Belfast Telegraph

Monday 1 September 2014

DebateNI home of Northern Ireland politics

You get the politics (and the politicians) you deserve - whisper it, but power-sharing doesn't work

First Ministers Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness
David Trimble and John Hume celebrate the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast with Bono of U2 in the heady days of 1998

Who do we blame for the current malaise in our politics? It's all very well pointing to political leaders and accusing them of failing to meet the expectations of the community; usually that means they have disappointed the community that didn't vote for them.

There is a mandate behind every MLA and councillor who ever made you feel that there is no hope for this place as long as someone like that has power.

We put them there and we could remove them. Or, at least, nationalists put annoying nationalists in and unionists put annoying unionists in.

Our fates are not in the stars but in our hands, as Shakespeare almost said.

The trouble lies in the inherent division of our society. But we voted for that, too, in the Agreement referendum.

There were voices back then, like Eamonn McCann, who said it was better to vote against than to construct a sectarian carve-up, but it felt like we were voting for peace.

The fact is we were setting the past behind us by creating a political system for the future that wasn't going to provided good government.

The paramilitaries were happy, so why weren't the rest of us? Well, when had the needs of paramilitaries ever coincided with the needs of a stable society and good government?

It was like moving into a tent in the garden to avoid bed bugs and wondering why it's so cold at night.

People on both sides like politicians who annoy the other. And that, we imagined, was the traditional model of politics here that the Agreement was taking us out of.

Indeed, for a few years it seemed that we were moving on a virtuous circle in which politicians grew in esteem through gestures of reconciliation and trust. Now we are back on the old, vicious circle in which a snarl takes you further than a smile.

The Agreement determines that only by representing one or other of nationalism and unionism can one have power; this in spite of the fact that the Agreement was meant to settle the constitutional dispute, or at least put it in the freezer for another generation, which might warm up again, or forget about it.

No amount of unionist tub-thumping makes the Union any more secure; no republican celebration of the 'war' erodes it.

All of that stuff is a waste of time, except that it gets votes. Or, at least, doesn't lose them. We needed this because neither community will allow the other to govern alone.

In England even old Labour socialists accept that Tory Governments will get to run the country every few years and the people of the shires are content to allow Labour to take over when they win elections.

Democracy depends on an elementary faith in the enemy that it won't destroy the economy, or take over the Army, or sell everything to rich friends. Even when they do make a hash of it in power that doesn't disqualify them from coming back.

We are where we are because the nationalist people couldn't bear to be governed by unionists. That was the inevitable shape of things, because nationalists were in a perpetual minority.

As of the last census, both communities are minorities now and unionism, faced with the prospect that a nationalist Government might rule, would also rather have power-sharing. But it doesn't work.

It would be better if each could take its turn in opposition and let the other have the reins for a while. But for that to happen, the average nationalist and unionist would need to have, at least, the same basic respect for each other's parties as, say, the average English trade unionist has for David Cameron, as Norman Tebbitt has for Ed Balls. We are nowhere near that notional threadbare level of trust and mutual respect.

Last week Derry businessman Garvan O'Doherty was arguing that the Executive is now so dysfunctional that it needs to be replaced with a commission, the way Londonderry Borough Council was in the 1970s, when the Catholic community lost faith in its ability to distribute housing fairly. At the same time housing was taken away from the councils and put under the Housing Executive on the premise that technocrats could be trusted when politicians couldn't.

We are going the other way now, bringing in big councils, most of which will have secure sectarian majorities, like mini old-Stormonts, imagining this will work now when it didn't before. Our political future seems as bleak as it ever has, and even still we expect the world to congratulate us for peacemaking and to replicate our efforts in other trouble spots.

The Grin (McGuinness) and the Grump (Robinson) tour the world for investment and invite endorsement of their heroic peacemaking, then come home like honeymooners to separate bedrooms – and still we expect fruit from their union.

Bigger fools us.

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