The Liberal Dissidents is a sluggerism coined months ago by Fitzjameshorse but one which makes sense in Northern Ireland. There is a heterogeneous group of people who are interested in politics and the nature of Northern Ireland’s society who are in the middle in orange / green terms yet seem highly disenchanted with the political and social system we have here. This group is clearly varied and varying in membership: overall its members support the agreement but not its practical political or social outworkings. Indeed there sometimes seems to be the claim, implicit or explicit that the current political and social leadership in Northern Ireland have failed to implement the Agreement properly: even to have perverted it. In contrast the liberal dissidents appear to regard themselves as the true keepers of the spirit of what was negotiated in the Belfast Agreement.
These people are a heterogeneous and shifting non group group who are difficult to pin down but equally do seem to be a real phenomenon. They encompass many different groups but seem to coalesce around a number of often interrelated causes and interests. In the past, before the resumption of devolution these people or their ideological ancestors often had roles in quangos and the like; frequently exercising more influence and power than any elected local politicians. Now with the politicians having power, the Liberal Dissidents, have become somewhat more marginalised from the levers of power but have maintained an existence in a number of different spheres. A few such are the academic world, victims groups and non political party politics. There are other spheres for Liberal Dissidents especially in the liberal parts of the mainstream Protestant churches but there is merit in looking at the first three mentioned groups: the academics, victims groups and politics.
It is worth noting that these people are liberal in some senses but there are other uses of the term by which they are at times far from liberal. See The Dissenter’s excellent article on liberalism.
The academic and pseudo academic peace processors
The academic study of the Northern Ireland conflict has a long and honourable history. One of the most prominent and important groups was the Centre for the Study of Conflict at the University of Ulster which existed from 1977 until 2000. It had many serious academics looking at the historical background, politics and sociology of Northern Ireland. What differentiates the Centre for the Study of Conflict and various successor groups and individuals in both the University of Ulster and Queens from many in the Liberal Dissident community is that the rather staid academics tended not to prescribe solutions to the Northern Ireland (or other) problems. The academics stuck to observing, commenting and researching without proffering solutions. Some people who were involved in similar groups such as Monica McWilliams did go into serious politics but most of the academics remained academics.
In contrast the Liberal Dissident academics seem much more interested in showing how their “insights” into the Northern Ireland “peace process” should result in specific actions being taken by the Northern Ireland Executive or when they are ignored by Stormont, the British government. Indeed they sometimes seem to point to where Stormont or society at large have “failed” in implementing assorted pet topics of the Liberal Dissidents.
These academics are also extremely keen to go to other places in the world to tell others about the valuable lessons Northern Ireland supposedly has to tell the rest of the world and how the academics experience can help in other conflicts (as well as produce a good few junkets and ideally one suspects some paid consultancy work). A further noteworthy factor about the Liberal Dissident academics is that they often do not seem to have quite as important or permanent positions in their institutions as the original academics and their successors had or now have. Indeed many seem to be in organisations affiliated to universities and the like without actually holding the position of lecturers, senior lecturers, readers or professors in a university. As such the Liberal Dissidents seem keen maybe to keep up their profiles and ensure that they can gain better and more prestigious jobs from their “insights.”
There are a large number of victims groups in Northern Ireland but they seem to fall into three rough categories, two of which are actually quite similar. Broadly speaking nationalist / catholic / republican victims groups exist to support the relatives of those who died from that community. They are often locality or even event related: the Bloody Sunday families or the McGurks Bar families groups would be examples of such groups. Some are organised and receive funding, others less so / do not receive funding. Some are highly focused on gaining justice; others seem more focused on the practical and material needs of the surviving relatives. These groups have a similar mirror image in the unionist community with again largely locality specific victims groups such as South East Fermanagh Foundation and others providing largely practical help to victims’ relatives along with some campaigning typed activities.
