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We just don't have will to build a post-conflict society

After taking a leap of faith to vote Yes in the Good Friday Agreement referendum, Alex Kane looks back at the high hopes and squandered chances which have led to today's polarised Assembly in an ever more polarised society

Published 27/08/2015

Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement amid high hopes for a new beginning
Prime Minister Tony Blair and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern sign the Good Friday Agreement amid high hopes for a new beginning
James Woods (4) joins pro-Agreement supporters at Stormont in 1999

In May 1998 I voted Yes in the Good Friday Agreement referendum. It wasn't an easy decision. There were moral aspects I was uncomfortable with and I was particularly concerned about the woolliness of the language around the issues of collective responsibility, accountability and social/political integration.

But it struck me that the potential benefits outweighed the obvious risks and that if we were to start building a new era Northern Ireland it was going to require a leap of faith, even from hardened cynics like myself.

What I was doing was giving peace a chance. I'm no Pollyanna and I was well aware that there was likely to be a considerable section of big-U and small-U unionism which would reject the agreement: and I was also aware that Sinn Fein - which hadn't signed off on the deal at the last plenary session on April 9 - was lukewarm in its support for an Assembly with a unionist majority. But again, at that moment it seemed to me that if enough ordinary people threw their weight behind the Agreement then the parties might take the hint and maybe, just maybe, would begin to work together in common cause.

My Yes vote was my Dr Johnson moment - the triumph of hope over experience.

Peace processes, of course, are funny old things and require an awful lot of goodwill to sustain the momentum. They also depend on steady, bankable progress to offset relentless criticism. And therein lay the problem. It became clear fairly early on that both sides were opting for a stalemate built on mutual vetoes and mutually contradictory agendas, rather than a creating a broad template for something new, something different. Even the UUP and SDLP, who were supposed to be the champions of new era thinking, suddenly became very timid when faced with the reality of what they had negotiated.

In fairness to John Hume and David Trimble (below), they hadn't won the electoral backing they required to dominate the Assembly and push through their agenda, which meant that the DUP and Sinn Fein were breathing down their necks. And by as early as 2004 it looked like the British and Irish governments were beginning to accept the possibility that it would be necessary to marginalise the UUP and SDLP in favour of the DUP and Sinn Fein.

That shift from a UUP/SDLP axis to a DUP/Sinn Fein axis meant the end of the so-called peace process. It was no longer a matter of establishing a new form of Government that would change how we did things in Northern Ireland; it simply became a matter of putting in place a Government that would take responsibility for Northern Ireland. It ceased to be about genuine, credible power-sharing and became the altogether different divvying up of available offices.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have no interest in demonstrating what unites them - they have concluded that harmony doesn't mean more votes for them. All that matters to them is demonstrating that they have some sort of advantage over the other. And one thing is certain, protecting and promoting your own turf makes it impossible to change the nature and atmosphere of the political environment.

Peace has to mean something more than the mantra: "It's better than it used to be." Peace has to be about building bridges and making a difference; it has to be about bringing people together rather than keeping them apart. The whole idea and purpose of the peace process was to address the issues which had kept us polarised for generations and create the space and circumstances to build something that would be recognised as a different, better Northern Ireland.

That dream, ambition, call it what you will, has gone. What we have instead is a polarised, polarising Government that sees everything in terms of us-and-them. And, to be brutally honest, there's not really much point in blaming the DUP and Sinn Fein for any of this. They do what they say on the tin. The voters who turn out on polling day are choosing to endorse us-and-them politics. And even the UUP and SDLP are, to all intents and purposes, mirror, minor images of the big two. Meanwhile, Alliance plods along like the Red Cross on a battlefield, bandaging where it can and hoping that something can be rescued from the very obvious wreckage all around it.

None of this has anything to do with peace, because there is nothing to suggest that the unionist/nationalist parties either want to or are capable of building the architecture required for peace. Oh yes, they may mouth the platitudes about progress and working together, but when push comes to shove it's always easier to build another wall or dig another trench. The DUP and Sinn Fein accept that they are stuck with each other, but that doesn't mean that they will work together. Again, who can blame them? Their voters don't want them to work together, because their voters don't want the same things.

So here's something we need to take on board. Our political parties reflect the reality of life in Northern Ireland. They are the us-and-them parties of an us-and-them society. The reason we don't have new post-conflict parties and the reason Alliance is still small is that we don't have a post-conflict society, and there isn't actually the will or wherewithal to build it. Indeed, I am increasingly of the view that most people here are happy enough to rub shoulders with the "other side" when it is required or unavoidable, but they don't actually want to dilute their beliefs to the point where we can talk about a turquoise society rather than the same-old, same-old orange and green society.

In other words, most people-even many of those who voted Yes in 1998-don't equate peace with social/educational/political integration. Instead, they equate it with being allowed to maintain their own turf, traditions and fences.

They don't, in fact, want to mix with the "other side" because they don't see the long-term point or advantage of mixing with them.

A unionist remains a unionist, a republican remains a republican. Putting them in the same schools or housing estates isn't going to change that. And if it isn't going to change it, then why bother trying?

So we shouldn't be surprised by a dysfunctional Assembly and snarling parties. We shouldn't be surprised by lack of progress on the so-called big ticket issues. We shouldn't be surprised that we remain polarised. We shouldn't be surprised that us-and-them remains the norm. We shouldn't be surprised that we don't have a peace process. Or, to put all of that in its bluntest form - is what we see all around us just an accurate reflection of what most of us actually think?

Belfast Telegraph

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