Debates in the Assembly should emulate the quality of conversation we want to promote in every facet of Northern Irish life.
Acrimonious name calling, blaming, whataboutery, and character attacks on the Assembly floor affect relations at the interfaces and weaken democratic culture. This is bad for reconciliation, bad for the economy, and ultimately bad for families hoping for stability and prosperity.
Leading scholars of democracy tell us that if we want to ensure democracy’s survival, we don’t just need better institutions, but a transformation of public political culture. The success of democracy has as much to do with the quality of our conversations and relationships as it does our institutions.
The patterns of conversation and conflict management modeled by our political leaders matter, because they filter through to all levels of society. Good relationships, at all levels of society, are the lynchpin of political stability. This is why the United Nations speaks of democracy not just in terms of fair and regular elections but also the development of a democratic culture.
When democratic culture suffers, there is real human suffering. The fallout over parades, flags and commemorations in Northern Ireland over the last year and the inability to reach political resolution has disrupted trade in Belfast city centre, strained community relations, and caused serious damage to Northern Ireland’s international image. Changes are desperately needed.
Key to developing a democratic culture is to build the relationships necessary for good democracy. In the context of a post-conflict society like Northern Ireland, this entails the difficult process of reconciliation, and the creation of a new political rhetoric.
This isn’t woolly, liberal, politically-correct idealism. A culture of democracy doesn’t exclude robust rhetoric and speeches designed to devastate an opponent. It simply asks for substantive talk that plays the game not the player.
Geoffrey Howe, in his famous 1990 resignation speech, drove the knife deep into Thatcher, all the while referring to her as his “Right Honorable Friend.” He did this not by resorting to the kind of cheap shots we hear on the Assembly floor, but with argument, inventive simile, and appeal to common destiny.
Describing the Prime Minister’s lack of support for her Chancellor and governor in negotiations with Europe, Howe said, "It is rather like sending your opening batsmen to the crease, only for them to find, as the first balls are being bowled, that their bats have been broken before the game by the team captain." Such devastating whimsy led to Thatcher’s demise in a matter of weeks.
In three weeks time, comments from Edwin Poots regarding the recent publicity about Gerry Adams (the Disappeared and family issues), will end up in the dustbin of disposable rhetoric and Adams will still carry on as Sinn Féin leader. But Howe’s humorous cricket simile, which utterly finished Thatcher, will live on for centuries.
Barton Creeth is a consultant with LucidTalk, polling partners to the Belfast Telegraph