After the killings – the progressive debate

Thanks to Pete for highlighting Robin Wilson’s typically challenging analysis of where we are politically after the murders. Robin joins those who are scathing about most of the political reaction admired so piously in the MSM, arguing that a resort to violence is inherent in the narrative of the Troubles which led to the agreements. In other words, violence paid off to put SF in power; but politics has failed to get them what they want so far, giving plausiblity to a new campaign of violence. Even aside from that, the sectarian carve-up that is the political system itself “ has allowed the conflict to be pursued—albeit for the most part less violently—if anything with more alacrity than before.” So are we all doomed?

No apparently, for three main reasons. First, Robin puts some faith in a view that ethnic conflicts tend to burn themselves out (but why, if the logic that created them has enduring appeal?). Second,. that a scenario of “utter constitutional uncertainty” as in 1972 cannot be envisaged ( good, the settlement has something in its favour then); and three that the demonstrations against the killings will have some effect (although in the era of “utter constitutional uncertainty” the grass roots Peace People movement of the mid 70s created barely a pause in the violence and ended up traduced and partly discredited).

Robin has frequently argued for a different political settlement encouraged by an alternative voting system under a reformed constitution, based on Shared Future principles.

“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. Rather than Northern Ireland being of uncertain constitutional location, it would clearly have a federal relationship with the rest of the UK and a confederal relationship with the rest of Ireland.”

I should have thought these are pretty much the elements of what we have now, except for the crucial element of finality. Might not such finality heighten rather than reduce instability? After only two years since the revised agreement at St Andrews, and 11 years after the defining though stuttering GFA, yet another bout of constitutional and political upheaval is in my view undesirable and there is little I can see to suggest that the parties have a real stomach for it, despite Peter Robinson’s hankering after a voluntary coalition. The end of sectarian designations in the Assembly would be ethically desirable and might provide a lever for greater “shared future” change but it is hard to discern the mechanism to bring this about, short of radically different voter behaviour.

Whatever the moral and other flaws in the old military narrative of the Troubles that in Robin’s view provides such encouragement to violence, the past few months have provided some evidence of the system working. The SF identity agenda on which they stalled the Executive was defeated because it inevitably failed to win cross community support – a political victory albeit a negative one for the system I should have thought, and not a defeat, whatever you think of the merits of issues. Through such “groundhog days” a true political equilibrium may be reached. Last week there was Peter Robinson’s intriguing comments at the bottom of the Stormont Castle steps which were at least as significant as Martin McGuinness’s dramatic “traitors ” line: “This is a battle of wills between the political class and the evil gunmen – the political class will win.”

This was an important and wholly unsentimental statement of common interest which ought to give encouragement to a nervous community. The next move by the Executive ought to be to find policy momentum away from what is frankly the comfort zone of condemning violence. The impact of the recession is enough to make the Executive pull together. Let them get on with it, prodded vigorously issue by issue by all people of goodwill. Given the higher costs of sectarian division, the prospect of tighter public spending might even force the future to become genuinely shared.

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