Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 26 November 2014

So, divided we stand: is this as good as it gets?

It is 45 years since Terence O'Neill asked what kind of Ulster we wanted. We are no nearer to answering his question, says Alex Kane

Fifty years ago, in March 1963, Terence O'Neill became Prime Minister of Northern Ireland.

Opinion remains divided, with some unionists and nationalists still arguing that, had he been listened to, we could have avoided the Troubles, while others contend that his supposedly moderate, liberal views (along with his poor handling of internal UUP matters and patronising approach to nationalists) actually contributed to the problem.

Anyway, there are few who would now disagree with his pre-election speech on December 9, 1968: "Ulster stands at the crossroads. These items are far too serious to be determined behind closed doors by noisy minorities. The time has come for the people as a whole to speak in a clear voice.

"What kind of Ulster do you want? A happy and respected province, in good standing with the rest of the United Kingdom; or a place continually torn apart by riots and demonstrations and regarded by the rest of Britain as a political outcast?"

That speech led to 150,000 letters of support, almost as if a little "thrill of hope" was running through Northern Ireland. Yet, within four months, O'Neill lost control of his party and was replaced as prime minister.

Forty years ago, in November 1973, another little "thrill of hope" ran through Northern Ireland, when a power-sharing deal was struck between the unionists led by Brian Faulkner and Alliance and the SDLP.

The Ulster Unionist Council could live with power-sharing, but it balked when asked to support the Council of Ireland proposal agreed at the Sunningdale conference a few weeks later and, on January 4, 1974, Faulkner, like O'Neill before him, lost the support of his party.

Fifteen years ago, in May 1998, a rather louder "thrill of hope" crash-banged its way across the land, when 676,966 people (as against 274,879) voted in favour of a power-sharing arrangement between unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans.

And yet, here we are, in early January 2013, with reports suggesting that the threat from dissident republicans is growing, while loyalist protesters are out on an almost daily basis, blocking roads and demanding the Union flag be flown all the year round over Belfast City Hall.

The Executive has still to agree a Cohesion Sharing and Integration (CSI) strategy - even though one has been in the pipeline for almost a decade.

No new post-conflict parties have emerged and increasing numbers of people have disconnected from the political process.

The DUP and Sinn Fein have reached their own self-preserving, self-promoting arrangements, while the SDLP is trying to out-green Sinn Fein and the UUP has just given up and berthed itself in the DUP's harbour.

We try to convince ourselves that Northern Ireland is a better place because of the Belfast Agreement and the willingness of old enemies to sit around the same table.

But the intermittent 'thrills of hope' don't seem to be translating into something that could, with any degree of conviction, be described as the solid basis for a new-era Northern Ireland.

The year is starting with a unionist forum on one side (so expect electoral pacts aimed at maximising turnout and seats) and a border poll campaign on the other (so expect a non-stop Sinn Fein propaganda campaign in the run-up to the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising).

So: a simple question. Is this as good as it gets? Are we really like one of those peculiar families from an Austen, or Trollope, novel, going through the motions of civility and good manners when we find ourselves in the same room, but delighted when we get back to our own comfort zones within our own turf?

Oh, yes, we will all nod very politely when issues like integrated education and a 'shared future' are mentioned in mixed company, but we still live in our own 'us-and-them' areas and carry our own prejudices quietly, but firmly.

And for all of the tut-tutting about the attacks on Alliance offices in the past few weeks, it strikes me as a fairly safe bet that it won't result in a dramatic upturn in their electoral fortunes.

All of which raises the question of what we, collectively and as members of two big power-bloc communities, actually want? What sort of solution are we looking for?

Let me put that in another way: do most of us actually want some sort of great social/political/electoral breakthrough and a brave new world? Or would we be happy enough with doing our own thing in our own areas and let the Assembly get on with providing the essentials of government, while keeping the 'other side' in check?

To be honest, a well-organised stalemate - while not ideal - may be preferable to the tidal wave of guff and soundbites about cross-community strategies and social integration.

Government here is not good and that tends to cloud our opinion of everything it tries to do. So maybe the Executive should leave us to work out some things for ourselves, while it gets on with proving itself effective in less-contentious areas.

O'Neill's question is still relevant 50 years on: "What kind of Ulster do you want?"

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