Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 16 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

'I entirely agree with Peter Robinson's words - but we needed to hear them many times this past year'

Loyalists and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall in December last year during a flag protest
Loyalists and PSNI officers pictured at Belfast City Hall in December last year during a flag protest

"We can get back on track to a shared and united community which can benefit everyone in Northern Ireland or we can go back to the forty year conflict."

So said Peter Robinson in a speech last Friday evening. Needless to say, I entirely agree. And, yes, I am a political opponent of Peter Robinson, but it is good to hear such words from a DUP leader.

There is, however, a problem. We needed to hear such clear, unambiguous words many times over the past year in Northern Ireland.

Instead, in the face of street protests, intimidation and street violence, and significant disruption to the local economy, we had faltering words, half-hearted appeals and - worst of all - a return to the old tribal politics of Orange v Green.

Rather than give the leadership required to rally citizens around the vision of a shared and united community, the DUP and the UUP, led unionism back to the past.

The tribalism of the Unionist Forum (whatever happened to it?) and the Mid-Ulster arrangement (which Mike Nesbitt - eight months too late - has accepted was a mistake) sent out exactly the wrong messages to a Northern Ireland facing division, violence and uncertainty.

Talking about inclusive, pluralist politics in a conference speech is fine and good - and it's incredibly easy. The real challenge came earlier this year when Northern Ireland was a in a very bleak place.

Then we had no talk of pluralism - instead we were told Northern Ireland was in a 'cultural war'. Then we had no talk of inclusive politics - instead we were given tribal politics.

During those bleak months, the nationalist parties yielded to the same temptation to retreat into the sectarian trenches. It's not just the old unionist parties who seem to hanker after the 1950s

I spent Saturday at a Sinn Fein conference in London, making the case that it was time for Sinn Fein to focus on making Northern Ireland work rather than campaigning for a divisive border poll.

Much of the Sinn Fein rhetoric on the border poll is also stuck in the 1950s, rather than facing the challenges of 21st century Northern Ireland and Ireland.

My speech ended by urging Sinn Fein that its journey towards normalised politics cannot be over. Afterwards, I was told that there was a recognition that this journey cannot be over.

As with Peter Robinson's words of last week, the test for both is the Haass process. If the vision of a shared and united community is more than words, if the journey towards normalised politics is more than rhetoric, we need to see the Haass talks deliver. A successful outcome could be a stepping stone to normal politics.

Failure ... well, then we are in for another round of 'back to the 1950s'.

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