoming directly involved in politics. It’s the only forum from which pressure can be placed.But there is a problem.

    There has to be a perceptable threat in order for the unionist and nationalist parties to move. However, they see no political threat from their polar opposites and every threat from their nearest neighbours. That system effectively reinforces the likelihood of a repetition of past violence, because it reinforces the dependence of the local parties on opposing nationalisms and their contradictory political goals. .

    Any transforming threat has to be to both sides, and to both sides equally. The competing nationalisms cannot do that, therefore that threat has to come from a wholly different perspective.

  • Parrot Clocker

    Perhaps it is stating the obvious but there are distinctions between the time before the last round of the troubles and now. Query, are the significant enough to make a difference?

    Today, we have such laws as the Fair Employment Act and the Human Rights Act. We dont have a sectarian RUC as we did before. We dont have gerrymandering. There are more open minded people in NI than ever before and there is of course, the GFA. In a nutshell, there is no persecution or opprossion in the background which it may be argued was one of the principal feeding forces behing the last era of violence.

    History never repeats itself exactly. Lets hope Alex Kane is wrong.

  • Cloudy Bay

    I feel Parrot Clocker hopes in vain. There already exists groups on the republican side who decry the GFA and the advances it has brought. It will be a short step for them towards violence.

    Irish republicanism is a mindset that believes its cultural and political outlook must hold sway on the island of Ireland and that any and all other viewpoints must defer, or be forced to defer, to it.

    Sinn Fein, a party of government within Northern Ireland, recently announced a reinvigoration of the drive towards Irish unity. The feeling of entitlement denied that this continuing rhetoric engenders feeds the malcontents on the republican fringe and makes future violence almost inevitable.

  • Brian Walker

    What I’m saying that as devolved government progresses, the “competing nationalisms” become less and less relevant. Other than rhetorically, what is there to compete about? Think about it.
    Real competition only matters when a choice of government is offered. The millenarian aspect is a vision beyond the system, not within it, apart from the backstop of a referendum. Whether you support it or not it’s not on the foreseeable agenda, the system doesn’t provide for a dynamic to unity. The only available route to unity currently is through a logic of good government.

    On organisation, a hard fact of modern politics is that organisation matters less and less so long as there is enough of a base to generate funds and candidates, much as it would be nice to think otherwise. Think about this too – how much power do party memberships really have? Howe much transparency is there? See what I mean? What matters is to keep the policies and political activity varied and interesting. Political parties are becoming a back number as repositories of faith, even in NI, even SF and the DUP.

  • pacman

    Is there anything wrong with two separate but equal futures? It’s pretty obvious that there is not now never will be a shared Northern Irish identity and there will never cease to be two completely different aspirations.

    So why not prepare for an equitable repartition and work towards that aim? Unionists can remain wedded to Mother Britain and Nationalists can rejoin Mother Ireland. Surely everyone is happy then?

  • declan

    Speaking of repartition.

    What I call Scenario 2021 is a scenario in which nationalists realize (shortly after the 2021 census) that the period of demographic-driven increase in the nationalist vote is going to come to an end short of the necessary critical mass to deliver a majority for a United Ireland.

    In this scenario nationalists may turn to the idea of repartition. The idea of a violent campaign might also appeal to some.

  • declan,

    … the period of demographic-driven increase in the nationalist vote is going to come to an end short of the necessary critical mass to deliver a majority for a United Ireland.

    It depends on what you mean by a ‘critical mass’. It’s already clear that there will be a Catholic majority sometime soon after 2021, but who knows if it’ll mean a nationalist majority. The current Tory/UUP love-in is the first clear attempt by one side to ‘poach’ from the other, but it won’t be the last. As memories of the ‘war’ fade, then nationalism may have increasing opportunities to poach in return.

  • Brian Walker

    “Is there anything wrong with two separate but equal futures?” A great deal, in my book. Look at the balance sheet. They’re inefficient and wasteful and lay up trouble for the future. See
    Deloitte’s on sectrian costs and the Shared Future analysis (

    Purely religious differences have less and less meaning. Economic and social experiences are defined less and less by the sectarian divide. Which boils it down to the national question which between the metropolitan powers has less and less force.

