After the political victory of the GFA is Northern Ireland slipping back into another ‘big sleep’?

Men it has been well said, think in herds. It will be seen that they go mad in herds while they only recover their senses slowly, one by one.

Charles Mackay, Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds (1841)

Speaking of Fionola, her essay in an excellent collection from the British Council, gets a mention from Robert Fisk this morning (h/t Kate), where he quotes her saying, “springtime honeymoon period is over, the cherry blossom blown away, and we are now living in the day-to-day reality of post-conflict Northern Ireland”.

Yep. And despite the realisation that life may be better but not quite as better as we might have hoped for in the darkest hours of the conflict we are edging slowly towards the realisation that the world is more complex than that eternal and deadly binary of war: I live, you die, or zero sum as it is known in the jargon.

Trevor Ringland writing in the same essay collection:

Our ‘Pragmatic Peace Process’ has required those who lived through those terrible times and consistently argued for a different way, to accept that which otherwise  would be unacceptable in a normal democracy in order – hopefully – to move our society into a peaceful, stable and genuinely shared future.

The two political parties that best represent those flawed ideologies, namely Sinn Féin and the DUP have evolved in their attitudes, adjusting their politics accordingly in their pursuit of power. Their acceptance of more conciliatory and constructive politics is of course to be welcomed, but their expectation of thanks for their strategic shift shows a lack of understanding on their part with respect to the impact of their past words and actions on the people of these islands, and Northern Ireland in particular. Their political aspirations also seem limited to mere co-existence. A ‘cold peace’ which I feel will ultimately break down. [emphasis added]

Ringland may or may not get what he fears. Certainly, the two main parties wear their aspirational clothes as though they were a poor fit. Robinson’s fine words on taking office as First Minister are all but forgotten now as Sammy Wilson writes out cheques for new flagpoles across Northern Ireland.

And in the midst of winter, the best piece of business Belfast City Council can do for business is to restrict the flying of the union flag to designated days, in a seasonal break in the ongoing and escalating dispute over an anti poverty strategy, parading in Belfast.

In the meantime, Catholics continue to enjoy poorer health outcomes than Protestants, Protestant girls take a beating from members of the same organisation as some who went to Cardiff this weekend for having the bare cheeked audacity of bringing a Catholic friend to a Rangers club, and dissident disenchantment with the indigenous deal over policing and justice continues apace.

Alex Kane in his Irish News column disagrees with Fionola:

…we could not yet be described as a post conflict society.

And, to be brutally honest about it, I’m not sure we’ll ever reach the post conflict stage, since the source of the conflict (the status of the north/Northern Ireland) has not yet been resolved.

For so long as it remains unresolved, then for so long will remain impossible to produce or shore up anything that could be properly described as a shared future.

Where does that leave us? I don’t really know: although I’m pretty certain that the quixotic strategy of windmill tilting by weary old knights will worsen rather than improve relationships.

He goes on to suggest that new parties are needed. Well, may be/may be not. The Belfast Agreement was, as the title of Frank Millar’s excellent work implies, ‘a triumph of politics’, not ‘the triumph of politics’.

Whatever the genuine imaginative victories over a shared dismal past the GFA brought us, it remains the job of politics to look for new ground and new battles, rather than finding new ways to endlessly replicate the old…

Dusting down Cervantes’ wise classic, these words may provide a more accurate description of where we currently find ourselves in Northern Irish politics:

“All I know is that while I’m asleep, I’m never afraid, and I have no hopes, no struggles, no glories — and bless the man who invented sleep, a cloak over all human thought, food that drives away hunger, water that banishes thirst, fire that heats up cold, chill that moderates passion, and, finally, universal currency with which all things can be bought, weight and balance that brings the shepherd and the king, the fool and the wise, to the same level. There’s only one bad thing about sleep, as far as I’ve ever heard, and that is that it resembles death, since there’s very little difference between a sleeping man and a corpse”

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  • David Crookes

    Great posting, Mick: thanks.

    Part of the trouble is that even the middle ground is clogged with ‘weary old knights’. Another part of the trouble is that these particular knights want us live in an intellectual limbo, with the big constitutional question left on ice.

    What we really need is a bold new constitutional doctrine. I don’t want to bore you and everyone else by repeating at length things that I’ve said before, so let me have a shot at saying multum in parvo.

    I want my own folk in East Belfast and Ballymena to have as much political power as people in East London and Billericay.

    My own folk are never going to have any power in a union for which the mainland population has no enthusisam.

    My own folk are already living in limbo.

    If they voluntarily make their future in an all-Ireland context, they will be able to make positive things happen. At present they can’t.

    The ‘big sleep’ that you talk about favours only tired old politicians who believe that they own the electorate.

    Tinkering with the present union is a bit like tinkering with a corpse. Tinker tinker tinker, and let the ‘big sleep’ continue.

    No, thanks.

  • Mick Fealty

    Interesting take on Cervantes David, although not the one I had in mind when I put it there. My only thoughtful response is this: constitutional doctrine is as constitutional doctrine does.

    The test for awakeness is action and willingness to try new approaches. I don’t happen to share Alex’s certainty that you need new parties to do that. But you DO need to be willing to smash some of your own most precious delft on the way.

