Belfast Telegraph

Only a leap of faith can banish spectre of the endgame haunting us: John Wilson Foster

There's an untapped constituency out there of the curious, the energetic and the entrepreneurial. But who can reach them?

By declaring that he would cast a second vote for the SDLP candidate, Mike Nesbitt has performed an extraordinary, possibly unique, and hazardous manoeuvre. He has taken his finger out of the plug-hole in one of the dykes that most of us in Northern Ireland rely on to keep the other side at bay.

Thinking of its origin with William III and James II, Seamus Heaney burst out in 1975: "Christ, it's near time that some small leak was sprung/In the great dykes the Dutchman made/To dam the dangerous tide that followed Seamus".

The dams have held since 1975, despite the very real changes: the cessation of hostilities, the Belfast Agreement, the Stormont Assembly, the enriching recent modernising of our daily lives.

Yet our politics are still poisoned land. Until this election we have been governed by a coalition of the unwilling. On one side a party wedded to the past and irrevocably suspicious of the other. On the other, a party also wedded to the past, but that can't even speak the name of the jurisdiction it helped to govern, and in declared, single-minded pursuit of an agenda that would have that jurisdiction swallowed by another.

Under such circumstances, bread-and-butter politics, the healthy daily concerns of a democracy, are always being absorbed by the zero-sum, headcount politics that are rarely more than a heartbeat away. At the end of our street stands the tall spectre of the endgame and it paralyses us.

It is not surprising that Nesbitt and a few others have seen the faint possibility of an alternative scenario, a vision of normalcy rather than a spectre of fear.

What separates the SDLP and the UUP is serious: their respective stand on joint authority, the Irish Language Act, even Brexit on which the SDLP is unified in opposition, the UUP split. Abortion, too, is an issue on which the very tentative reformism of the UUP is at odds with the anti-reformism of the SDLP.

But there is enough common ground to make arable. Many bread-and-butter issues are discussible: in the air that both parties breathe there is, one senses, if not sweetness and light, then at least goodwill and reasonableness. Neither is on perpetual amber alert, eyeing their counterpart, always keeping their powder dry.

And neither, it seems to me, is mesmerised by the spectre of the endgame. The SDLP knows that a united Ireland (a plank in their platform, but not their central plank) is to be pursued not by subterfuge, abstentionism, endless reminders and threats, much less the Armalite, or bomb, but by subtle persuasion and a confidence in the fullness of time, a sharing of Hamlet's belief that "the readiness is all". They know that the way to impede a united Ireland is to harp on about it, if you'll pardon the expression.

And surely the SDLP knows, which Sinn Fein either does not know, or knows but perversely ignores, that unless Northern Ireland develops into a successful devolved government of the United Kingdom, there is no possibility of a united Ireland down the line.

Simply put, the second, should it come about, requires the first. It is no paradox. Only Northern Ireland's success can create the circumstances of persuasion. The idea that the fall of Northern Ireland, or a mechanism of imposed joint authority, or even the withholding of a wholehearted recognition of the devolved jurisdiction, advances the peaceful cause of a united Ireland seems to me a dangerous delusion.

For its part, the UUP's constitutionalism should take the form of a sincere and inclusive recognition of non-unionist culture as far as compatibility with current unionism as a bedrock principle allows.

That requires admitting, cheerfully, the legitimacy of the desire for a united Ireland while respectfully, but firmly, at this time, dissenting from its desirability.

The UUP's constitutionalism of the actual could happily consort with the SDLP's constitutionalism of the possible. And between the actual and the possible is a vast potential for stability and development. What Alliance started can be given impetus by the UUP and SDLP.

Indeed, that consorting might spring a leak of another kind. It is my belief that there is, in 2017, a regrettable disconnect between who many people in Northern Ireland are and who they feel obliged to vote for. There is a curious time-lag in operation between Northern Irish society and the political choices voters are offered, the second lagging far behind the first.

We are still hugging our little destiny, as Heaney put it, instead of breaking out and breaking away. There is an unreached constituency out there - of the curious, energetic, entrepreneurial, the educated, cultivated, accomplished and credentialed.

What party as a priority reaches out to the young, to the professionals, to business, or to educated and emancipated women, many of them professionals in their own right?

But the UUP and SDLP together might conceivably do that, unchained from headcount politics, staring down the spectre of the endgame.

The fact is that there are many Catholics in Northern Ireland, perhaps a majority, many of them young, who are not unhappy with life in the United Kingdom and who meanwhile inhabit a globalised world and who have the freedom to develop and achieve.

Can they vote for a party that echoes their lives?

There are many Protestants, many of them young, who entertain progressive ideas on social values (Belfast's social life demonstrates this), for whom the dykes should exist only in desperate endgame circumstances.

All over the province, there are Catholics and Protestants professionally co-habiting daily and happily: what single party assumes that to be the case and advances its policies in that knowledge? There is a space-lag as well.

Does the choice of platforms we have not distort who we actually are?

If only we could vote for who we are and not who they are.

Political parties should not foreclose on the variety of our lives but represent it. We should vote not according to the spectre, but according to the life we lead, the daily values we cherish.

I sense a hunger for normalcy and the chance for lives to unfold beyond the shackles of identity politics (the politics of religion, ethnicity and ultimate allegiance).

The hungry are not fed, because those on either side of the constitutional divide have not joined forces on issues of mutual agreement and agreed to suspend the politics of identity.

Mike Nesbitt is finding out the perils of a unilateral questioning of the primacy of the dykes in our political and social lives. The response of Colum Eastwood was disappointing, when it should have been game-changingly warm and thoughtful. This is what leadership required.

But the final responsibility rests with the voters. Those of us who wish to live in a society that is a going concern, with a successful devolved government that is first and foremost civic and municipal, and freed from the perpetual threat of the axe above it, face the same dilemma as Eastwood and Nesbitt.

It seems as if only a co-operative and risky leap of faith into the dark can reward Heaney's, and our, long over-taxed patience.

However, the readiness is all.

John Wilson Foster is Honorary Research Professor at the Institute of Irish Studies, Queen's University, Belfast

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