To “save” the Belfast Agreement we need a strategic deployment of our own democratic values

A variety of questions have been raised over the past few days in the Irish Times opinion pages, including Alex Kane’s asking whether the Belfast Agreement is worth saving at this stage. Those of us who know and love Alex know this is not a new tune.

He’s one of life’s pessimists, though not without good reason. He was out on the doors during the twin disaster elections (for the UUP at least) in 2003 and 2005 which saw the end of that party as a credible force in Northern Irish politics.

That was not just the end of influence for the UUP but also for their co-creators of the uber compromise that was the Belfast (or Good Friday) Agreement the SDLP. Out also went the core understanding that sacrifices are necessary for progress to be made.

Without them both nationalism and unionism have retreated into a cautious, but purist sense that compromise should be limited, and demands as maximalist as the public’s credibility can stand. A startling lack of delivery has been its hallmark.

Those two parties were joined by Fianna Fáil and UK Labour in the adjacent spaces of the Republic and Britain. What’s replaced this complex (and ultimately unstable, because each is subject to different pressures, tides and cycles) is absence.

When I shared yesterday’s post on Mastodon, one respondent acutely responded that “you just feel no one really cares what happens in politics and don’t link public services with politicians”. That that is such a universal feeling is telling.

It’s not just about us or our apparent inability to set the peace in the longer term. The US based Scottish economist Angus Deaton reckons that democracy in the US just is not delivering beyond the well educated and hugely prosperous middle class.

Although two-thirds of the adult US population does not have a four-year college degree, the political system rarely responds to their needs and has frequently enacted policies that harm them in favor of corporate interests and better-educated Americans. What has been “stolen” from them is not an election, but the right to participate in political decision-making – a right that is supposedly guaranteed by democracy.

In Northern Ireland we do elections well, it’s the bit in between we’re crap at. First Sinn Fein and now the DUP (the folks who succeeded the architects of the GFA) are past masters at stealing government, or denying the electorate the fruits of one.

And the way we tend to think about the future as though it were some recursive equation that can be solved if only you keep applying the same solutions over time until enough of it sticks to make the critical difference.

Just, in fact, as John Wilson Foster describes it in the DRB:

Currently the effort is almost entirely unilateral, which has not staunched the one-way flow. This reflects the relatively simple forcefulness that most Irish republicans ‑ by whom I mean Irish nationalists actively in pursuit of a united Ireland severed from the UK ‑ seem to regard the united Ireland campaign as requiring.

There is an obliviousness that is the campaign’s hallmark. We know that Sinn Féin expect merely to outpoll and then swamp unionists. They despise unionists, are deaf to their concerns, and in any case their ideology compels them never to deign to debate or convince their sworn enemies; their century-old mandate is merely to cancel unionism.

Payback time, in their eyes, will be brief and decisive.

The genius of this approach is that this toothsome revenge can be consumed in permanent expectation, which never delivers. In fact that the revenge motive is never sated perpetually peppers the appetite and bridges a failed war with an ever failing peace.

The struggle is eternal because it is eternally doomed to fail, in part because there are certain mundane realities that it seems unwilling to admit, namely the widespread interdependence and social intimacy between the two islands of the archipelago.

One of the gifts of a decently regulated democracy (and we are to some degree seeing these working themselves out in the ongoing two nation tragedy of conflict over Ukrainian sovereignty) is that it evokes the possibility of social learning over time.

The sort of democratic centralism we’ve seen on the Russian side is that it is (for want of a better term) learning adverse. In Irish terms, the last two and a half years have seen the biggest shift in government agendas in the last 30 years.

Gerard Howlin has said Micheál Martin “is now a figure of pivotal importance in a period of change”. I’d agree, but for the changes he has already initiated, rather than for those that may happen next (which remain remarkably hard to predict).

Martin, almost alone amongst the island’s political leaders, has a degree of confidence in the idea that good policy as a powerful engine for real change that is rare in politics these days. His programme for government will outlive his tenure as Taoiseach.

Take the Shared Island Unit. As Justine McCarthy noted during an interview him just before Martin left office, he noted that he would not be porting the unit to his care in the DFA because from the get go the Unit had an important strategic purpose:

…[he] has not only left portraits of the State’s founding fathers behind in the Taoiseach’s office. He has left his brainchild, the Shared Island Unit, there too, even though his new ministerial portfolio of Foreign Affairs encompasses the Cabinet remit for Northern Ireland. The unit has allocated more than €190 million for cross-Border schemes but Martin says: “If it’s ever perceived as a Trojan horse for a united Ireland that would be very damaging to it.

“Every memo I brought to Government [as Taoiseach] on the Shared Island was with the Minister for Foreign Affairs. If it became located in the Department of Foreign Affairs, very quickly it would become a bilateral estimates process every year and suddenly morph into the capital programme for [the department]. Whereas, by having it in the Department of the Taoiseach, you’re saying this is a key Government initiative to build bridges. It gives it a status and a whole of Government commitment because every department is involved. [Emphasis added]

A good democratic politician (at this time of perpetual democratic crisis there are too few to go around), is not a control freak. He has to be almost of the opposite: purposeful, strategic with unswerving confidence in the good that institutions can do.

The question of the future of the island will not go away. The truth is that this concept of annexation and revenge died along with the Provisional’s long war met the end it was almost always certain from the onset in late 1970.

As Foster notes there are “strong statistical remnants of a recent healthy confluence in the census returns if Colum Eastwood had bothered to look beyond Protestant and Catholic”. NI Moderates are making the same mistake as their US cousins.

Paying attention only to the tribe we know from experience leads to stasis and defeat. Co-evolving with experience (which at its best is what the Shared Island Unit is about) is the only way to address the age old question of relations on and off the island.

As I have noted elsewhere this is a process that has to be opened up to voices beyond just the great and the good:

Imagine the satellite is down and GPS no longer works, so that feeling our way to what is true can only done mile by mile. This is a map that people don’t have to believe in just because of what they’re told by some expert in a white coat, but because they were part of making it.

As the 25th anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, we owe to ourselves to bring more of those unheard voices from far without the political bubbles around Belfast, Dublin and London and their lived wisdom on things that actually matter.

Then maybe  we’ll get better at asking better questions and reframing what it is we need to know to make that future work for more and more of us? Better than giving into the Doomsterism of recent years and build on the gains we already have earned.

“I think one of the fundamental mistakes of the human race has been to say that when you have finished with a thought, it’s gone. But it hasn’t gone – it has “folded back” into the rest of consciousness. You don’t know it’s there any more, but it is still there; it may unfold again, or unfold in another form. So there’s a constant process of unfolding from the background of consciousness into the foreground, and then back again.”
David Bohm

Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger.

While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.