Inability of OFMdFM to compromise has allowed the “No Go” politics of the street to re-occupy a central space

It’s no go your maidenheads, it’s no go your culture,
All we want is a Dunlop tyre and the devil mend the puncture.

Louis MacNeice – Bagpipe Music

One of the optical illusions of Northern Ireland’s now regular summers of trouble is that it has nothing whatsoever to do with the power sharing executive on Stormont hill. This was an actual feature of the politics that developed from the early sixties through to the outbreak of serious public disorder in 1968/9.

By the time the SDLP walked out in July 1971, mainstream politics had effectively sidelined itself, and over the next thirty years, the struggle for real power deferred to a protracted and violently destructive stalemate out on the streets.

After six years in power, neither of the established parties in OFMdFM seem willing or capable of striking a deal that will stick with the various troubled localities. Over the last couple of years we’ve had tactical sniping at the very institutions put in place to keep public order.

The vexatious relations between the First Minister and the Parades Commission, and SF’s repeated gaming of the PSNI when they inconveniently arrest one of the party’s own ‘friends of the Agreement’ undermine both institutions, and any hope that, to paraphrase the First Minister promise, that the sons and daughters of the Planter and Gael would one day feel a shared sense of security.

It’s a long way from November 2011 when Peter Robinson’s upbeat speech at his party conference was heralded by the raucously optimistic opening lines of The Call’s ‘Let the Day Begin’. Mr Robinson went on to say…

…the real battle is not about the past, it’s about the future. We must always be sure to fight the next campaign and not the last one. Our greatest threat is not political opposition – it’s inertia. The path to success hasn’t been painless, but the testing times have only served to strengthen us. We can look back now on everything we have achieved – and we can see that what we did, actually strengthened and enhanced our party position, it didn’t weaken it.

This is not a time to rest on our laurels, it’s the time to move forward. Opportunity is sitting on our doorstep. As a party, we must be the very best at everything we do. And that means we must plan and prepare, we must set out our strategy and deliver on our goals. Whatever our opponents do, we must be one step ahead. That means a process of continual improvement at every level. As a party we must set demanding targets and deliver on them.

Less than two years later, and there is no sign of ‘travellers on an open road’. The missing element from the DUP/Sinn Fein package has been compromise. Those very checks, balances and vetos that Robinson talked about as an admission that the DUP and SF could not agree, as well as trivialising the role of other parties in the Executive, made an already rigid system even more rigid than it had been before.

What’s happened in lieu of the subsequent lack of agreement on the core principles of running a broad administration has been a return to political drift, in spite of the presence of agreed ‘indigenous’ governance. Compromise is the ultimate dirty word in Northern Irish political parlance, and yet without it no two parties can ever hope to drive the highly tensioned machine bequeathed them by St Andrews.

Such compromise is difficult, if not impossible for two parties which were inveterate and competing idealists during the conflict. And, as Roddy Cowie notes:

Compromise involves settling for something that falls short of ideals; and where there has been serious conflict, the ideals are almost bound to be at least partly moral. That means our simple picture needs to have a third agency added – moral judgement.

Moral judgement is neither cold calculation of self-interest, nor raw emotion: it is a framework grounded in deep-seated feelings, and extended systematically by reason.

Just being reasonable is not enough, because compromise involves accepting that we have to go against at least some parts of that framework, and restructure it so that the rest retains a kind of integrity.

When people make light of that problem, the effect may well be the opposite of their aim: they sound as if they are making light of the moral issues, and therefore moral people have a duty to stand against them. [emphasis added]

David McCann at identifies at least one common element, the observation of No Go politics retains a strong appeal, on both sides…

We often hear talk about a ‘shared future’ in Northern Ireland. It has to be the most used and abused phrase in politics in this province. Yet I fail to see how we are ever going to get there if we pursue with the logic of ‘no go’ areas. Do we really want a city where the mayor is regarded as an enemy simply because he comes from the other community? [emphasis added]

The inability of these two parties to strike a detailed, structured and politically robust compromise has enabled the “No Go” politics of the street to re-occupy the national and international media spaces. It may be that  St Andrews was a misstep along the way in which insecurities about the future squeezed out the space for necessary future compromise.

Or perhaps, and more simply, it may just be that the sort political culture (driven as much new civil custom and habit of mind) that’s capable of hammering out the sort of new and morally robust compromises Cowie suggests are necessary has still to be imagined, never mind arrived at…

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