    So give us an example of how that might work for you?

  • David Crookes

    Thanks, Mick. ‘Precious delft’ will have to be smashed in the course of any seriously new approach. For people on my side of the fence, it’ll mean admitting first that our emotional affinities with the mainland constitute a case of unrequited love, and secondly that we have a great deal in common with citizens of the present RoI. For everyone else on the island, it’ll mean admitting that everything must be negotiable, including even the idea of a republican constitution.

    The clever people, the academics, and the political theorists will have their own delft to smash: notably the idea that ordinary people can be told what to do. Whatever new all-Ireland alloy comes out of the melting-pot will probably surprise all of us to some extent, but it will work only if it represents something that ordinary people can buy into. A melting-pot works because of energy that comes from below, not from above.

  • Red Lion

    David C, I disagree, the union can deliver good power to us in NI, but the present arrangements certainly need tinkered with, a reformed union.

    We need a power sharing arrangement not so pre-disposed to dysfunctionality. How this happens I don’t know.

    Or perhaps its not so much the system that needs change, but those who operate it. New parties and voices are needed, and I hold out so much hope for the Basil party, hopefully the first time a pro-union man/party will contrast a generous, pluralist and functioning union/political space with the inept protestant ulster nationalism of the DUP/UUP.

    The people in the 2 tribal blocks that have sustained SF and DUP are evolving, changing. Immigrants are coming in, more Catholics are noticeably pro-union and/or Northern Irish (and British!), and we secularize. Sf and DUP can only be sustained for so long before the people behind these changes seek representation elsewhere. I hope the Basil party seizes this dynamic – they, afterall, have come about through a rejection of past dogmatism and idiocy and a desire for something better. Its just about the only hope on the horizon I can see.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Red Lion. What the SAA gave us was a new political structure with the old politicians in charge. Inevitable, of course: but I reckon that weariness with these museum pieces lies behind the unwillingness of many unionist electors to vote in elections.

    Rip-van-Winkel thinking is still displayed, even by younger MLAs, on both sides of the house. One lot refuses to support the Parades Commission. Another lot refuses to say ‘Northern Ireland’.

  • “I went along with my Dalmatian dog, Rudi, and we spent a happy night dancing in the moonlight and talking to complete strangers. It felt joyous, unexpected and pleasantly transgressive. Once more, that elusive sense of possibility and purpose was in the air.” .. Fionola Meredith

    Did young Fionola grow up in an era when you didn’t talk to strangers? I talk to strangers all the time; probably always have done. Even when Paisley and Hume were liberating the mobs and the mobs were wrecking the place we were having great crack up on the North Coast.

    If she truly believes we are living in a post-conflict society she needs to get out more. As for political and bureaucratic sleaze … 🙂

    “After the political victory of the GFA”

    In light of my own analysis and expectation I found myself facing a choice of the lesser of two evils 🙁

  • Blue Hammer

    Alex Kane’s point is the nub of the question :

    “…we could not yet be described as a post conflict society.
    And, to be brutally honest about it, I’m not sure we’ll ever reach the post conflict stage, since the source of the conflict (the status of the north/Northern Ireland) has not yet been resolved.
    For so long as it remains unresolved, then for so long will remain impossible to produce or shore up anything that could be properly described as a shared future.”

    The GFA was sold to a slim majority of the PUL community as BEING the resolution of the conflict. Not a staging post or a half-way house to a UI, or indeed anything other than a complete and unchallenged acceptance of the constitutional position as is, with CNRs reserving the right to work towards convincing a majority within NI of the benefits of changing that status quo.

    We now are forced to accept that the situation on this island will never be resolved until a single solitary state is established on the island. A bitter pill. The gunmen have won. The democratically expressed will of those in the north-east of the island to remain in the UK as expressed in 1918 (so sacrosant to Republicans), again in 1998 (affirmed at the same time by the whole island), and in every election between and since, means nothing to these people.

    But David’s point is probably well made – Unionists should consider calling the bluff of the rest of the island – hold a constitutional convention with everything on the table, ie

    – monarchy
    – relationship with GB
    – flag
    – anthem
    – internal devolution of power
    – public administration structures
    – d’hont in new all-island parliament
    – many other issues of concern

    We’d then see just what the future might hold and see if we would prefer that future to the current farce on the Hill.

  • David Crookes

    Many thanks, Blue Hammer. If we unionists do decide to go for what you call ‘that future’, then SF may become a minor quantity in the overall equation, and the AP may disappear altogether.

    For their part FF and FG will have to change beyond recognition. (Their present predication on the Civil War would be an absurdity in a new Ireland.)

    One thing we can say with certainty. NI’s unionists are not going to be absorbed in a Gaelic republic.

    If a UI project ever gets under way, the preternatural self-importance of our present political parties will be unable to impede its progress. In fact, if sufficient numbers of ordinary unionist voters make the leap of faith that I see as necessary, the local parties will have to choose between change and death. All of them. Especially SF.

    No NI party will be ‘owed’ anything in a new Ireland: but the party that sees the future and goes for it may in time consign its weary old rivals to the Ulster Museum.

