If there has to be a next time after this week…

The gist of Paul Bew’s analysis in the Times will be familiar to Slugger readers. He rightly concludes:

There is still majority support in both communities for the power-sharing institutions but in the complex crisis that is unfolding it is not immediately obvious how that reality can express itself

If this Assembly implodes, two firm messages should become clear.First, there will be a next time, if this time we fail. The idea that some great constitutional movement is next in the line is wishful thinking or irrational fear, depending on your point of view. For one thing, whatever party activists in their silos and their armchair supporters may think, the governments will not entertain it. This need not be an existential crisis, unless we make it so. There is a sufficiently strong basis for trying again. We are not going to throw all the gains away, just as recession will not kill off the new basis of prosperity. Let the great and the good, the plain and the beautiful, the young and the old , the heathen and the faithful stand up and be counted on that. Just perhaps even now, the present generation of the two main parties – adding up to around 35% of the electorate – who are so preoccupied with their introverted politics, will lift their heads and take notice of the wider public interest during this fateful week. While we shouldn’t count on it, sentiment plays an unpredictable part in NI life. Perhaps both parties will give themselves breathing space and pause at the prospect of the utter destruction of the Robinsons who until last week were in a sense, our leading couple. A morality without compassion is no morality at all. Iris killed nobody unlike some others who are thriving.

Two, we are back with infrastructure metaphors once again. By now, we know there’s more than a fork ahead. The road to functioning democracy is even rockier, longer and more winding than we hoped. We must make sure Damascus stays on the route. On both sides (viz also Gerry Adams and the prevarication or cover-up of his brother’s child abuse), the old baronies with their local patronage are gradually breaking down in the face of competition from a new generation of scores of elected representatives, very different from the placemen of earlier generations. Backbenchers are no longer satisfied with parts in the chorus. With all its faults, the Assembly has begun to establish a new dynamic in a more transparent and accountable system. Its numerous watchdogs impose strict limits on active bigotry. On the other hand the internal constraints of the troubles have weakened, so some of them will behave more irresponsibly. And like the neo cons in the US, many of them may take a harder line than the old warriors who know the costs of the troubles because they levied them.

What ought to make the difference? The absence of a major campaign. Blackmail is no longer viable. Say it loud, say it clear even in this crisis, the peace process has been a resounding success, in spite of the dissident republicans. Next time there is no excuse for war weary hoplessness. Next time, more open negotiations are needed certainly; there must be no Blairite “deal or no deal” ambiguity. The approach must be firm and united handling by the governments supported by movements of public pressure to achieve devolution in full. Next time if it comes to it, the people must not be left out. And to this we shall return.

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