Equality has arrived but the DUP and Sinn Fein have yet to face up to what it means

“Equality” has always been a Sinn Fein buzzword. As the recanted ex- IRA man Shane Paul O’Doherty lethally today quoted Gerry Adams speaking in 2014: “The point is to actually break these bastards – that’s the point. And what’s going to break them is equality … That’s what we need to keep the focus on – that’s the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy is to reach out to people on the basis of equality.”

Other views are  un-cynical and compelling. To nationalists generally equality is an essential achievement after centuries of oppression. To unionists who are behind the times, it’s an excessive demand which nationalist numbers don’t warrant and a debased term extracted from the virtuous vocabulary of human rights to deploy as weaponry in the continuing war by other means. A false reading of history is resented that implies that rights are only about justice denied to nationalists. Other views of rights favouring social reform and toleration are spreading rapidly,  cutting across the sectarian stranglehold which isolates Northern Ireland  but showing no signs of  breaking the DUP/ Sinn Fein duopoly.

In its original state, equality is fundamental to human rights, which is first of all a construct for the individual’s benefit.   Collectively it invokes supporting concepts like parity of esteem and equal opportunity for disadvantaged groups to redress imbalances, both present and historic. Equality does not mean uniformity and much effort is needed to apply it to a diverse or divided society.  Invariably for the bigger group comprised of smaller groups, it requires compromise between different or competing rights in the smaller groups.

The Good Friday Agreement entrenched rights and equality in the political system as never before.  With the  winding up of paramilitarism, the road to ending our worst problems lay open.  Institutional discrimination abolished ( the famous section 75 of the NI Act 1998),  terms for power sharing between equals under the law finally agreed.   But instead, the struggle – or “struggle” –  shifted.   Rather than move to a new rhythm, politics retained  the counterpoint of the drive of Sinn Fein’s determinist  slogan,  “tiocfaidh ár lá “and the DUP’s  defensive shout of  “No Surrender.”   Both sides learned to game the system, rights and all,  but only to the point of stalemate.

Tensions blew up over rights claimed by one  group  but denied by the other, building up  more and more raucous disputes  to become “identity politics”  which came to define a near-impotent  Assembly.  Too often, the cause of promoting the cherished heritage degenerated into culture wars to win territorial or general dominance.

Where possible political aims were translated into rights as for example in  same sex marriage, with the aim of avoiding subjecting it to the chances of political decision in the Assembly.  In deadlocked disputes over the Troubles legacy, the DUP argued against “one-sided justice” while Sinn Fein insisted on “no hierarchy for victims”. The list goes on, showing the limitations of competing rights in solving problems as much political as legal.

Times are changing. The ethnic unionist majority is dwindling and the block majority already disappeared in the last Assembly election.  Unionists are starting to employ the same language of rights as nationalists to defend what they believe are their interests. Nationalists are beginning to relish the prospect of a possible future majority.  As the struggle continues, it’s clear that neither side has fully absorbed the lessons of the past.

Equality or ethnic parity has almost arrived and the political parties will have to decide whether to continue their cold war or move to genuine detente leading to “a shared future.”  Many people doubt their capability or even their desire ;  others reject the cynicism that accompanies  despair. Often the difference is more a matter of temperament than evidence.

Yet amid the overall pessimism of reactions to the breakdown, there are plenty of concessions which the negotiators realised had to be made.  There are examples of developments within the community on the management of the display of flags which show how competing rights can be reconciled . The technique is to offer more than a zero sum choice. Who would have thought that Sinn Fein would have accepted the official display of the Union Jack over Belfast City Hall for minor royals ; and the DUP – even tacitly- the end of  proudly flying the flag 365 days a year?

We have some way to go. Those children of the Troubles the MPs Chris Hazzard of Sinn Fein and Emma Little-Pengelly of the DUP have chosen to brazen out their brutally insensitive choices of constituency offices. They know better but something impels them otherwise – perhaps the mirror image of their own provocation. Particularly as public representatives serving the whole community they’re not required to disrespect their own traditions, only to respect others’ by not flaunting their own in others’ faces. Do we really have to teach such elementary lessons all over again?  Inside their respective traditions they share the bacillus of sectarianism that can pollute the whole environment. It is notoriously difficult to eradicate it but with a great deal of effort, persuasion and finally self awareness, it can be done.

Both political parties have yet to face up to the full implications of the demographic equality that to all intents and purposes has already arrived. It may mean even tighter deadlock or a rethink of  cherished positions. The DUP have to disabuse themselves of illusions  of majority superiority ; Sinn Fein must make up their minds about whether to commit to the Assembly rather than guarantee failure by overbidding.  The failure of the Stormont talks  confronts them anew with the choice to make – as equals.

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Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London