Belfast Telegraph

Tuesday 29 July 2014

We've built sectarianism into the system. Now it's time to move on

Gang using Fountain as a base, read the headline on page three of the Derry Journal last Friday. The story told that "a sectarian gang from the Fountain estate has been accused of terrorising pedestrians on the Abercorn Road". Residents had "called for robust police action to remove the aggressors from the streets".

A community representative from the adjacent area demanded to know, "Why don't [the PSNI] go up to the Fountain and grab these boys, who are regularly seen carrying weapons?" Page 13 of the same edition carried the headline, "Hardcore want to drive us out, says Fountain resident".

Willie Temple complained: "There has been a catalogue of events, including petrol-bombings, paint-bombings, smashing windows and damaging cars . . . It has to stop, but the police are not doing enough. We are neglected."

A cynic might smile at the fearful symmetry. Each community seeing events around them against the background of the other's presumed sectarian hostility. How can peace ever be made permanent while this mutually-reinforcing irrationality persists?

Good question. Pity it wasn't asked when the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was being drafted.

The right to believe the other side is to blame is enshrined in the Agreement. The text offers no analysis on the rights and wrongs of the enmities the Agreement is said to be designed to resolve.

The antagonism hadn't arisen from material circumstances, then, but from the core nature of the communities themselves.

If this appreciation of the problem was good enough for Tony Blair, Bertie Ahern, Bill Clinton, George Mitchell and the leaders of the 10 (yes, 10) local parties involved in the negotiations, not to mention every national newspaper in Britain and Ireland, and Bono, how can it be held against young people on either side of the Fountain wall that they believe each has a right to retaliate against the others' unprovoked attacks?

There have been indications in recent weeks of a recognition that the arrangements set out in the Agreement may be an expression of the problem rather than a framework for finding a solution.

The Irish Examiner newspaper observed during the recalcitrant course of the Hillsborough talks, that, "It may be time to ask whether the structures established on Good Friday 1998, and enhanced by the St Andrews Agreement of 2006, will ever work".

In a piece headed 'The phoney peace-seekers' on February 1, former Guardian editor Peter Preston wrote: "From Northern Ireland to Nicosia, we talk about a 'process', but the divides remain as deep as ever ... The 'process' seems more a mantra than a policy that involves actual movement." And in a just-published paper, the Platform for Change group, headed by academic Robin Wilson, calls for "a serious debate about how to make the institutions of governance more flexible".

The paper suggests MLAs should no longer have to designate as orange or green. "The hope has to be to move towards a more conventional political argument, between those who seek to expand the public realm and those who favour the public sector."

The hope seems widely shared. 'Why can't they get down to the real issues, houses, jobs, schools, the health service' is the most common plea across the land.

Politicians entwined in negotiations on parades and policing are ever-anxious to insist the reason they want all this sorted out is so they can get down to the real issues. But what's stopping us doing it now? Wherein lies the necessity to wait until the problems to do with communal relations are resolved before engaging with the political division?

Might not concentration and mobilisation on matters which have nothing to do the community we come from be the key to sorting out the issues reflecting communal differences?

The clash between the public realm and the private sector is not something which might at some point in the future unfold. It's happening day in and day out. Averting our eyes while promising to get around to the matter when the conditions are right is not a strategy, but an evasion.

Intellectual defence of the public sector is necessary now, as economic 'experts' who have somehow managed to learn nothing from the madness of the market wander the airways intoning their ancient chant, "Public sector bloated and wasteful, private sector mean and efficient''.

The practical struggle between the private realm and the public sector is in play every time a union or campaign stands up against job cuts or a wage freeze in local councils, the health service, social care; or opposes the threatened introduction of private sector competition in transport; or demands Northern Ireland Water be taken back fully into public hands and the cap on rates lifted; every time a working class community bands together to prevent the withdrawal of services to the elderly. The higher up the agenda these issues can be raised, the less dominant the issues arising from communal rivalry will become.

But wouldn't that be to contradict the politics on which the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is based? Indeed. And there's the difficulty. At least it's a difficulty for those who want politics based on class rather than community, but not yet.

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