Beware hollow talk of a shared future in 2011

It’s progress of a kind that the Assembly leadership has survived the kind of sex and money scandals unimaginable a generation ago. Peter Robinson even looks stronger with one of his parliamentary legs cut off and Gerry Adams has departed with an air of confidence for fresh green pastures. Liam Clarke, never slow to offer constructive advice to government, offers cautious praise rare from a  journalist.

The Assembly is still more important for what it is than for what it does. The two party dominance can be exaggerated but it offers a form of stability and a united front against the threat of renewed violence. On the other hand relative stability argues against a dash to reform in the run-up to the May elections and probably even afterwards. This presents a difficult challenge to would be reformers in and out of the Assembly.

Early prospects for political reform appear slight. We can take it for granted that the AV voting system for Stormont won’t feature in any May referendum. Will the substitute of a weighted majority for block voting and the development of an opposition figure in any party’s manifesto? Does anybody know?

Perhaps surprisingly, some of the paternalist tone of Direct Rule has survived. The Executive takes offence when told to grow up.  And yet Owen Paterson’s goading and prodding has so far produced few results beyond putting down makers for what the Executive might aim for, according to a broadly Tory agenda. Will his tax proposals amount to any more than a long term aspiration?

If proof were needed, the Water scandals (both of them, in the administration and the response to the crisis) have ruthlessly exposed the perils of policy inertia. The devils in the detail of the Budget are still partly concealed but will have to be revealed early in the New Year, like the impact of severe capital cuts on the water service and so much else. Can we  expect a sensible debate on water charges this side of the May elections?

A new peril revealed itself during 2010, namely a fashion for adopting mildly progressive language to conceal lack of agreement over a shared future for society as a whole and education in particular. Over an Assembly vote to encourage education sharing, the News Letter raised some excitement from the integrated education lobby, but the Tele revealed the sectarian tensions beneath. Talk of cohesion and sharing means very little unless accompanied by action led by politicians who seek support in the popular will that crosses the divide. Lip service of that kind practices a deceit on the electorate. Voters and the media should be on the look-out for it during the forthcoming campaign.

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  • Big Maggie

    Brian,

    A very thoughtful, measured and comprehensive post.

    Thank you. And all the best to you and the rest of the team for 2011!

  • It is disappointing that we seem to have settled for a government whose power is purely symbolic, as opposed to one that actually does anything.

  • john

    ‘It’s progress of a kind that the Assembly leadership has survived the kind of sex and money scandals unimaginable a generation ago’.

    What a year I cant wait for 2011 for the next lot of scandals. The folks on the hill parody has become boring compared to the real zoo that is Stormont.

  • 241934 john brennan

    So where are we now on sharing? Well, after 37 years and 3700 untimely deaths, Sinn Fein and DUP finally signed up to the SDLP’s unchanged analysis.

    But, far from reconciling Unionism and Nationalism, by working our common ground together, they simply share the perks of office among themselves, while paying lip service to the concept of a shared society.

    In reality the mutually agreed vetoes between DUP/Sinn Fein serve only to pervert good governance. The farcical situation and financial waste in the fields of Education and Local Government Reform are but two examples.

    For the cynics (or realists?) among us the Peace Process is little more than a Peerage Process for the DUP – and a Pension Process for Sinn Fein.

    John Hume, in his single transferable speech, said: “The problem is not that this piece of earth is divided: it is the people who are divided. So instead of pushing differences to the point of conflict, let us celebrate our diversity – learn how best to share this piece of earth together – let us begin by spilling our sweat together, not our blood.”

    Putting cynicism aside – is there any reason why the Stormont Assembly parties can’t combine to produce a realistic local step-by-step strategy to begin making Hume’s advice a reality – not a dream. The constitutional question is settled, so there should be little difficulty developing a shared society?

    Cynics will say it won’t/can’t happen –because there are few sectarian votes in it for the SF/DUP duopoly. Realists still believe the Duopoly can be marginalized by strengthening the centre.

  • Mark

    The only people using the word sectarian these days seem to be SDLP supporter’s .

  • The Word

    JB

    “But, far from reconciling Unionism and Nationalism, by working our common ground together, they simply share the perks of office among themselves, while paying lip service to the concept of a shared society.”

