Northern Ireland’s trapped in an “egalitarian flatland” of fatalism and low expectation

Perhaps Brexit (with its exuberant array of both serious and fanciful threats) is mangling our collective brains and burning what little perspective is left to us that is still decent and proportional. In NI too, I think, we forget too easily that the signing of the Belfast Agreement represented a final gathering of senses after what was by any genuine measure, a pointless and fruitless low level civil war.

Loose millenarian chatter about its imminent demise disguises the reality that those most inclined towards its too ready disposal over a handful of minor culture based controversies really have no credible plan for replacing it with anything else.

To top it all, a puzzling statement from “a [Irish] government source” emerged at the weekend to the effect that Mr Johnson and “the Brits got a bit friendlier to us after the [dissident] attempt to murder PSNI officers” in Fermanagh. It is clear that at the highest of levels some of those lessons have still to be learned. A rather pointed question to the Government by the leader of the south’s opposition has rather bizarrely gone unanswered.

Goethe once said, “when we treat man as he is, we make him worse than he is; when we treat him as if he already were what he potentially could be, we make him what he should be.” This is a key good reason why (in the cacophonous fusion of dread fatalism and fake news that proliferate on highly profitable social media networks), that we make effort retain a basic optimism in the better apart of human nature.

We tend to forget that Democracy has always been by its nature a chaotic and fragmented beast, ruptured as it is between voters, activists, public institutions of service and delivery, lobbyists, civil servants, journalists, bloggers, tweeters and assorted gobsh!tes of all colours and none, and of course, elected officials.

In Northern Ireland, given democracy is such an unfamiliar state of affairs for us we tend to smooth out the significance of this necessary fracturing. Lobbyists for instance, can play a vital role in informing parliamentarians on the intricacies of specialist policy areas the generalist politician knows little about.

The trouble comes when they are allowed to dictate the parameters of legitimate political decisions that have to be made in the the interests of the public good. In most democracies this is mediated by the party system which in which most political failures in this and other regards can be crystallised and punished.  In Northern Ireland, we don’t (yet) have the affordance of ‘kicking the bums out’.

Power-sharing was seen as the only balm to the curse of the pre 1972 (ie the last time we actually experienced a democratic system of any significance) dominance of  a single unionist party. What the architects of the Belfast Agreement hadn’t anticipated was just how such a system might accumulate unaccounted for poisons that would contribute to making power-sharing all but impossible.

The chief irony is that it is nationalism (which fought through great personal sacrifices to achieve power-sharing) which is not only rejecting it, but also refusing to accept any responsibility for ditching the primary democratic institution charged with holding the whole thing together, despite the fact its leading party is still refusing to nominate a dFM.

Another consequence of the all shall have prizes regime backed by a  stubborn resistance, particularly within nationalism, to any criticism that comes from outside the tribal laager. In this regard, the Belfast News Letter’s fearless accounting for RHI debacle and earlier crises like the NI Water controversy which resulted in the effective sacking of a Permanent Secretary for the first time in the history of NICS, has no nationalist analogue.

Journalists cannot and should not run the administration, that’s the people’s choice. But they can and should seek an honest account of the performance of that administration right across that administration. Civil society is strongest not when it is close to government, but when it resists a governing party’s attempts to co-opt them into government and insists upon giving a honest public appraisal of what the public needs.

It is rather government’s role to find ways to listen to those voices and give voice to an optimistic route forward from a conflict that, as Claire’s wonderfully grounded and optimistic piece recently highlighted, is in most fundamentals doing rather well. The growing gap between NI’s lived reality of generosity and kindness and the rhetoric political parties is the promise of the Belfast Agreement delivering but it is delivering without their input.

In the Irish Times Denis Bradley suggests we need “a gigantic talking shop” and cites the only problem being: “how to get Unionism into the room”, which underlines my earlier point that wider nationalism seems intent upon ignoring the fact that the party refusing to re-enter the very institutions of the Belfast Agreement is the lead nationalist party in Northern Ireland, Sinn Fein.

It’s worth recalling the words of the priest who tended Lyra McKee as she was dying on the troubled streets of Creggan, Father Joe Gormley:

“The main source of tensions is the fractured republican community, and from there we’re seeing dissidents who are still wed to violence.

“The peace process has not brought everyone along with it, and it’s created a vacuum where particular viewpoints are allowed to thrive. It’s the same lie that’s been perpetuated right through republicanism.

“The same tired, sad myth that physical force republicanism is right.

“When you think a category of people is not worthy of being alive, that someone wearing a police uniform is not worthy of being alive, that’s Nazism. That’s fascism. That’s not acceptable.”

Not for balance, but just to show how vulnerable communities have been all but abandoned by both main parties in Northern Ireland, Tom Kelly did not miss and hit the wall when he laid into so-called loyalist spokesmen in his Irish News column this week:

In the past week the media platforms were dominated by fringe loyalist voices. After years of listening to such voices this writer is still at a loss as to whom they represent.

These loyalist spokespeople claim to be facilitating ‘transition’ within their communities. The fact is, the loyalist paramilitaries have been taking the proverbial out of the transitioning process for twenty years.

Having spoken to residents in east Belfast and in parts of Bangor, it is clear the paramilitaries in these areas are active in all sorts of criminality. The police have confirmed that. The dogs in the streets know it. To put it mildly they are up to their oxters in illegality.

And the notion that there is good and bad UDA/UVF is a nonsense. Two decades beyond a ceasefire and these illegal organisations should not even exist, let alone run organised crime rackets.

The absence of this issue from the public agenda is telling. The two main parties are willing to embarrass or vilify each other over the close connections of both to paramilitarism, but not to do anything together to use their considerable patronage to actually deal with the most real and present legacy of the Troubles. It suggests to me that Northern Ireland cannot move on until its leaders recognise the boon of a generation of peace and to start building upon that.

We seem to have entered (aided by the instant gratification of social media platforms and the collapse of the local press) into a kind of egalitarian flatland where everyone who speaks is seen to have the same value as everyone else and concepts like the common good have been quietly abandoned some way back down the road. What would Goethe have said?

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