Declan O’Loan is a Mid & East Antrim Borough Councillor and former MLA for the SDLP. Here he argues that the key to “making Northern Ireland work” is not simply pursuing internal changes which improve relations inside NI, but in finding ways the Irish dimension can be reinforced in a more focused way.
No one, looking at the history of the Assembly since 1998 can be sanguine about its future prospects. Political divisions, there and in the wider community, are so intense that they put massive strain on a government structure which is necessarily based on power sharing.
The Executive is seriously underperforming. Lack of cohesion means that major challenges in education, health and the economy are not being faced. Many people are not voting. What is missing is a common sense of purpose that commands broad support in the community.
How is this to be achieved when different constitutional aspirations lie at the heart of our divisions?
John Hume pointed out that it is not the island that is divided, it is the people that are divided. This is a statement of utter simplicity and yet of profound depth. Anything which does not work towards uniting the people will be a failure, as it has been in the past.
The people have responded to the democratic opportunity offered under the Good Friday Agreement by electing those that they see as the strongest champions of unionism and nationalism. That is not uniting the people. Some see a border poll as the way forward.
They are oblivious to the fact that a simple majority in favour of a united Ireland, even if it were to happen, would not unite the people. The United Kingdom as an entity is under severe strain, and I find it hard to see how stable devolved arrangements can be constructed.
If Scotland leaves, the position of Northern Ireland will be very strange. But no one should think that it will then be easy to roll over into a united Ireland, and our problems will be over. That does not satisfy the “John Hume test” of uniting the people.
Does anyone suppose that in a new united Ireland the unionist political parties, flags, parades, bonfires, paramilitary groups, would all disappear. Is it not more likely that the more unpleasant manifestations of unionist domination would intensify in local areas.
There is no alternative to the current structures, and what we have to do is make them work for the foreseeable future. An opposition of a sort has been agreed for the Assembly. Maybe that will achieve something, but I am not so sure. Some have confidence that it will somehow “normalise” our politics, and that is a fantasy.
No, the only hope is to build up much more commonality of thinking within the existing structures. What does this mean for unionism and nationalism?
Unionist wagons are still circled
For many years, it was the reluctance of unionism to engage that made it impossible to set up power sharing structures. Those misgivings did not disappear when the institutions were set up.
The repeated collapses of the Assembly, the defections to less moderate parties, the founding of a new party fundamentally opposed to the current structure (and its winning of significant public support) all testify to this.
The dynamic at Stormont is a curious mixture of teamwork at times, and at others deep separation and animosity, but it is the latter which is the stronger. Unionism and nationalism have not fully entered into a spirit of partnership. Unionism still gives every sign of being a reluctant player.
Unionist wagons are still circled and there remains an atmosphere of siege. Any proposed change which reflects the nationalist tradition is seen as a challenge. These attitudes repeat themselves in grassroots communities, indeed the two levels reinforce each other.
We observe widespread flag flying, bonfires, and parades, with a highly assertive attitude towards all of these. Loyalist paramilitaries exert strong control in local areas. If Stormont is going to work, there has to be a major softening of these unionist attitudes.
Nationalism too needs to change.
At a very deep level. nationalism has often failed to give legitimacy to the sense of Britishness felt by many in Northern Ireland. The historic political power held by Britain over Ireland is seen as such a deep wrong that the entire right rests with those who wish to remove all vestiges of that power.
This is most clearly seen in the mindset of certain republicans who react with hatred towards British involvement here, and regard all steps, including violence of any degree, as morally justified in order to remove it. The basic issue around legitimacy is much more widely felt.
If we are to establish common ground, nationalism will need to do more to recognise that Britishness is implicit in the background and tradition of many people here, and if it is expressed in a reasonable and tolerant fashion, it must be found a place in a broader concept of Irishness.
In my area, I am very familiar with the stories of Rose Young, scholar of Irish, and Margaret Dobbs, one of the founders of the Glens Féis in 1904. Both would have been instinctively unionist, but would have regarded it as absurd to suggest that they were not fully Irish.
The space for such thinking has been squeezed out by history, and we need to reclaim it. Nor must we insist that every unionist go off to Irish classes before we can give them a full place in our concept of Irishness.
The place of violence in our history is the other area which must become a focus for examination within nationalism. The idea that we can “unite the people” through force and at the cost of so many wrecked lives must be thoroughly rejected, as it has been by constitutional nationalists.
Many groups played their part in the violence of the last forty years, but it is asking a very great deal of unionists to place their trust in the political representatives of republicans who had a role of primacy and centrality in that violence, and have not yet come to recognise how wrong that campaign was.
The commemoration of 1916 also throws this issue into relief. At this distance we can surely recognise that amongst the idealism and courage of the men and women of the Easter Rising, the modern concept of “uniting the people” was not their thinking.
The Proclamation refers to “differences carefully fostered by an alien government”, underestimating the difficulty of obtaining the “allegiance of every Irish man and Irish woman” to the new Republic. As nationalists, we have tended to “blame” the unionists for partition.
We need to become aware of the contribution of nationalism to the disaster that partition has turned out to be, through failing to work for a solution which would “unite the people’. We need a nationalism which acknowledges and accepts the sense of Britishness among many of our people, which says clearly that physical force will not be used on them, and ample space will be found for an outward looking and tolerant unionism.
We are once again at a moment of decision. We need to implement the well established steps for dealing with the past. That on its own will not be enough, nor will it even achieve implementation unless we enhance the trust levels.
We can continue the stop-start acrimonious character of the Assembly, or we can embark on a new journey. A modern forward looking Northern Ireland can be constructed. A “Northern Ireland which works” cannot be built in isolation. The British connection is inbuilt through the funding mechanism and numerous legal links.
The Irish dimension must be reinforced in a more focused way. People can make voting decisions based on champions for their own community, or we can get leadership towards a future with a common foundation, and support for that kind of leadership from the grassroots.
There is a responsibility on political leaders, and also on all of us.