    Of course, to them, this is the tricolour/union flag position endorsed and they sell this to the electorate under the pure cynicism of them having nailed their opponent in government.

    Republican schemes in West Belfast and Derry are funded and this is the assurance that the tricolour has been honoured and the DUP nailed. Even in education they’re still selling it as them undermining the DUP position, not simply everybody’s position, so the chaos serves its purpose. The tricolour is honoured, the DUP defeated and the chaos is then justified.

    I think we have to think of deep cynicism when we deal with Sinn Fein. They play to the audience, they nurture that audience and eventually convince everyone that they’re the ones who are good and noble and so on. They do this by implicating everybody in their deep cynicism, such that the public then concludes that that is what they were wanting from their politicians all along.

    But the tricolour position can be undermined when the public are armed with the political morality that sees it as counterproductive ansd senseless. It is simply self-serving and manipulative, to be found in the realms of the political proverbial “shit house rat” thinkers.

    Sometime they’re going to have to realise that the reason they keep winning the argument is that nobody wants to share the shit house with their “rats” and that eventually they’ll have to get off the bowl and come back into the house where the social beings are and start warming to the prospect, however alarming it may seem to them now, that the world is not really ordered by cynicism. .

  • 241934 john brennan

    I wholly agree with the above. But in the DUOPOLY the DUP is still top dog. In reality it is the sf/DUP DUOPOLY

  • Brian Walker

    Big Maggie, Best wishes for 2011 are recipcrocated.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    “Beware hollow talk of a shared future in 2011”.

    I would indeed beware of such talk if such talk was ever meant seriously. But such talk was not serious in 2009……2010…..2011………..Nor will it be serious next year or the year after that.
    It is merely the thing that our politicians, journalists, churchmen etc are supposed to say.
    We have no shared futue.

  • Coll Ciotach

    But surely we are divided as to what a shared future is. To a nationalist it means the sharing of the island under one administration. And it always has done. The sentiment express in the song “On the one road” ha been about since the time of Wolfe Tone and indeed before, I can recall from a history lesson in the dim and distant days of my youth one of the Great O’Neills proposed it.

    Now then have a look at an “internal” understanding. I would expect a shared future to mean respect for each others wishes, beliefs and culture. but for breivity I will use education.

    In the education field a shared future seems to be synonymous with integrated education. But surely this is not sharing the future but imposing it. If Catholics want to have faith based eduction let them. Same for Anglicans, Presbyterians, atheists, or whatever. The only criteria should be based on viability in terms of numbers and quality of education delivered.

    The shared future as proposed by our betters in the Alliance Party seems to be based on a ethos of imposed conformity which is not a future I want to be part of.

  • Kadfoomsa

    I am all for a shared future, but utterly opposed to the old imperialist assimilation policies proposed by the Alliance faction.

    Integrated education is all well and good but will this ‘shared future’ respect people’s religous choices?

    Will it include Gaelic games?

    Will it allow for Gaelic medium education and its natural growth?

    Those are some of the questions we have to get answered about the so called shared future.

    The way to defeat division is not to suppress diversity but to look at yourself and tell yourself that you need to learn to be tolerant.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Oh the Alliance Party would hate to be described as “our betters” almost as much as they hate being described as “nice”. We do of course have three communities.
    The third community o some extent makes a virtue out of repudiating their personal and communal past.
    “I was born and raised in East Belfast and daddy was an Orange man.now Im married to a man from Ardoyne”
    “I was born and raised in Crossmaglen where Daddy was in St Vincent de Paul but Im now divorced and in a relationship with a woman from Carrickfergus whose dad was a prison officer”.
    Good luck to them.
    If they are basing their third community commitment on a necessary personal compromise or unpleasant childhood experience, I will not fault them.
    But I wont be lectured to by people who demand that I or others must similarly repudiate my/their past.
    Those of us of a certain vintage remember an old naive hippy age song sung by Blue Mink and written by Greenaway-Cook.
    “What we need is a great big melting pot
    Big enough to take the world and all its got
    Keep it stirring for a thousand years or more
    Turn out coffee coloured people by the score”.

    When I attend the AP conference (22nd January) I might even do my karaoke version.

