It may have to get worse before it gets better – all over again

The people of Northern Ireland, he suggested, are not as divided as the politicians. On this one, I feel like the guy at the back of the crowd whose shout isn’t heard. I’ve been saying this for years and hoping it’s true. The sentence comes from Liam Clarke’s reflective piece in the Newsletter, where he quotes the businessman/blogger,/ and now new SDLP politician Conall. The trouble with the quote is (a) it’s desperately hard to prove and (b) such evidence as there is, as in the Life and Times Surveys year by year, is discounted or ignored, because folk wisdom decrees that people like to give “respectable” replies in public but vote for the political poles in secret as an insurance policy, or out of fear of the opposite pole and suspicion of their own side’s moderates. It’s the paradoxical question that has never been satisfactorily answered – why vote for Sinn Fein and the DUP if f you really want “peace?” More effort is needed from the social scientists to try to answer it. In a rational world, the case for scaling down confrontation is unanswerable. Yet the suggestion of a “ manufactured crisis “ is not the whole story either. The causes of the deadlock are symptoms; the disease itself is chronic mutual distrust and a terror of losing ground. It may be a minority crisis but how to invoke the silent majority and prevent the plunge to the defaults? Appeals to common interest like Duncan Morrow’s of the Community Relations Council are so obvious that they have a hollow ring. The irony is that the specific sticking points are not between the parties but the totemic issues inside them – parades for unionists, cultural recognition for republicans. I fear the only thing that may impress the political hardcores is an even higher level of violence, when they come to recognise belatedly that the biggest threat to “ community confidence” comes not from the supposed grievances on either side but from the deadlock itself. The sad fact is that the warnings of Massareene and Craigavon may not have been enough after all.

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

Living History 1968-74

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