Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 20 December 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

John Downey case: Most surprising about recent revelations regarding 'on the runs' is that people are surprised

John Downey and the scene after the Hyde Park bombing in 1982
John Downey and the scene after the Hyde Park bombing in 1982

Michael Adebalogo and Michael Adebowale have justifiably received lengthy sentences for the murder of Lee Rigby. In the same week John Downey, albeit that any crime of which he may be guilty remains unproven, has walked away from court.

The contrast in the two cases illustrates the nature of the various Agreements, deals and side-deals, hidden and otherwise that characterise the peace process in Northern Ireland.

It was and remains a process, shaped by fear, violence and the politically expedient requirements of governments in Dublin, Washington and London that stretch logic, ethics and reason.

The most surprising thing then about the recent revelations on the OTRs is that people are surprised.

We continue to live with the moral levelling and ethical contamination, defined as ‘conflict resolution’ that has characterised the politics of peace as they have flowed from the Good Friday Agreement. Add to this continuing tribal and partisan sectarianism. It has produced a combustible mix.

Why then should we be surprised by anything anymore? Skewed motivation produces skewed outcomes.

The desire to end a septic and costly sordid conflict took precedence as important and difficult issues were left unresolved. Inevitably determinations are driven by those who prove most adept and most effective in harnessing the process to their agenda and exercise the greatest leverage.

It is also of some assistance if you operate from the premise of an ideology devoid of any morality or ethics.

Embed this within structures where scrutiny is impotent or at best peripheral and decision - making is at the behest of absolutist and unyielding parties, forced rather than desirous of working together and more committed to managing a process than governance, and you produce the Northern Ireland Assembly of today, continuously content to pave the way to old quarrels.

Regrettably, in regard to the latter, those parties that represent the unionist electorate are culpable to a greater or lesser degree.

Now the reaction over the OTRs is predictable but is it also self-delusional?

Unionism was always aware that there were issues such as OTRs, victims, and dealing with the past that were on the table for resolution. It should have seized the initiative in setting the agenda but in failing has had to react to rather than shape events and decisions.

In the interests of electoral preservation it has come late to the victims issue and is seeking an outcome that may prove illusory

Westminster under the leadership of Tony Blair was unscrupulous in its dealing with unionism and was determined to put whatever pressure was necessary and make whatever deals were required to bring Sinn Fein into the political arena. It is a matter of historical record and characterised the process itself. Any grand departure by Westminster is unlikely.

Sinn Fein did what it always does. It pursued its agenda and played its hand relentlessly to put the interests of Sinn Fein above all else. This methodology has not gone away nor will it.

But in the face of this, unionism has collectively and in party terms, shown itself unsure, lacking an overarching vision and any meaningful strategy or tactics. It dances angrily on the spot from time to time and engages in rage politics but to what end? Ineffectiveness has produced pragmatic compliance.

It continuously ignores the water to dig its own well and has allowed its portrayal by its political opponents as bigoted and narrow to become accepted wisdom. It has proved reluctant to engage in robust self-reflection with a view to recognising and avoiding past failings. It continues to abandon much of the electorate

Unionism should be about providing and empowering leadership in a Northern Ireland that works for everyone and renders labels irrelevant and redundant.

It may be right, at this time, to request further consideration of those issues arising from Haass but in failing to shape the talks into a process for reconciliation and resolution built on those standards of democracy from which the community has strayed too far, it follows a narrow and flawed agenda of diminishing appeal

As elections approach, unionism across the community needs leadership capable of providing progressive, economically focused and socially just, non-sectarian politics at all levels of society.

It needs to be able to shape decisions at Westminster and hold the decision makers accountable before laws come into effect.

It needs to construct a platform for review and change that will address the failings of Stormont and offer a leaner, joined-up and sustainable programme that solves economic, educational and health issues rather than skirting around them waiting for the next crisis to happen.

It needs to move away from flags, banners, parades and regalia. Allow them to be what they are, namely cultural and not tribal or territorial. Focus instead on reconciliation and resolution to challenge and correct the moral and ethical deficit spawned by the tactics and policies of Sinn Fein within the peace process

It needs to work in the space provided by the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, to build reconciliation through sensitive discourse and interaction aimed at resolving difference.

Sometimes in life it is not so much what happens but what you do with it that is the most important.

As the current OTR crisis seemingly ‘peters out’, unionism can learn valuable lessons.


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