    All this is not to say that the goal is bland uniformity or that integration will happen anytime soon if at all. The direction of travel should be a certain pluralism within common interests which the apolitically minded already share. There’s no need to rush it but change is far more possible than many of you much younger than I seem to think. This so obvious! Many of you tend to live in silos of exclusively political/historical identity. Conservative identity politics can be overdone. I would expect them to recede along with diminishing grievances. Why not enjoy diversity? Why nurse the politics of grievance so intently? People have multiple identities and politics will eventually catch up.

    I’m puzzled why so much of Slugger comment on the future is so stuck in negativity and the past. There’s a better world out there and plenty of new ideas for sharing it. We badly need to hear more of them and how they may be developed.

  • NP

    has any one mentioned the phrase “Sunningdale for slow learners” yet ?

  • jerryp

    I’d go about halfway down the road with this columnist. The GFA in itself is not enough to heal division, but it could enable such an undertaking. It would take leadership and generosity of spirit amongst the main players the likes of which have yet to be seen.
    For example, there should be a guest speaker ( followed by debate ) from SF at the DUP conferences and vice versa.There needs to be real cross community engagement at street level and I’m not talking about youth clubs having mixed table tennis matches.

  • edward

    This means, inevitably, that further down the line another generation of republicans will feel the need to lift the torch, up the ante and kick-start the “struggle.”

    This line is a complete misrepresentation of history and probably the future, it was unionists that felt the need to take up the torch and kick start the troubles the last time and are presently following much the same course in murdering innocent catholics in gross sectarian attacks

  • Chris Donnelly

    Kane is resorting to the vexed complaint from some within political unionism that nationalism hasn’t simply laid down and called it a day.

    His line is consistent with his party leader’s false rage when Fianna Fail floated participation in northern elections last year- remember Reg’s rant about Fianna Fail destabilising northern politics (at just about the moment he was working to bring the Tories into the Six Counties?)

    The alternative, of course, is the appalling vista of the ‘One people: One state’ which existed for 50 years and hardly proved as the basis for stability…

    It is, of course, a nonsense complaint, exposing an inability to come to terms with the fact that the Agreement and the new political institutions are legitimately viewed by nationalists as an advance towards Irish unity.

    Rather than seeking to engage nationalists and accomodate their political/ cultural identity and aspirations within the northern state (which sensible unionism would be about), Kane’s opted to bemoan the continued existence of an Irish nationalist identity in itself!

    What a strategy!

    Fact is, the two peoples- one state ‘solution’ is a sensible, progressive step at this time which, far from decrying, Kane and his party should be supporting as it provides the initial stability for the institutions to bed in. Thereafter, it will be up to unionists- and nationalists/ republicans- to win the battle to convince people to support their political vision.

    That’s not to say that steps don’t need to be taken to forge a common identity, reduce economic waste and develop shared space and communities; rather that the shared identity needs to be one all can buy into, premised upon shared respect for the National identities of both traditions- else it simply won’t work.

  • Turgon

    Mr. Donnelly,
    Nonsense: Alex Kane is concerned that a future generation of republicans may go back to violence. Considering that is almost exactly what my non MP suggested they might “have” to do; I think his concern is completely justified.

    If republicans want even a few unionists to even think about beginning to trust anything they say the likes of that comment should be repudiated.

  • 33rd County

    Indulge me here as I do not have as good a sense of the current social climate in NI as those who actually live there.

    Lets say 25 years done the road 50+1 becomes a reality, if the current relations between nationalists and unionists still exist then, what is the likelihood of violence from the loyalist communities?

    Just from reading Slugger and other media outlets it appears the potential for an outbreak of sectarian violence is still a distinct possibility, however based on my readings I dont think it would ever escalate to the point it did back in the day.

    Another question: If nationalists achieve the 50+1 necessary to achieve a UI and a UI does in fact occur after a transition phase, is there some clause in the GFA that states if the nationalist population drops below 50+1 (drought in west belfast) NI will revert back to the UK?

    I appreciate any responses as it seems like NI has the potential to be the ball in a game of table tennis if in fact some clause exists that would continue to honor the principles of self-determination even after the unification of Ireland.

  • Chris Donnelly

    ‘Mister’ Turgon
    And Kane’s opinion on the likelihood of unionist violence if there is movement towards a united Ireland? After all, not much decomissioning has occurred within loyalist ranks to date.

