Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 27 December 2014

Lots of talking, but what does our future hold?

John O'Dowd says that the shared education debate has only begun. He could just as soon be discussing the entire integration issue, says Alex Kane

Politics - like every other science - is governed by laws and principles. And one of the immutable laws is the Law of Inverse Relevance.

Put simply, the less likely it is that you intend to do something, the louder and more often you will talk about doing it.

Take a Shared Future, for example. Opinion polls indicate that an overwhelming majority support the concept: and you can bet your bottom dollar that quite a few will even preface their answer with, "Oh, yes. Some of my best friends are Protestant/Roman Catholic."

Yet, oddly enough, there is no sign whatsoever of people rushing to live in mixed areas, vote for non-aligned parties, or send their children to deliberately integrated schools.

In yesterday's interview in the Belfast Telegraph, the Education Minister, John O'Dowd, said: "Shared education may present as a different project in different areas - it may not be integrated education, as in the integrated education movement." So, what would it be: watered-down integration in us-and-them areas?

Let's play a game. Pick a date - any date you like since about 1122. Because, no matter what date you pick, you can be sure that someone will have been babbling on about improving the relationships between British and Irish, or Protestants and Catholics, or loyalists and nationalists, or unionists and republicans, or Northern Ireland and the south.

A few days ago, someone told me that it could be "another couple of generations" before we have reconciliation here. Wow. That's astonishing. More than a century after the creation of Northern Ireland and we'll still be talking about reconciliation.

Actually, I think she was being optimistic. There are a number of ingredients required to build a shared future, seven of which strike me as essential.

Agreement on the constitutional future of the country to be governed; a Programme for Government (PfG) which reflects that agreement; a system of government which also reflects the agreement; a real sense of conflict resolution, rather than conflict stalemate; political parties with a genuine commitment to a shared future; an acceptance by the 'victims' of the conflict that their needs have been properly and fairly addressed, rather than bundled into a wider political agenda; and stable, trusted mechanisms which allow the painfully honest 'truth' of our history to be told.

Now, then, it seems to me that not one of those seven essential ingredients is presently in place. Unionists and republicans continue to have opposing views on the UK status quo versus Irish unity and, consequently, will do nothing which appears to further the agenda of the 'other side'.

The Programme for Government doesn't represent a thought-out vision for building a united, co-operative Northern Ireland. The system of government is still mutual mistrust counter-balanced by mutual veto.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have entirely opposing definitions of the nature, scale and purpose of reconciliation and sharing. Alliance is as much a part of the political mummification as the 'Big Two', because it sees its role as little more than a half-way house between them: and the UUP and SDLP are, I think, in terminal decline.

Too many victims are both offended and insulted by how their concerns have been addressed (or not addressed) and truth and reconciliation processes tend to raise more problems than they ever resolve.

Worse still, I see very little evidence of sufficient movement anywhere to justify the opinion that any of this is likely to change anytime soon.

Which raises another question: do we actually want it to change? In yesterday's interview, O'Dowd was focused on education, but he could have been talking about the entire integration debate when he said: "I suspect our society is at the stage where we are really only at the start of this debate." Fourteen years after the Belfast Agreement and we are only at the 'start' of the debate.

I sometimes get the feeling that most people don't want to take any more risks, or rock any more boats. We remain on either side of the social/political/religious fence, because we feel comfortable there: among people who share our view on which side of the border we wish to live.

It's not that we hate 'them'uns', or want to throw a brick at them; it's more that we tend to think that rubbing along, with the occasional polite smile as and when required, is preferable to being forced to share with them.

But what about the almost 50% (according to the recent Belfast Telegraph/LucidTalk opinion poll) who say they won't be voting at the next election. What do they want? Well, if it's a change in how things are done and how we lead our lives, then they won't be voting for the present parties, because they have already decided not to vote for them.

Which means that the only way of attracting them to the polling station (assuming, of course, they do want to vote) is with political vehicles which don't yet exist.

That, of course, raises all sorts of other questions about what these new post-conflict vehicles would look like, who would lead them and how they would resolve the UK versus Irish unity conundrum and build parties with a very specific, Northern Ireland platform.

More important, is there really market for them at all, or a place in an Assembly which still doesn't recognise the existence of a formal, funded Opposition?

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