Cross posting: No platform for liberals

This is behind the paywall on forth but I’ve reproduced it here in full, in case anyone’s interested:


No platform for liberals

Precious pieties never solved anything, says JASON WALSH

THE GREAT and the good, or at least the nice and the acceptable, of Northern society have come together once more to demand more niceness and less nastiness. Meet the Platform for Change.

Officially launched today, the Platform for Change seeks to have the North’s politicians address pressing issues, such as academic selection and economic policy, that they are currently ignoring in their endless orange-vs-green bunfight. Or, to put it another way, borne out of growing frustration with the Sinn Féin-DUP arms race in the assembly, the Platform for Change wants to see the normalisation of political and social life in the North.

So what kind of change is on offer? Unfortunately it’s just more of the same. While the Platform does recognise the problems – founder Robin Wilson notes the peace process is a “a conservative arrangement which has been premised on a fixed and stereotyped concept of communal identity” (1) – it offers literally nothing we haven’t heard before: demands for ‘green collar jobs’, ‘decarbonising’ and ‘financial incentives’ directed at ‘stakeholders’. The group’s manifesto reads like Tony Blair speaking on autopilot: managerial in nature and buzzword-compliant but entirely without meaning.

The Platform for Change’s management committee – yes, it actually calls itself that, as though it were some kind of business or state bureaucratic endeavour – includes one Conall McDevitt, the newly co-opted assembly member for the leafy environs of South Belfast, precisely the kind of place where nice people would rather get on with what they consider to be ‘real politics’, such as complaining about water rates.

The Dublin-born McDevitt also writes a blog and on it today he said of the Platform: “The consultation meetings which took place with hundreds of people over the past six months were a real breath of fresh air. They proved to me that there is a huge appetite for real politics here in Northern Ireland and that people want their politicians focussed on the issues that matter.” (2)

‘Issues that matter’ is code for moving away from the sectarian politics the North remains mired in. A worthy aspiration. And yet McDevitt is a member of the SDLP, the party which is most directly responsible for the content of the ‘Good Friday’ Agreement, the very thing that ensures Northern politics is incapable of expressing itself in any colour other than orange or green. If McDevitt, a former member of Labour Youth, is serious about what people refer to as ‘bread and butter’ issues why does he not persuade the SDLP to disband and merge with his erstwhile comrades in Ireland’s Labour party?

A pessimist might be inclined to say that the North, engineered to be a place apart, can never have normal politics. It’s certainly a point that can be legitimately argued. However, what can be said with absolute certainty is that the localisation of the issue to the North can only make things worse. That is to say, denying the role of the wider national polities of Ireland and Britain is to fundamentally misunderstand the demands that are actually being made by the people.

The logic of the peace process is to disarm the conflict by attempting to find a consensus on contentious issues. The Platform for Change follows just this logic and is composed of people who are disappointed at the abortion of an assembly delivered by the process itself. The problem is, the sectarianism of the assembly is guaranteed by the peace process itself and its codification of division along unionist and republican lines. This latest initiative will do nothing to change this.

What both the original Belfast Agreement and now the Platform for Change want is to obscure the fact that there is, in fact, a real political issue at the heart of the conflict. Unfortunately, this kind of polite, middle class short-circuiting of politics is what got us to this impasse the first place – all process and no politics.

The fact that there is a political dispute is itself not a real problem and need not lead, once more, to violence. After all, throughout the twentieth century the left and right slugged it out in parliaments across the world, only occasionally shooting one another in extraordinary circumstances. The fact is that politics is all about conflict.

The SDLP, Alliance and the rest of the North’s, frankly, disengaged and creaking middle class institutions are not solely responsible for the conflict, far from it, but they are also not uniquely able to solve it. In a democracy the way change is supposed to be achieved is through the ballot box but so long as Irish and, to a lesser extent, British parties refuse to take a direct interest in the administration of the North there is no way out of the sectarian ghetto.

The only way forward is outward.


(1) Building a Platform for Change: An interview with Robin Wilson, Irish Left Review, April 15, 2009
(2) Platform for Change is launched, O’Conall Street, February 25, 2010