    Trust is, of course, a two way street. If we had to wait on unionist leaders repudiating all of the offensive comments dished out in the past to even begin attempting to forge relationships and build trust, then we’d be waiting a long time.

    That’s part of the problem with this analysis. Kane is essentially complaining that unionists can’t guarantee the future will pan out in the manner they want, bemoaning the fact that there exists a large community in the Six Counties which has a vastly different political outlook to his own- hence the ‘nonsense’ regarding ‘two communities- one state’ being such a bad thing at this juncture.

    Of course, nationalists would dearly love if we had ‘one state and one community,’ in the sense of an all-Ireland state with consensual support for such a development; but we don’t have that, and remain a deeply divided society.

    That’s life, I’m afraid.

  • Turgon

    Mr Donnelly,
    “Kane is essentially complaining that unionists can’t guarantee the future will pan out in the manner they want”

    And your political representatives cannot even guarantee that they support people going to the police about certain sorts of criminal activity. Indeed some of your representatives cannot even guarantee that they think a return to violence is a bad idea.

    Unsurprisingly that does not help trust in republicans.

  • Brian Walker

    Turgon and Chris, Locked in this familiar argument of what-aboutery” are you not missing the probability that this is a slowly receding issue, the inevitable twitches of distrust which are the legacy of all that’s happened? A less contentious future is as least as likely as “separate development,” as communal tensions recede – provided political leaderships want it to and show another way? Pre-conditions for change are present, strange that you both in your different ways and Kane seem to ignore them.

  • I’d say nowadays a mortgage is more risky a proposition than any SF’er in government…

  • Chris Donnelly


    I’d say a ‘less contentious future’ is indeed very likely, given that the grounds for stability- the Good Friday Agreement and all it entails for binding together a ‘shared future’ based on the premise of equality for both traditions- have now been accepted by the vast majority within both communities; this of itself will lead to a coming together in time and the withering away of the destructive aspect to the ‘separateness’ that exists.

    Nothing I’ve said contradicts this view.

  • Brian Walker

    Chris. Fair enough. It’s just that when comment goes beyond the headline statements that the gaps seem to widen further. A progressive narrative needs to be developed which cares a bit less about traditions which are so inward looking. I’m not claiming moral superiority or superior insight- it’s just that I’m longing for something new to be said in what’s left of my lifetime. Hard-headed material not(with great and genuine respect) neo-Corrymeela stuff. Maybe we need a Slugger award for new ideas, developing notions Mick and others have already had?

  • The Spectator


    “it’s just that I’m longing for something new to be said in what’s left of my lifetime.”

    Well, with all due respect, Brian, what you ‘long for’ is irrelevant. That’s the problem with what you’ve suggested – there’s nothing logical, reasoned or likely about it, it’s just your wishlist – and I’m not interested in your wishlist, no more than you are interested in mine.

    New ideas in Irish macro politics, particularly that strand dealing with Gael-Planter and British Irish relations come dripping slow – indeed, we haven’t really had a NEW idea since Issac Butt (partition is as old as The Pale, ‘one king’ integrationism having been a thread since at least the time of Henry VIII, constitutional nationalism goes back to either Gratten or O’Connell, and full ‘republican’ independence by force of arms dating to Wolfe Tone, and before. The once new idea flirted with since 1900 was the Blueshirts, and it was an idea we all could have done without.

    “A progressive narrative needs to be developed which cares a bit less about traditions which are so inward looking.”

    It’s not narratives that care; narratives are an abstract noun. It’s people who care about them – and if you see July 4, Easter Monday, St Patricks Day, GAA in September, the Mock Battle at Scarva, Northern Ireland fans rising for GSTQ, or Ash Wednesday you’ll see very easily that lots of people care very deeply indeed about traditions that are ‘their own’. And your ‘longing’ wont change that a square inch.

    Sorry, Brian, but there is nothing that quite annoys me as much as liberal optimism based on ignorance, wishful thinking and distaste for those who disagree with your utopian world view.

    It’s simply an expensive road to disaster, Better to manage the truth, however dirty, than propogate the lie because it sounds nice. Less disappointment that way, and frankly, less bloodshed.

  • The Spectator

    Actually, I have done you a disservice – there have been a small number of advocates for Ulster independence since the Home Rule Crisis in the early 20th Century.

    That’s a new-ish idea – not a good one, but I suppose a new-ish one.