Whilst the DUP and Sinn Fein continue to withdraw into their bunker mentalities, Micheál Martin was speaking at the Merriman School yesterday (the clar is here)…
Institutions are in place. Meetings happen on schedule. Speeches about how well everyone is getting on, are delivered all the time. Yet there is absolutely no urgency or ambition.
The process is becoming ever more concentrated on the elites, distracted by their partisan concerns and leading to a marked increase in public disillusionment.
The focus has been on managing rather than developing institutions. Opportunities to address shared problems are being missed – and in some areas we are seeing a slow but undeniable retreat from the policy of deeper cooperation.
This has had an inevitable and growing impact on public attitudes.
Today the majority within Northern Ireland do not feel that their say in how they are governed has increased and they believe that the Assembly has achieved little.[Emphasis added]
Fundamentally, a public discourse once solely focused on conflict has not evolved a new approach. There are only a handful of journalists who pay any attention to the wider cultural, social and economic dimensions of relations within Northern Ireland and between North and South.
It is as if issues relating to the North have been put away in a file marked “history” – to be dusted off only when communal tensions flare up again.
We are failing to take advantage of the many and obvious opportunities which peace and a legitimate constitutional blueprint have brought. The failure to take all of these opportunities, to build deep understanding of other communities, to aggressively target development, to work to bring the concerns of marginalised groups and areas onto a shared agenda – each of these poses a long-term threat to what has been achieved.
No one who knows anything about our history should think for a moment that there is nothing to be worried about.
Over the last two years I have delivered a series of speeches calling for action on the growing dysfunction of institutions ever-more beholden to narrow party interests.
In particular I have addressed what I think is the dangerous vacuum being created within Northern Ireland. That critique stands.
In fact it has been borne out yet again during a summer where the two largest parties continue to pick and choose whether they will accept the legitimacy of the system they are supposed to guarantee.
And of course there is a political sting in the tail:
…a dangerous complacency is undermining progress in all three strands of the process.
The most striking example was the recent announcement of what was titled the “New Economic Pact” for Northern Ireland. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister travelled to London where they announced the initiative with Prime Minister Cameron in Downing Street.
It was presented as the definitive strategy for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy. The ‘Pact’ is welcome and it includes many important commitments – but what it also does is exclude any North/South dimension whatsoever.
Even though the Irish Government had explicitly addressed common development as a goal in the 2007 National Development Plan – and maintained most of the proposals even in the toughest of times – the ‘Pact’ does not include even a single mention of the Border Region or cross-border cooperation.
The only mention of the South comes in a point saying that efforts are to be made to get tourists to go North.
I can think of no comparable example in the last 15 years where there were no North/South or East/West discussions before such an announcement or where the Dublin or London governments ignored a clear opportunity for shared action.[Emphasis added]
And here it is, “this is not about The DUP and Conservative Party imposing more traditional unionist approach – Sinn Féin was a full participant.”
However, he goes on to say:
…there remain many reasons for hope – the most important being that the public still fundamentally accepts the core principles of the peace process. There are hundreds of individual examples of people and groups working to promote cooperation and understanding.
In the South there is a widespread acceptance of the idea that closer economic, social and cultural cooperation would be to the benefit of both sides. In the North the situation is more complicated but there is still a solid majority in favour of increased cooperation.
While this has not been measured for a few years, a majority also accepts the idea that the Dublin government has a legitimate interest in Northern affairs.
More importantly, when people are asked what they think their political leaders should be focusing on, a strong majority cite improving inter-communal relations and tackling unemployment.
It is the lack of action on these points which feeds disillusionment and division.[Emphasis added]
Yes, North and South we have two societies which are growing apart – but there is nothing inevitable about this. There are many, many areas where our community of interests is clear and the opportunities for action are at hand.
Economic development, education, health and research are just a few of the practical areas where a significantly enhanced North/South dimension would benefit all and threaten none.
There is a broad public consensus around seeing no political danger from promoting development and improved relations. What is missing is leadership.
For Sinn Fein, Pádraig Mac Lochlainn was on point with a rapid response…
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