Lots of controversy (graceless valedictory, or just misunderstood) over Seamus Mallon’s interview by Will Crawley. Most of it over the trout slight against his former leader, John Hume. But given the time and space, it was probably Crawley at his best as interviewer.
It often falls to old men who no longer hold temporal responsibility to reflect and say the things those still spinning the many plates all democrats are expected to accomplish with grace simply cannot. Mallon is more than a handful and a bit of a wily old trout himself.
What emerges is an outline of a nationalism that’s been little heard of since Mallon’s exit from politics, although to his credit he refused to follow through on the invitation to further criticise Hume’s successors for the party’s apparent and tragic loss of political content.
For my money it was a southern commentator Dan O’Brien in the Sunday Independent who seized on one of the more significant passages early on in the Crawley interview…
He described the term ‘peace process’ as a misnomer. “Peace is something which shouldn’t be bargained with, it shouldn’t be used as a political weapon,” he said. He preferred the term “political process”.
If violence has been fully replaced by political means, then the peace process is over. Negotiating among political parties is called politics. It is past time the media stopped doing Sinn Fein’s bidding by continuing to use the term.
Mallon then went on to make a point that is very rarely made but needs to be made a lot more often. “Peace is not just an absence of war,” he said, “but is an attitude of mind, a disposition towards benevolence, confidence and justice.” Because “a mandate has been given to the biggest bullies on both sides”, those attitudes and dispositions are sorely lacking in the politics of Northern Ireland.
The point about disposition is deliberately drawn from the great Dutch philosopher Spinoza (and recharged many times through subsequent history). It is a great deal more critical to the securing of long term peace than many commentators appear to suppose.
Despite winning political power (and looking pretty secure in it for the time being) it is the disposition of the current two party establishment that Mallon is targeting here. O’Brien again:
The collapse of the centre and the carve-up of power between the DUP and Sinn Fein have resulted in a Balkanisation process, whereby the dominant parties use power to bolster their own support bases. There is little consideration for society as a whole.
“Is the present executive showing any benevolence, except to their own supporters and those who vote for them?” Mallon asked rhetorically last week.
And with Balkanisation comes other abuses. “A black economy is being created in every constituency in Northern Ireland,” Mallon noted, hinting at the pervasive, mafia-style criminality that the many paramilitaries continue to engage in.
Nor is there much evidence that executive power being exercised by the North’s parties has improved the quality of governance. There is even less sign that sharing power has brought the communities closer together at a grassroots level.
Where people live and go to school is determined more than ever by their nationalist/unionist background, and there are now more “peace walls” dividing the North’s cities than 20 years ago.
No one can really argue that things have not improved in the absence of war. But Mallon argues that in continuing to be defined by the failure of the Provisional’s long campaign Nationalism misses clear opportunities provided by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.
As I noted back in December 2012 in the teeth of the futile and needless flag dispute the middle ground remains the only place for deal making…
…if the middle is the weakest point for an actor in any political drama to adopt it is also the fulcrum around which any political deal must derive. Thus the peace settlement was riven around the dealings of the moderate SDLP and UUP.
Building the strength of those who currently occupy the middle actually misses the point. What’s required is the emergence substantive political actors who are committed not to being in the middle, but who are capable of acting decisively through the middle.
In short we need inveterate deal makers who can do deals that stick and who are obsessed with more than covering up for the failures and misadventures of the past, but are instead committed to enlarging the shadow of the future.
Otherwise we remain stuck as exquisitely caught in the two statues in Derry at the end of the Craigavon bridge always seeming to touch but never quite having the courage to consummate the deal.
It remains to be seen if the new leadership (favoured by Mallon in the last leadership contest) can plot a new direction which is capable of drawing resonance with northern nationalist voters who are presently in the process of quietly walking off the electoral pitch.