There’s an air of unreality about politics in Northern Ireland these days, and it is not clear when or even if it is likely to return anytime soon. Everyone seems to be waiting for Brexit to happen, but Brexit is a process that appears to be becoming more uncertain with every twist.
It may be that no one is clamering for Northern Irish democracy to return, but the democratic has been weakened by the displacement of serious journalism for sensationalist coverage of old sores and petty catcalling passing as serious comment on the current affairs of state.
It’s a reflection of just how impoverished the public square in Northern Ireland become that one of the few serious analyses being offered comes from the leader of a political party that doesn’t (yet) run for elections in Northern Ireland, Micheal Martin of Fianna Fail…
Here’s a shortened version of his speech at Queens during the week…
I believe that the most serious damage already caused by Brexit has been to relations between communities on this island. It has deeply undermined one of the greatest achievements in our modern history – the development of close and constructive relations between unionism in Northern Ireland and nationalism in the Republic.
Stopping this damage from getting worse, and prioritising a rebuilding of North/South working relations needs to become a real priority once the final form of Brexit becomes clear.
No one can doubt that relations between the government in Dublin and political unionism are at their lowest point in at least twenty years. There has been a return to rhetorical sniping which has had much more impact than various welcome but largely marginal cultural gestures.
Earlier this year, and for the first time in over a quarter of a century, the largest party of unionism actually refused to attend an all-party negotiation if the Taoiseach was present.
This step backwards into a defensive posture of ‘this is none of your business’ is a radical departure from the approach which achieved so much in the past.
Could you imagine just how little could have been achieved if David Trimble or Ian Paisley had refused to talk to Bertie Ahern – or indeed if Bertie Ahern had said, as the Taoiseach has, “it’s not my job to deliver the Unionists”?
Let’s put this very simply: Without a return to an atmosphere of trust, understanding and permanent engagement nothing can improve.
Brexit is causing so much damage specifically because the foundations were already weakened by years of disengagement and the failure to fulfil the enormous potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
The damage started before Brexit and, whatever the outcome of negotiations in Brussels, it will not stop when Brexit is over unless there is a determined effort to address the political and economic realities of a fragile relationship.
The collapse in trust between Dublin and key parts of Northern Irish politics must be understood before it can be fixed.
We must remember that the hurdles we have overcome in the past are much bigger than any we face today, but we have to fully acknowledge that they exist and that we have to act if we are to return to building close and constructive relations on our island.
The first and most important point to make is that where we are today is nowhere near where we expected to be in 1998 or 2008 when we looked forward to the possibilities opened up by an agreed future. And the biggest reason for this step backwards has been the complacency of the governments.
The peace process has delivered genuinely historic progress in terms of ending a bloody sectarian conflict and securing the first ever agreed blueprint for handling constitutional and identity issues on this island. We should never forget this, nor forget the tremendous vindication it provided for those who never departed from democratic and anti-sectarian politics.
In February 2010 we overcame the last major hurdle in terms of the comprehensive nature of the settlement. In the Hillsborough Castle Agreement we showed how strong working relations between the governments and the parties could still deliver breakthroughs.
While both governments were tackling dramatic economic issues, Northern Ireland remained a priority. Gordon Brown and Brian Cowen did everything that could have been asked of them – and instructed their cabinets to follow their examples.
Dublin was accepted as an honest broker in the process, there to help all sides and move issues forward – an approach which had defined our approach from the earliest days of the process.
A lot also went on behind the scenes. Large numbers of meetings happened without press releases or media appearances. In Dublin, a senior advisor to the Taoiseach and many of his officials maintained ongoing relationships.
In the Department of Foreign Affairs, my staff put a particular focus on reaching out to politically and economically marginalised communities who were in danger of being left behind.
At all stages we sought to maintain an active, close and open relationship. The scale of progress was such that far too many people took further progress for granted.
There is no doubt that the change in government in London significantly changed the overall dynamic. Where the Major, Blair and Brown governments had shown a deep commitment to Northern Ireland’s long-term progress, there was an apparent impatien
ce in the Cameron government that they still had to spend time on the issue.
In fact David Cameron’s approach was that Northern Ireland had to “stand on its own two feet” rather than expect London to help overcome every problem.
The change of government in Dublin also marked a new approach. Set-piece meetings continued but there was a clear disengagement and an expectation that it was time to just let the DUP and Sinn Fein get on with business.
