The renewal of democratic accountability, in both Dublin and Belfast, is to be welcomed. This renewal offers new opportunities for people to tackle a range of issues, from housing to health, mental health and economic inactivity that have been afflicting the Irish polity living on both sides of the border.
With this resurgence in local politics, it is important people recognise a representative democracy requires its citizens/subjects to keep working with their elected representatives, long after the election, to ensure those promises made in the heat of electoral battle are not only kept but built upon.
Reasons for maintaining such engagement are many but in the case of Northern Ireland the stark figures on hospital waiting lists, published in the Belfast Telegraph on 16 January 2020, reveal that 22,000 have died waiting on treatment since 2015, with 5000 deaths in last year alone.
If such figures arose from political violence people would be ‘up in arms’ but because these deaths arise from structural violence most just shrug their shoulders and go back to whatever they are doing.
Given the high number of peacebuilding professionals practicing in Northern Ireland and the Border Regions such stark figures of structural violence come as a shameful fact, and help underline why the concept of peacebuilding is in ‘crisis’.
Of course, this being Ireland, such structural violence will be quickly forgotten as debate turns more readily to the ‘Boris Bridge’ or the ‘Boris Border’: but just think about it, in the past 5 years 22,000 people have died from structural violence, and that’s just the ones on the waiting list.
Therefore, by keeping the political pressure on, through this renewal of democratic accountability, the electorate might now begin to focus the minds of our elected representatives, and their attendant bureaucrats, on this structural violence, and by opposing, end it.
However, given its sectarian make up, the Northern Ireland polity appears unable to address such violence and, like the myth foretold, the people of Ulster appear to be under a spell and fast asleep.
And, while the place has been redolent of peacebuilding since the 1990s, such structural violence suggests these activities are more akin to ‘peace washing’ (using the name of peace to get funding while not transforming the governance frameworks and ordering systems that sustain the structural violence) rather than delivering the new dawn that hope and history rhymed for in 1998.
Therefore, given such high levels of premature deaths, it is now incumbent upon all of us to take advantages of a new democratic account and finally end the direct violence and structural violence that has afflicted the island for centuries.
This objective will not be easily realised. Previously, the demand to end our violence, and promote social transformation, has fallen on the Plebeian poor, who have been tasked with engaging in community relations programmes, to build positive relations, even though they were never responsible for causing the sectarian violence. Nor have they the means to end hospital waiting lists, deal with the rise in suicides or build the homes needed to end homelessness.
And, while it might be a bit beyond the pale to request our peacebuilding professionals focus more on the political and civil society elites, who caused the outbreak of sectarian violence, and ongoing levels of structural violence, if we do not address such structural faults now we will continue to see rising levels of suicides, homelessness, drug addiction (prescription/illegal) and hospital waiting lists in our post-ceasefire era.
Of course, any attempt to shift the blame for this structural violence away from the poor towards those who promoted and profited from it may meet fierce resistance.
Nevertheless, if we are to take opportunities arising from this new political dispensation, now might be the time to encourage more people to become active and publicly challenge those with direct responsibility for the structural violence.
One way to begin this long walk to peace might be found in the ‘New Decade, New Approach’ Agreement.
Here, we can find the means to establish ‘Citizen Assemblies’ and begin the conversation on how we might instruct our political and civil society elites to end the structural violence.
These assemblies can draw on the wealth of fiscal, social, intellectual and cultural capital resident in our people, to design new ways to deliver a better quality of life for all.
Of course, such a campaign will require major media exposure, to shift the paradigm from the usual discourses. Whether there is a media personality of the worth to lead such a campaign remains to be seen.
However, coupled with the political energy arising from recent plebiscites, we might just encourage more people to take to the streams of social media and demand our commentators begin a serious debate on how to end the structural violence that has seen 22,000 dead in five years.
As the campaign for marriage equality has demonstrated, despite our faults, social transformation is possible. The task now at hand is how do we tap into this social yearning for more of the same, to tackle our structural violence?
As David Ervine once noted, peace is too important to be left to the politicians. Likewise, structural violence is too important to be left to the bureaucrats and elected representatives.
So, if people can be motivated to deliver marriage equality, let’s start a campaign to host a range of Citizen Assemblies, to motivate a new generation to help show our political and civil society elites how to deliver an end to structural violence.
If you don’t want your loved ones to be part of the next 5,000 structurally violent deaths, the time may be nigh to hold our elected representatives, and their bureaucratic attendants, to account. The question is who will lead this quest to end our structural violence and deliver a life of peace and prosperity, for the many, not the few.
Seán Brennan Ph.D. is an independent researcher.