Belfast Telegraph

Monday 22 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

Can the parallel worlds we live in ever converge?

First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness
First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness

The Belfast investment conference is another example of how Northern Ireland exists in two parallel worlds – one constructive, the other destructive.

In the constructive world, our political leaders and parties are all pulling together for the common good and future well-being of everyone.

In the destructive world, the same political leaders and parties continue to engage in petty mud-slinging across the Assembly chamber and hurl insults at one another on our morning radio.

In the constructive world, Peter Robinson says the building blocks are in place for a secure future. Martin McGuinness nods in agreement and rightly extols the virtues of Northern Ireland.

In the destructive world, a very different Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness (below) and their respective parties continue to disagree on a whole range of divisive issues and have done so for so long that an American arbiter is now required to rectify their failings.

In the constructive world, Stormont still manages to tick over. As if never a contentious flag, or parade, came between them, ministers and MLAs sublimate their differences over health, education and a whole range of everyday issues, from car-parking charges to welfare benefits.

In the other world, some can be spotted on street platforms of protest alongside a man who is excitedly warning of upscaling, upscaling, and, yes, upscaling again if needs be to civil disobedience. Or others are trying to justify why a terrorist bomber who destroyed nine lives, including his, should be specially recognised and remembered publically.

Or are the First and deputy First Minister going in totally different directions over the future of the Maze prison site.

These are the parallel worlds in which all of us who live in Northern Ireland exist.

What makes this politically schizophrenic place unique is that we never know which world we will wake up on any morning, because our society can switch from constructive to destructive in the time it takes to flutter a flag, or play a few bars on a flute.

People here have a choice between these two worlds, but sadly many cannot make up their mind, which is no surprise, since their political leaders cannot, either.

Of course, other than the dissidents, everyone wants Northern Ireland to prosper, with more jobs, improved standards of schooling and a strong health service.

But, taking their lead from the politicians (or is it the other way around?), too many still reserve the right to argue bitterly over flags, parades, the past, or just about anything which they deem as impinging on their sense of Britishness, or Irishness.

Given that these are our parallel worlds, the question must be: which do you favour? And the answer, 15 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, appears to be "both".

If the electorate wants it both ways, then inevitably Northern Ireland will suffer. We cannot continue to brush our differences under the carpet and hope the rest of the world could not care less. Some may ignore our problems. Others are still likely to conclude that Northern Ireland is not the honky-dory place we tell them it is. The Good Friday Agreement was supposed to signal not the end, but the beginning of the end of sectarian, constitutional divisions. We know now to all our costs, that the agreement prompted the opposite effect.

It has not diminished the differences between us, but actually led to an increase in community distrust, such as we are now witnessing in north Belfast.

They may have left the stage, but the reflections of David Trimble and Seamus Mallon – as expressed last week at their joint honorary graduation ceremony in Dublin – should not be ignored. Their conclusion is that there has been a lack of real political progress in the past decade.

The need for Richard Haass and his arbitration tribunal is an indictment on the current administration. The best that someone like David Trimble can say about the Stormont Executive is that it actually continues to exist at all.

Is that the legacy Robinson and McGuinness are happy to leave – that keeping the Stormont show on the road is their greatest achievement?

Or have they more to offer in order to take Northern Ireland out of the parallel worlds in which they, like the rest of us, still exist?

Answers, please to Dr Haass by Christmas.

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