In contrast the Liberal Dissident victims groups seem much more interested in grand narratives, big events and driving forward a generalised and highly politicised though non NI party political view of the needs of victims. The specific activities they get involved in include supporting plays (as Healing Through Remembering have done) and other high profile events. There does seem to be an attempt to offer services to victims but they are probably less well equipped to do this as they are not as local as the other victims’ groups nor are their paid employees part of the same local community as those to whom they offer their services. In addition much of the work of Liberal Dissident victims’ supporters seems to centre round the advancement of the narrative of the past and the mechanisms for dealing with it proposed by the likes of the Eames Bradley report and subsequently rejected by almost everyone apart from the Liberal Dissidents. These victims’ supporters champion some sort of “closure” and other similar at times rather nebulous outcomes for victims all of which seem to fit into the Eames Bradley proposals.
Many victims on the unionist side (and I suspect, though not from direct personal knowledge, also on the nationalist side) are highly dubious about or even antagonistic towards the likes of Eames Bradley and most forms of closure which do not involve what they see as justice which more often than not involves a desire for prosecutions even though they know that is a remote hope. Liberal Dissident victims’ supporters on the other hand tend to be fairly horrified at the prospect of criminal prosecutions: often citing the danger to “the process”.
Liberal Dissidents by their nature are highly political: as such it would be odd in the extreme if some did not desire political power: nothing wrong with that desire. The problem of course has been that no political party seems an appropriate home for them. Clearly Sinn Fein and the DUP would be far from appropriate homes for these individuals. The SDLP offers some benefits and would seem appropriate for the greener liberal dissident but realistically only limited accommodation of their aims is offered there. Alliance would seem to be the natural home for the Liberal Dissident but again there are problems. In the recent past Alliance, with Ford taking the justice ministry and Farry now an executive minister, seems to have entered the tent a little too much to be truly dissident. In addition the Alliance castigation of the DUP and SF has been markedly muted since Ford got his snout into the trough and to the truffles of power.
The best home for the Liberal Dissidents of a unionist persuasion was of course the Conservative and Unionist New Force or whatever it was called. Its candidates read like a whos who of Liberal Dissident unionism. Unfortunately the electorate seemed remarkably impervious to the superior intellect and moral authority of these assorted luvvies and duly sent them packing.
It is an open secret that there was an attempt to set up a liberal unionist party in the aftermath of the débâcle of the Westminster election and the election of Tom Elliott as the new UUP leader. It is also an open secret that this attempt floundered not only on the chances of the new party achieving anything but also on the issue of which of the failed politicians was to lead the new party.
The Liberal Dissident “political party” has tended to become groups such as Platform for Change which offer a critique of the current political system and to an extent the current political parties. PfC also propose policies and seem to be more than a think tank but less than a political party and indeed this organisation spans too broad a range of political viewpoints to become one. Some in PfC seem to want to create a new political party but the majority of its prominent members, both those in political parties and those outside seem to realise that they are too disparate and their prospects too poor.
The Liberal Dissidents seem to form an unofficial opposition outside Stormont. Unlike some opponents of the process, however, they oppose those whom the process has promoted whilst claiming greater fealty to the process than anyone else. The liberal dissidents are almost a self appointed priestly class whose function is to keep the flame of the Agreement and warn when others depart from the true faith. It almost seems the Liberal Dissidents want the powers of the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith to pull errant members of the social and political establishment into line if they transgress. Furthermore the Liberal Dissidents seem to regard themselves as fairly indispensable to the process and many seem rather fond of obtaining somewhat soft public money. If anyone dares to suggest that this money might be better spent elsewhere then the Liberal Dissidents tend to point to the needs of victims; the danger of slipping back to violence and the claimed failure of the current political parties fully to implement the agreement. Thus far there has been enough media attention and money in the system to keep the Liberal Dissidents relatively well nourished with money and media exposure: whether this will continue is rather doubtful which helps explain the at time rather shrill complaints of the Liberal Dissidents. The foreseeable future in Northern Ireland seems to revolve around the carve up of power between unionism and nationalism. This carve up although not what the Liberal Dissidents want nor what they expected is in actual fact the logical outworking of the agreement. The gradual realisation of their powerlessness and lack of influence is something the Liberals will have to get used to. That the process they championed has directly caused the loss of their power and influence is an irony to be enjoyed by most apart from the Liberal Dissidents themselves: such Liberals tend not to do irony.