    Oul wild talk! But somebody has to come out with it.

  • Mick Fealty

    It slightly depresses me that when we talk about change, that it is always someone else who has to do it (yeah, I know, I do it too, all the time)…

    But what changes do (rather than SF, the OO, FF, FG, DUP uncle Tom Cobley and all) we need to pursue to bring about desired change? (hint: the smaller the better?)

  • Blue Hammer


    With respect, I would suggest that when I spoke of change, quite clearly the BIGGEST change would have to be in me, in conceding the principle of an agreed unitary Ireland as the solution to the violence here.

    That I would be forced to do so effectively at the barrel of a gun is the sad part. But clearly our gun-toting friends can and will keep agitating and basically keeping our wounds festering forever until they achieve their aims and I for one am bored with it all. If the argument is made that a “free” Ireland is not worth a single drop of blood, the corollory is that a “British” NI is likewise not worth the bloodshed.

    As you say, the smaller the change the better, so it is therefore a matter of engaging forcefully in negtiation to ensure as much of what makes me love NI makes it through the transition into the new Ireland.

    Maybe then they’ll stop the murder-fest once and for all.

  • David Crookes

    Blue Hammer, you say, “…..when I spoke of change, quite clearly the BIGGEST change would have to be in me, in conceding the principle of an agreed unitary Ireland as the solution to the violence here.”

    Agree 100%. But unionists may find that playing that hand cuts the ground from under SF. Transmuted unionism might confound SF and old-fashioned republicanism by knowing where it wants to go.

    Your penultimate paragraph really says it all.

  • ayeYerMa

    FFS, comment on Slugger (and much of the rest of the media) these days has become so incredibly out of touch that no wonder the only “Unionists” commenting aren’t actually Unionist. As SonofStrongbow said the other day, some of these people claiming online to be “liberal Unionists” are not Unionists at all, more likely rabid Republicans posing as Unionists, or the most weak-minded and pathetic of people lacking the self-respect to overcome their Stockholm syndrome instigated by the endless and unwarranted aggression by Republicans

    Alex Kane’s point on stating that the core constitutional source of the conflict was supposed to be resolved is the core of the issue. Yet, at a time when poll after poll after poll shows the population to be dominantly Unionist across the board, Alex Kane can’t see that he and other media commentators are part of the problem. In this very Slugger post Mick even complains about Sammy Wilson placing new flag poles (as did Alex Kane on the BBC) to display the agreed symbol of our sovereignty. Media commentators making absurd judgements like this, somehow don’t see that it is THEY who are keeping us in a state of limbo by somehow making out that the agreed solution must not be spoken of or stood behind with pride. The flags issue highlights this perfectly, with media commentators continually getting in line to bash those supporting the agreed sovereignty in agreements (and placing symbols of it where you would expect to see them in any country in the world), but being rather mum about those such as Sinn Fein, SDLP and the Alliance Party who are keen to initiate the aggressive and antagonistoic contradictions of agreements in the first place.

  • Blue Hammer


    I am a unionist, a Traditional Unionist – I support the Union with the UK as the best solution for people living in NI. I am not a Unionist in the sense of supporting the current arrangements for devolved power in NI. There can be no place in power for terrorists, but that is the only game in town for here, as full integration into the UK (my preference) will never fly, and local government excluding SFIRA isn’t going to happen either. If it takes a nuclear option to get SFIRA out of my government, I’m willing to consider it.

    I just can’t face bringing my kids up in a constantly contested place where a sizeable proportion of the people refuse to accept the reality of its existence. They won’t even use the name of the place for God’s sake! And their lunatic fringe, with increasing support, thinks it in order to shoot policemen and try launching rockets in towns across the country!

    To my mind there comes a point when you call their bluff, and as I suggested, hold a constitutional convention with everything (including a reconstituted UK of the entire British Isles) on the table, We, and more importantly the rest of the world would then see just what any future UI might hold.

    I cant see it being worse than the current arrangements, can you?

  • David Crookes

    ayeYerMa, you’re right to complain about the people who make out that “the agreed solution must not be spoken of or stood behind with pride.”

    After all their lovey-dovey talk on the plane back from St Andrews, SF still can’t call the state of Northern Ireland by its proper name.

    Some of us, whom you would call not-actual-unionists, are British in our hearts and souls. Our families have served in the Crown forces for generations. We are reluctantly coming to realize that people on the mainland don’t want the union. That realization, along with our conviction that the UK is becoming a cold house for Christianity, leads us to explore some kind of monarchical all-Ireland solution.

    Any such solution will require the electoral neutralization of SF. If SF is malignantly anti-British now, what will it be like as a major player in a unitary state?

    Clever people often say that SF has no serious plan for a UI. That is stupid. Of course SF has a plan for the sort of UI that it wants. Robert Mugabe had a plan for the sort of Zimbabwe that he wanted, but he was clever enough not to tell any of his fellow-negotiators what it was. No one should object to that adduction. Many of my own folk, especially in border areas, lived through something that was close to genicidal war.

    Thanks for your posting, and I’m sorry if you think I’m selling the pass.