Belfast Telegraph

Giant strides to make peace are ancient history, boys

Our leaders should end the self-congratulations. What we need now is a practical reassurance that politics can work, says Malachi O'Doherty

Stormont is now a right schmozzle, a dysfunctional parliament built on hopes that warranted more. At least now we know those hopes were too high.

It had seemed for a time that the agreements and what followed them was an heroic experiment in peacemaking. We were for a time an example to the rest of the world. There are still some carpet baggers out there selling themselves as experts in reconciliation and conflict transformation on the credit they take for having resolved an historic deadlock here.

It's a pity they couldn't have lowered their sights to the ordinary politics of deal-making and getting through the day, for that's the stuff we can't do.

Actually we can't do the heroic stuff either.

So, we are stymied on the practical level of managing an economy and co-ordinating our dealings with London and we are stymied also on the identity stuff, the flags, parades and the past. Whether you talk about the grand job of ending sectarianism or the little job of running a devolved state, there's little that anyone in Stormont can take credit for.

At the time of the agreements, politicians and diplomats were fond of reciting our great poets, Seamus Heaney and Michael Longley.

Heaney had talked of a "farther shore ... reachable from here".

Longley talked about getting down on the knees and doing "what must be done".

It had all seemed to sum up a movement of the spirit that had changed life here and promised an emergence out of deadlock and suspicion and bloodletting.

As it turns out, the farther shore is just an honest compromise, an acceptance of the political reality that politics is the art of the possible, the best deal you can manage with the people you are stuck with and we can't actually reach it at all.

And the thing that must be done is not necessarily a self-sacrificial abasement before murderers, it's just a bit of paper that you have to sign, acknowledging that you've done your best and negotiated, that you have a partner that you are wedded to, that you can't have it all your own way, and that proves impossible.

Or undesirable.

The fact is that we never outgrew political positioning and strategy in party interests.

There were heroic losers in the peace process, but they are not revered as examples to anybody, just remembered as yesterday's men, the ones who couldn't cut it.

Look at the big players who survived all the wrangling and all the past deadlocks to get their hands on power and what do we find, but that they were always just playing for advantage over each other and that they are at it still?

Which is fine up to a point.

It is fine until it actually works against their interests and pulls the house down.

It would do us no harm to have a clear and sound vision of the journey that we have taken to here and dumped all the myth-making and self-congratulation: all the nonsense about Adams being our Mandela and Paisley our de Klerk.

To hear Martin McGuinness smugly congratulating himself on the example he provides to us of reconciliation because he laughed with Ian Paisley and went to Windsor Park is to risk choking.

Only last week he was saying, "the one thing we were absolutely united on was the principle that our people were better able to govern themselves than any British government".

It turns out to be mere hokum.

Sinn Fein needs to weigh the political realities in which it operates. It wants to reverse the Tory welfare cuts. That is a commendable aspiration. Northern Ireland people are not instinctively Tory, however conservative they are. Many of them are on benefits and older people can see how sleight of hand down the decades by Thatcher and others eroded the value of pensions and threw people out of work.

They want to stand up to that. Fine.

But the political system in which they operate is a partnership with the DUP and if they are not on for a costly stand-off against Westminster; if they are not prepared to see services laid to waste as the money tightens to make that point, then the game is off; they just have to cock a snoot at the Tories some other way.

That is the simple truth of it and yet they speak and act as if there is some latitude still available to them that none of the rest of us can see.

The DUP has done no better at accepting the full reality of partnership. They have used the Petition of Concern to defend a minister who named and shamed four firms in the Assembly and falsely alleging they had received overpayments amounting to £18m, and then sacked him a week later anyway.

What was that all about?

Nelson McCausland was judged by a majority on his own scrutiny committee to have disgraced his office by deliberately misleading MLAs. In other parliaments you simply resign when you are caught out at that.

Robinson seems to have cheapened the mechanisms devised to protect communities against sectarian discrimination by deploying them to deny the Assembly the right to kick Nelson's backside just so that he could do it himself.

It is time for a serious reconsideration of how politics is to be conducted here.

The fear is that Sinn Fein secretly doesn't believe the institutions are going to survive anyway and has therefore just picked an issue to crash them on that will make them look radical and left wing.

They have been taking flak from their republican community for being too cosy with the Brits. They have to claw back lost ground and a bit of radical cred while they are at it.

Maybe that is what they are up to. Robinson has already said that the institutions are not fit for purpose so it is hard to believe that he is stretching himself to preserve them.

But what people here want is some reassurance that politics can work, that it doesn't have to be a succession of failed endeavours, from the multi-sports stadium to the light rail rapid transit system to the cross-border electricity interconnector and the Irish Language Act and the Ulster Scots Academy and every other dream project that has been talked up and then not happened.

People need no more of the self-congratulation. We are past marvelling at the simple fact that republicans and unionists sit beside each other.

It's time they got the finger out and did some work.

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