The foolishness of this policy was obvious from very early on, with mounting evidence that the parties were primarily focused on promoting their own interests rather than governing in an inclusive spirit. They presided over a grinding to a halt of significant legislation and systematically excluded other voices from meaningful discussions.
One thing the two parties and the governments could agree on was that anyone who said things were going badly was wrong.
For example, in October 2012 I gave a speech in which I criticised the growing neglect and complacency regarding progress in Belfast and said “it is at best foolish and at worst reckless to step back and believe that the DUP and Sinn Fein are capable of working in the interests of all groups”.
I was roundly criticised by both parties and both governments for saying this.
I was told in the Dáil that everything was going fine. The then First and Deputy-First Ministers appeared at an event in Dublin and said that things had actually never been better.
This spirit of denying problems until they become a crisis – of focusing on form rather than substance – is a consistent pattern in recent years.
Months before Sinn Fein collapsed the Executive and Assembly there were regular statements saying everything would be fine.
As recently as September, my party was criticised for saying that London/Dublin relations were in a terrible state – yet six weeks later the Taoiseach admitted exactly this. Last month we challenged the government on its failure to build a substantive relationship with unionist leaders – to which the Taoiseach replied that he has a good relationship with Arlene Foster, something he believes is proven by the fact that he has her number in his mobile phone.
Visits to Orange halls and Remembrance Day events are important statements of cultural diversity and acceptance, but they are no longer revolutionary and they are no replacement for more substantive ongoing contacts.
It’s long past time to end the approach of denying the reality of poor working relationships and the absence of urgency about the impact of these poor working relationships.
An absolute first step in healing the wounds of this fractious Brexit debate is to return to the spirit of deep, ongoing and substantive engagement between our leaders at all levels.
If we only talk to each other when there is a crisis how can we ever generate the goodwill required to overcome the crisis?
We also have to understand the depth of the loss of confidence in the ability or commitment of the current political settlement to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
There is a crisis of legitimacy in Northern Irish governance which is now existential. The determination of the UK parliament to impose Brexit on devolved administrations irrespective of the views of their people is only the latest in a long series of factors alienating the public.
An important thing to realise is that this lack of confidence is a cross-community factor and it has been growing for years. It is very fortunate that community opinions on wider political and social issues have been monitored here in a systematic way over the last two decades. The results of the Northern Ireland Life and Times surveys are very dramatic.
The surveys show a growing sense of disempowerment amongst the public.
In 2001, in spite of serious difficulties with the Executive and Assembly, 40% said that the Assembly gave ordinary people a greater say in government – by 2015 this figure was down to 17%.
In contrast, the Scottish government saw this figure rise from 38% to 46% in the same period – so this is not about a universal cynicism towards devolved government.
The surveys have also shown a falling sense of progress. In 2002, soon after its establishment, only 18% said the Assembly had achieved nothing – by 2015 this figure was up to 31%.
And when it comes to attitudes towards elected leaders in Northern Ireland, by 2015 a remarkable 60% said that they rarely or never trusted the Assembly to work in the interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
If you ask people throughout Northern Ireland about the issues which concern them most they talk about health services, about good jobs, about school funding and about affordable housing. Yet increasingly they also don’t see these issues as being on the agenda of Northern Ireland’s politics or on the agenda of the governments.
And then on top of this comes Brexit.
Even though Northern Ireland is an international issue for the first time in twenty years, Northern Ireland has been left without any voice because of the refusal of two parties to work together.
All the research confirms that the people of Northern Ireland see Brexit as a massive issue, irrespective of their attitude towards it.
A strong majority believe that it will have a negative political and economic impact. Yet its representatives have been reduced to leading delegations which are granted infrequent audiences with those who are deciding its future.
It is not just the history of Northern Ireland, but the history of Europe and the wider world which teaches us that a sense of disempowerment and a detachment from politics is a dangerous thing in a divided society.
In terms of sectarianism there has been much progress, but equally there has been a failure to tackle it properly when it goes from the margins and into the centre of political discourse.
The resistance to an Irish language Act has been out of all proportion to the measure proposed and has directly damaged belief in the good faith of all parties to respect diverse identities in Northern Ireland.
It is particularly ironic that it is seen as a sectarian issue given the central role of Protestants in saving and promoting the Irish language from the printing of the first book in Irish 450 years ago up to today.
At the same time, enormous damage has been caused by the strategy of one party to try to hijack the wider equality agenda as, to quote the words of its former leader, “the Trojan Horse of the republican movement”.
In relation to the economy, it is one of the great failures of the last decade that there has been no serious attempt to create a new economic model for Northern Ireland, and the wider Border region.
The cycle of disadvantage and emigration experienced across communities cannot be tackled without a more urgent and ambitious commitment to development of skills, infrastructure and government support.
Yet the agenda in recent years has been about the management of the withdrawal of public funding – and the North/South dimension is completely non-existent in the investment plan agreed between the Executive and London.
This region remains far behind the rest of the island and most of the UK. Some communities are caught in a cycle of disadvantage, the ending of which should be the priority of every person who wants to build a secure and prosperous future.
On top of the political and economic issues which must be addressed, we also have to understand that Northern Ireland is becoming more diverse.
A larger number of people are becoming comfortable with different identities, while others are choosing to define themselves outside of the classic communal identities based on religion or constitutional issues.
Put another way, there is a growing middle-ground which often struggles to have its voice heard.
If we allow a retreat into old divisions – and what other way is there to describe what has been happening in recent years – then more and more people will feel excluded.
The current crisis has many dimensions which we have to understand if we are to address them.
Relations between the unionist community and Dublin have suffered badly and it is largely irrelevant who is to blame.
What matters is that we return to the spirit which allowed immense progress in the past in overcoming historic misunderstanding, suspicion and division.
I am constantly inspired by the spirit of the Lemass/O’Neill meeting in Stormont, where a man who had fought as a 16 year old in the 1916 Rising met with the favoured son of an undeniably sectarian administration and found a way to build relations.
The genius of the Good Friday settlement which followed many years later remains our greatest hope.
It’s not my place to tell the unionist community what to do. What I can say though is that it is strongest and has the most impact when it shows a self confidence in itself and tries not to find a constitutional significance in every issue.
The first thing we must do from Dublin is to re-establish close and ongoing relationships. We have to renew the scale of personal connections which made a vital difference for each of the major agreements from the Downing Street Declaration up to the Hillsborough Castle Agreement.
Meetings where there are no cameras are often far more important than those which make it into the headlines. As part of this, we also have to have a renewed understanding in Dublin that grandstanding about tectonic plates and historic wrongs can undermine good faith.
It was the regular and consistent demonstration of goodwill that helped in previous breakthroughs and in the immense improvement in relations with unionism in the past – and we must have a return to this spirit.
We must also return to a position where we are more active in calling out those with whom we share a constitutional objective but who stray into destructive sectarianism.
For various reasons, many inexplicable, various overtly sectarian actions have remained uncommented on by the government in Dublin. Even the erection of posters calling for getting one over on the Prods in North Belfast was basically ignored.
The fight against sectarianism is one we have to wage every day, and we have to start by looking close to home.
The next, and perhaps most important, step we need is to create a new agenda for politics in Northern Ireland – one which is primarily focused on acknowledging and addressing the huge social and economic issues which face ordinary people.
We need less talk about who holds what piece of power and more talk about what they do with that power.
For every meeting we have about structures, we should have far more about working to improve health services, modernise infrastructure and create a new economic era for Northern Ireland and the Border region.
It needs to be acknowledged that the unionist community is being disproportionately impacted by its young people choosing to leave for third level education and in search of well-paid, highly-skilled employment.
Hopefully when the next few months are over we will be in a position to refocus on the unique and constitutionally unthreatening offer the European Union has made to Northern Ireland and the immense opportunities this offered.
Northern Ireland has never had the post-conflict development plan it so badly needs, and developing one should be a shared objective. Prosperity for all should be a shared and non-sectarian objective.
At some point we will get through the Brexit mess and have certainty about core trading relations, but we will still have to address the erosion of North/South relations which has been long-denied but is increasingly obvious.
A disconnected and crisis-driven relationship not only prevents new progress, it threatens to unravel the great progress of improved relationships with unionist communities achieved in recent decades.
We need a return to the idea of constant contact based on openness and goodwill.
We need to work together on building and implementing a new economic and political agenda for both Northern Ireland and the wider Border region.
Most of all we need to recommit ourselves to the spirit of cooperation embodied in the 1998 Agreement which has achieved so much in the past.
We share a small island which has seen too much conflict and division in the past. We have more in common than separates us and all but a few extremists understand that we have no reason to fight over constitutional issues. They are settled.
What we have not settled is a new agenda to protect peace and extend prosperity to all communities. This should be our joint work and our absolute priority.
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