Lack of understanding of how to reach agreement across communities is dangerous…

In Ireland (north and south), Summer is the time for thinking and rethinking politics. For the most part, I will be reading a number of review copies of books I’ve been sent over the last month or so.

One I don’t yet have is Mary C Murphy’s Europe and Northern Ireland’s Future (Comparative Political Economy), which Micheal Martin officially launched last night in Dublin.

But it worth highlighting a couple of points he made in his speech, some of which builds on that suggestion he made in Glenties on Monday night for an economic zone.

But he first highlight’s that point made so well by the poet Michael Longley about peace being the opposite of war:

There is no doubt that the euphoria of the Good Friday Agreement and the incredible achievement which it represented has made many people less likely to critically review what has happened since. 

The point is well made that what developed in Northern Ireland was a “negative peace” – where the absence of violence remained the achievement and we did not fully move on to the substance of delivering reconciliation and prosperity for one of the most disadvantaged regions on these islands.

And, importantly…

…it is an important insight from the literature on conflict resolution that a focus on the institutional architecture which misses the reconciliation and development imperatives is an inherently dangerous one.

Which is reflected in the low levels of trust comparative to the parallel bodies in Scotland and Wales:

…the failure to move from ‘an absence of war’ to development and reconciliation with sufficient ambition left in place divisions which are receptive to new polarising and potentially radicalising issues.

This absence of a decisive move to focusing on issues beyond the institutions caused a serious decline in the public legitimacy of those institutions.

It is possible to compare the trajectories of public trust in politics and representative bodies in both Northern Ireland and Scotland from 2001 to 2010 and then to 2015 because exactly similar academic surveys were carried out in both devolved administrations. 

For the first period there was a roughly similar picture but this sharply diverged later on – with close to one half of Scottish voters saying that the Parliament in Edinburgh gave them more say in the running of Scotland, while only 17% Of Northern Ireland voters said the same about the Assembly.

In a circumstance where an incredible 76% say they have less say or it has made no difference – and 79% say the Assembly has achieved little or nothing – what you have is a growing disillusionment and a crisis of legitimacy.  This predates the current blockade of the institutions and the Brexit vote.


…it has been an error to miss the opportunity to root the engagement on the post-Brexit future within the architecture of the Agreement rather than conduct it at a much higher level and through press conferences.

Yesterday’s announcement that a group of officials will discuss how to keep British and Irish ministers talking in the future is a very weak statement of intent given the scale of cooperation we will lose by them not participating in the Council of Ministers.

The situation today is a grave one.  Brexit is threatening a radicalisation in divisions in Northern politics which has no positive side to it.  Equally the governments have failed to find a way of creating some common ground on which to build a solution.

And finally, he lodges an important caveat on that special economic zone idea:

It potentially offers Northern Ireland the best of both worlds – secure access to both markets.  This is a competitive advantage which could finally start delivering real development.

Earlier this week a junior senator was sent out to attack the opposition for failing to develop this idea to a detailed proposal – and in doing this it reinforced once again the lack of understanding of how you reach agreement across communities in Northern Ireland.

What we don’t need is to table a demand and start a negotiation – we need to start trying to develop joint ownership of an idea which can be finalised during the transitionary period.

A timely reminder that the core concept at the centre of the Belfast Agreement was “partnership”.

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