My wife and I left Belfast for England in October 1997 – exactly six months before the Good Friday Agreement. We left with our first toddler son and were happy enough to take him away from a society that in his first six months had given us the ending of the first ceasefire and the renewed street violence surrounding the 1996 Drumcree.
We returned in February 2011 on his fifteenth birthday and with his eleven-year-old brother also in our number. We were happy to do that as on our frequent visits home we’d come to see a positive, vibrant, lively society much more at peace with itself and seeming to be moving in the more progressive, harmonious direction everyone had hoped for.
As her gesture to the new society, my wife “accidentally” lost our boys’ Rangers shirts in the move from the West of Scotland lest anyone in our new County Armagh homemade any unfair assumptions about them. Old prejudices die hard.
Despite Brexit and the three-year Stormont hiatus, I still believe Northern Ireland is a better place than before. Young people – including our sons – largely seem to mix more freely than we did, drink and go to gigs in places we would never have done, feel no unease about dating people from “the other side” (because to many of them there is no other side in any tangible sense) and generally show a lot less wariness about travelling the length and breadth of Northern Ireland to have a good time.
Just like in any other society.
But is that reflected anywhere in our mainstream media? Quite the reverse. On Radio Ulster, for example, no fewer than seven of the eleven hours from 7am each day are devoted to “news” programmes that by and large are devoted to the same hoary old chestnuts that poisoned our society for so long.
Perhaps that’s the BBC giving the people what they want. But the age profile of the callers and more tellingly the very small number who fill the three hours of phone-in each day suggest the BBC is playing to a very niche market rather than reflecting the more modern society we’ve partially secured.
Ditto the 10.45pm slot on BBC One most weeknights. Maybe it takes one to have spent time away to realise this, but I believe that elements of our media, perhaps unknowingly, are working against the interests of the post-1997 generation but it isn’t being challenged.
Has it lost the young already?
The inability of our media and our politicians to reflect the nature of the society it serves is also most evident in how they articulate the views of people of my background and outlook. This week yet another opinion poll on the constitutional issue was published.
This one concluded that the Union is supported by more than three-quarters of the half a million Northern Ireland people who do not vote in elections. A more interesting and provocative conclusion than most.
As a pro-union person who lives in a safe Sinn Fein constituency, that half a million people include me in their number, for Westminster elections at least. But if I lived in a unionist or marginal seat would I vote? I genuinely don’t know. I’d like to think I would, but it would be a struggle to pick a party. Clearly many can’t.
I consider myself to be a member of a broad sector of society. It’s not an especially homogenous sector but the tens (hundreds?) of thousands of us have a certain number of characteristics in common.
We favour the union and are British without being stridently unionist, orange or even “Protestant” in any meaningful sense. We are comfortable in our Irishness, and our broader politics are neither determined by our constitutional preference nor conforming to the traditional stereotype.
We supported equal marriage and were embarrassed by being lumped in with those who opposed it. We are prepared to accept the judgement of women on reproductive matters. We supported the Good Friday Agreement and voted Remain in significant numbers.
Most importantly we do not obsess over the events of 1969-1997 rather we want our children to grow up in a pluralist, respectful society
So, who speaks for us? Politically no one as the St Andrews carve-up between the DUP and Sinn Fein did what was intended and pulled both sides into line with their Stormont votes. That’s not likely to be allowed to change, at least until Sinn Fein overtake the DUP and there’s widespread panic about who gets to be the less joint of the Joint First Ministers.
Interestingly, but surely not surprisingly, Liverpool University’s survey also found that just 25% of Alliance voters want a united Ireland. So, should they be at least attempting to speak for us? My recollection is that their clearly understood purpose under leaders such as Napier and Cushnahan, but that has clearly been abandoned as the party has morphed into what Owen Polley recently characterised as little more than a virtue-signalling cult.
Obviously, Alliance needed to change. It had grown stale and unimaginative under its previous couple of leaders and had made little impression in Stormont or outside its base in safe unionist territory unaffected by past events: generally, pro-union people who never felt threatened with the possibility of a Sinn Fein or even SDLP MP.
But rather than make use of peacetime turn its attention to the weakened beasts of the UUP and SDLP, it strikes me that it looked over its shoulder and made a conscious and successful decision to move onto the new fertile territory occupied by the Greens in the traditional Alliance heartlands of North Down and South Belfast.
Alliance used social media brilliantly before the 2019 council elections. It created interesting, youthful personalities on Twitter by emphasising the party’s socially “progressive” side (a side not necessarily identified with by older Alliance voters and members).
That worked a treat with many of those new personalities gaining council seats in previously barren areas, while also strengthening in more comfortable areas of the heartland.
Naomi Long’s leadership has given them a real boost. She’s a genuine big hitter. Possibly the biggest hitter we have. But are they really laying the foundations for the future?
I think not. The sort of people I would identify with. People who have served their time by serving their constituency strongly at the community level while also gaining the confidence – Chris Lyttle for example – are rarely platformed while the new intake are given the profile but who too often demonstrate that what works in 280 characters on Twitter is woefully insufficient in council chambers or radio debate.
So, at this stage Alliance has a lot to do to demonstrate the surge is sustainable.
Then as I was penning this article, they strongly reinforced the party’s agnosticism on the union at their conference. That won’t ultimately play well with the 75% if the debate is aggressively ramped up when we know the final impact of Brexit.
I should be voting for them by now. And I’d really like to. But I think I prefer the Greens for the conviction of their politics rather than what seems to be people finding a home in Alliance as the only available option.
So, if we’re not to be spoken for politically, is the media giving us a platform? Not that I can see. There is a raft of stridently republican “commentators “of varied abilities used by the BBC, though rarely referred to as anything other than “commentator” (or in one case – laughably – “historian”).
Also, there are the strident voices of unionism, largely people we rejected at the polls because we wanted something radically different. Then there is Jamie Bryson, who speaks for no one (though to his credit he often argues a very poor case very well).
If Jamie didn’t exist, Radio Ulster would have to invent him. (Or perhaps they did.) Even this week Eamonn Mallie promoted and published David McNarry on “the future of unionism”. Two septuagenarians discussing the future of people who neither represent, demonstrating no real understanding of how that community has evolved.
The mainstream media is lazy (I don’t think it’s anything more sinister than that). Maybe they do struggle for interesting secular pro-union voices. That laziness or lack of imagination delivers the same go-to affable Prod on at least six different media most weeks but where are the challenging voices?
So, have we no one out there comfortable with their background but not a cliched articulation of it? People, who are confident enough to say what they feel and stand over it? Who feel the arguments is more of an imperative than being invited back?
It’s not entirely the media’s fault. Its also very much a characteristic of Protestantism to saw away the rungs beneath you once you get on the ladder, rather than helping the next person to climb. That’s why no one will even attempt to sympathetically explain why inner-city post-industrial “protestant” communities are alienated and often self-destructive.
These communities are no different from others across the United Kingdom but have an added burden of sectarian stereotyping on one side and a liberal middle class with (increasingly distant) roots in those communities but no apparent interest in their welfare.
These communities need to have their very real challenges and concerns fairly articulated but when was the last time that really happened in any tone short of patronising or dismissive?
When this gap is successfully addressed, then we can have a genuinely inclusive debate on how to improve life in Northern Ireland. But so long as there is an empty seat on the platform a major silent minority (or a number of them) will not be heard. That may suit some, but it doesn’t make for an inclusive, progressive society.