  • 241934 john brennan

    For a shared future in the wee 6, integrated housing has be a number 1 priority.

    Our problems are not on the same scale as Gazza, or Soweto but we need to make a start at ending our ghettoes – not just the well known city/town divisions, but also the nice rural areas, where a sort of benign, mutually agreed apartheid is observed – but maintaining the familiar segregated housing jig saw that makes up the map of Northern Ireland is a damning and damned indictment of our so called “inclusive government”

    So peace walls need to removed/eroded, with housing incentives for the ‘other sort’ to start mixing. A slow process certainly – but a start has to made, and the cost of “normalization” has to met.

  • Coll Ciotach

    Housing is another one. This again is not a sustainable argument. Let people live were they want and are happy with. Behind this there is an arrogance, It is an attitude based on a superiority complex. “If everyone was nice like me then everything would be okay”.

    However where is the evidence that this occurs? Surely our history says it does not.

    Anyway – here is a radical proposition. Just build house were the demand is and let people sort themselves out. A healing society will evolve. It cannot be imposed. It must come from the bottom up. Top down does not work.

  • fitzjameshorse1745

    Segregated Housing is one of those touchstone issues.
    Frankly people with a bit of money dont want to live in Ardoyne, Turf Lodge, Gilnahirk, Brownstown in Portadown or wherever.
    They like to move to suburbia……which is of course a different form of segregation…….money.
    But realistically its not about “peace walls” in Bombay Street, Duncairn Gardens and Cluan Place…its about villages like Aghalee (Protestant), Aghagallon (Catholic)Ardboe (Catholic) Coagh (Protestant), Hamiltonsbawn (Protestant), Middletown (Catholic) an so on.
    Within our own village…about 800 people…98% are of one tribe. 2% from another. In this village people live their lives as Irish people. Three miles down the road our neighbours live as British people.
    It works rather well. No problems. No need for compromises on a Carryduff or Malone Road basis.
    I think Duncan Morrows address to the SDLP Conference dwelt too much on the cost of sectarian housing (ie for the working class).
    Really the people in these interfaces dont have these barriers as “protection”, they have them to live their lives as Irish or British people. Apartheid with Equality? Seperate Development? A Backward Step?
    Maybe…….but if the middle classes in South Belfast or Bangor West thought that a Housing Executive estate was going to be built near them……they might just prefer to live as they are now. Free to live as middle class.

  • 241934 john brennan

    Many of us live where we want and are quite happy with the area.
    The problem is that some are not happy if the “other sort” move in to ‘their area’ and live beside them – and then show displeasure/hostility/coldness towards their new neighbours. That is were climate change is needed.

  • Progressive Unionist

    The Assembly is still more important for what it is than for what it does.

    That’s true. To a lesser extent same could be said for Wales perhaps.

    I’d like to see a much more pro-active shared future agenda, on housing and education especially.

    It would also be good to see the Assembly elections fought on the basis of “largest party in each community forms the govt, the others form the opposition” – that would mean the election actually offered voters a real choice, instead of just the vague chance to shuffle a few all-party ministerial chairs about.

    In the past I know SF and other nationalists have been wary of moving away from all-party govt for fear it was a plot to exclude SF from power – and in fairness, the ideas that Reg Empey/Elliott etc were putting forward for “voluntary coalition” did indeed seem like they were a thin cover for wanting to exclude SF.

    But if the new dispensation was a simple pro-power-sharing – largest party in each community forms the govt – would SF still oppose that?

    It doesn’t seem very likely that SF would lose top-dog position within NI nationalism in the foreseeable future. It looks v likely that SF and DUP would emerge top and they’d have even more ministerial places with that kind of system than with the current one – for the UUP and SDLP they’d lose their current ministers but get a chance to refresh on the oppo benches.

    Any SF supporters here care to comment?

    (PS – perhaps exception needs to be made for Policing/Justice minister in terms of that particular minister needing cross-community support?)

  • madraj55

    BW It’s not all that suprising that the Stormont set up isn’t producing anything worth talking about in 3 and a half years, since the main reason for them being up there isn’t to actually govern but to keep them in there ‘spitting out’ [to paraphrase]rather than outside spitting in. How can they be taken seriously as they decline any portfolios that might lose them votes, such as social security.