An open briefing for US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton

First of all, welcome back Madam Secretary and thanks for calling. Second, despite all the nasty headlines, do not panic! It’s not a patch on what was going on when your husband was last in charge. We’ve stopped burning Catholics and isolated Protestants. We’re just after liberals now. What follows is not necessarily a popular analysis, nor one that’s widely held, but I offer it in good faith.

  1. One of the first things a ganger teaches his labourers is that you keep on digging until you get to dry ground. Foundations that are slopped into a wet bottomed trench almost certainly mean that the building will eventually wobble if not fall. In 1998 not all of our trenches were sunk in dry earth. For instance there was no universal recognition of the police, bill of rights, decommissioning of paramilitary arms or a fair and equitable way of dealing with our past. All were put on an indeterminately long finger. But a journey was begun, if as much in hope as expectation.
  2. Much like the role of sliced debt has played within the current financial crisis, many of the tensions from the previous conflict were baked into our post conflict institutions. The designation system which under the Belfast Agreement disenfranchised those for whom the tags Nationalist and Unionist were inappropriate from choosing the First and deputy First Minister. For the most part it has bought us a period in which peace has become the norm. In most cases, the substantive competing claims over sovereignty have been relegated to small, regulated and, on occasion, mischievously orchestrated, sham fights.
  3. Following amendments brought in 2006/7 during and following the St Andrews Agreement the choice of who became First and deputy First Minister fell into the hands of the two largest parties (rather than the Unionist and Nationalist blocs at large). Powers were added that allowed those two main parties to enforce blocks on ministers of other parties, as well as each others. Power (or at least means to enforce a lack of it) was further centralised.
  4. Centralisation of power has led to an incumbency of ‘former extremists’. The ‘Former’ here being key to understanding the critical success of Northern Ireland’s famous peace process. In neither party is commitment an issue. Both are held to have channelled their energies more efficiently and effectively than those in the dwindling ‘former moderate middle’. These have all struggled (albeit to different degrees) to find a role for themselves in a harsh, spare landscape sculpted and shaped by the new ‘immoderate centre’.
  5. Think of Congress deadlocked by two beligerent blocks – Teamsters and Tea Partiers – who pride themselves in not being willing (or, in fact, able) to cut a deal with the other. In fact we went off our own vertiginous fiscal cliff years ago because, unlike the US, we’re too small for anyone else to have noticed and we still retain the pathology of a nasty political psychosis that makes the application of punitive action broadly inadvisable. As a result, moral hazard abounds.
  6. Unlike most normal democratic societies, it is the disenfranchised whose political sensibilities drive the game at Stormont. Sinn Fein is headquartered squarely in the middle of working class and radicalised Catholic west Belfast; whilst the DUP is less unambiguously based on the edge of Protestant inner east. Both recognise the power of the tribal to rally troops to the flag. In the case of Belfast City Council this week a single decision to remove the national flag, unleashed mayhem not on Catholics, but upon the heads of post nationalist liberals whose party’s only sin was to facilitate a decision for which – according to the council’s own consultation – there was no popular demand.
  7. At the same time in the new City of Newry the council set aside a report from the Equality Commission on promoting good relations with a local minority of just 10% to name a children’s play park after a Hunger Striker, who’s gun was associated by a PSNI Historical Enquiries Team with the massacre of ten Protestant workmen in 1975. Total war has gone, but wartime mentalities still play an important role in shaping and re-shaping of community relations.
  8. The centralisation of power has also given rise to a certain intolerance of external criticism. The numbers of journalists outside the institutions are vastly outnumbered by those working in PR on the inside. The First Minister regularly complains of his administration’s bad press. Becoming a political correspondent which was once the plum job in all local newspapers, is increasingly seen as the one no one wants. The pickings are spare and too many ‘stupid questions’ gets you a reputation of being an enemy of the peace process. As a result there is little scope for contention over policy, party performance or pursuing an aggressive journalistic agenda.
  9. Perhaps as a result of the lack of a critical public discourse, there is an ongoing, slow burn crisis of  purpose within the former moderate middle. In the cases of the UUP and the SDLP they may already be in terminal decline as they are sucked into the after tow of their larger tribal brothers and sisters.  Each accuses the other of tribal acquiescence, but in truth there is little evidence that either has  looked for a new role for itself in the  unfolding new history of Northern Ireland. And although Alliance may have an opportunity in the current crisis to enlarge its footprint, like the other two it is not clear that they have either the capacity or the inclination to scale beyond their Greater Belfast liberal bubble.
  10. There are two Northern Irelands. There’s a new one that is still trying to give birth to a new way of seeing the wider world, Northern Ireland’s place in it and how each citizen might relate positively to one another. And there’s the old one, breed by at least one generation of murder, betrayal not to mention remote and dysfunctional government. Every now and then someone presses a tribal button and the door swings open on the abiding suspicion, alienation and loathing between neighbours.

And one final separate thought. Much consideration was given in the early days of the process to what it might take to end conditions of war and install new conditions that would help create positive clusters of peace. What’s not been considered (and its not clear how this can take place without some form of autonomous bottom up action), is how can freedom of expression and critical discourse can be mainstreamed in a place like Northern Ireland where public subsidy is ubiquitous?

As Alexis de Tocqueville once memorably put it, “a government can no more be competent to keep alive and to renew the circulation of opinions and feelings among a great people than to manage all the speculations of productive industry… it is never easy to discriminate between its advice and its commands”.

That I suspect must needs arise from a renewed critical analysis of politics here, and the re-introduction of some form of competitive politics. It’s unlikely to arise from idle talk about changing the rules to allow an official opposition. It may even arise from inside one or both of the two incumbent tribal champions, though it never will if only one of them is bought fully into the project, whatever they mutually decide that is.

Come back see us in another ten, or twelve even?

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty