Society in Northern Ireland has gone backwards since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, argues the former leader of the Progressive Unionist Party John Kyle, who is also a GP in Belfast. “In my view we have lost ground in the past 20 years,” he says in the latest Forward Together podcast.
John believes that we need to review the progress that was achieved and consider why it has lost momentum. He suggests three factors enabled the conflict to end. “The first important element was that violence was a flawed strategy and it didn’t achieve its ends,” he reflects. “People got to a certain age where they thought – look, we have suffered, we have paid a price. Do we want our children to have to go through this? Sure as hell we don’t.
“I think the second factor was that the churches got their act together. [They ended] the preaching against one another and calling one another anathema. I think that suddenly changed and the churches realized we have a responsibility to love our brother. While we may disagree strongly and vigorously with them, we have got to show respect and love to our brother…. There was a remarkable coming together between the Catholic and Protestant traditions, not involving everyone, but involving a vast majority of influential and leading people and many congregations…. So the theological justification was suddenly removed from the conflict.
The third aspect, particularly within the middle classes in Northern Ireland, was that you were able to travel more… So they were living in this more mobile society, a more cosmopolitan, more international society. They hadn’t realized there was a bigger perspective to the world…. Within the middle classes that ameliorated a lot of the animosity between the two traditions. And we made progress with the Good Friday Agreement. People had a sense of hope. They said, hey we can do this. And there was a real sense of this has been a monumental step forward, this opens up new opportunities. Let’s build on this and let’s capitalize on this.
“But some things happened that undermined trust. There still was a huge reservoir of hurt. People had been damaged and suffered and that reservoir of suffering was not really being properly addressed.”
Since then, argues John, politicians in the main parties have exploited those community differences and continued hurt for party political benefits – to increase their votes. “I think our politicians need to man up to that and recognize that they have to bear a significant responsibility for what we have lost in the past 10 to 15 years.” John adds that civic society is giving the powerful politicians a message – which they ignore. “Politicians do seem to be cocooned when it comes to responding to what broader civil society is saying, because it seems to me that there is a huge disparity between what people say they would like to see happen and what politicians are actually doing.”
John, a loyalist politician, argues that for Northern Ireland’s system to change for the better “people need to have the courage to vote outside of their traditional patterns of voting, particularly in elections where the constitutional issue is not at stake or is not fundamental to what they’re doing. I think we need to realize that we need a broader political representation of people who feel exasperated with the politicians who currently hold power, yet they tend to go back and still vote for them at the next election.”
Working class loyalist and unionist areas are suffering from both neglect and the impact of urban planning, John believes. “Urban planning broke up a lot of the very densely knit communities,” he says, causing a breach of the cohesion and sense of community that used to predominate. “I mean we had terrible housing. When I was a young GP working in east Belfast, some of the housing was appalling. So we needed to do something about that. But in removing that and then building new housing stock, that sense of community was fundamentally undermined.”
John believes that to make progress it is essential that we see the personal, not just collective groups. In particular, we need to recognise the individual pain of victims of The Troubles. “Colin Davidson has done some remarkable work in terms of victims and survivors and one of the things that Colin says is that most of the people that he’s worked with, what they’re looking for is an acknowledgement of their suffering…. I think we have failed to acknowledge the suffering and loss…. What Colin Davidson has done is to show the personal face of the pain of The troubles and, yes, the physically injured bodies.”
That same point about dealing with people as people, not just as representatives, can help us make progress in the political logjam, John suggests. “My understanding is that during the negotiations behind the Good Friday or Belfast Agreement, one of the first things George Mitchell did was to take the politicians out of the current situation here, take them away and enable them to relate to each other as human beings. I think we have a huge need still to do that – to relate to one another as human beings, not as political opponents, or as the other side, or as the enemy, or as the cause of my suffering. We need to find new contexts to enable people to talk together.”
The latest podcast interview is available here. The podcasts are also available on iTunes and Spotify.
- Holywell Trust receives support for the Forward Together Podcast through the Media Grant Scheme and Core Funding Programme of Community Relations Council and Good Relations Core Funding Programme of Derry City and Strabane District Council.
Paul Gosling is editor of ‘Lessons from the Troubles and an Unsettled Peace’, author of ‘A New Ireland’ and ‘The Fall of the Ethical Bank’ and co-author of ‘Abuse of Trust’, the story of a child abuse scandal in Leicestershire. He is engaged by the Holywell Trust charity on peace and reconciliation projects.