Belfast Telegraph

Alban Maginness: We must not ignore words of warning from Senator George Mitchell about dangers ahead

 

One of the most disturbing features of the political impasse at Stormont is the widespread complacency that exists among ordinary citizens.

As long as people's lives are not directly impacted and the buses run and the pensions are paid, people are largely content. It seems people can indefinitely put up with the breakdown in our politics.

But this complacency is a dangerous state of mind and can collude to make the current situation even worse. Political abnormality is now becoming an acceptable normality. That's why we should listen carefully to the warnings that have recently been made by prominent figures in public life, both from here and abroad.

Two weeks ago, Senator George Mitchell visited Belfast to attend an international conference on global conflict, co-hosted by Queen's University Belfast and the University of Chicago.

Mr Mitchell, who is a genuinely good friend of Northern Ireland, is a frequent visitor to Belfast and is remarkably well-informed about our politics and our politicians. He has a selfless interest in what is happening and is anxious that we reap the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement, which he was pivotal in bringing about.

Without his patient efforts as chair of the negotiations, the agreement might never have happened. His interest in helping us has never stopped since he was appointed as President Clinton's envoy in December 1994, much to the chagrin of the then British Government under John Major.

Recent releases of Government papers have embarrassingly disclosed the serious worry among British officials about the appointment of a US envoy by Clinton.

During his visit to the conference, Mitchell crucially said: "Twenty years of relative peace ... cannot be lost because of a vacuum of political leadership."

Mitchell is far from verbose, and chooses his words with surgical care. Therefore, what he said about "a vacuum of political leadership" was a damning criticism of our political leaders and should be heeded by all involved.

He also went on to comment on the deadlock at Stormont, saying: "This has to be taken as a very serious, potentially dangerous, moment in the history of Northern Ireland."

We ignore at our peril Senator Mitchell's words of warning and need political action to fix what are very fixable problems, in comparison to the enormous issues extant at the time of the Good Friday Agreement.

In addition, last week, the Lord Chief Justice, Sir Declan Morgan, bluntly criticised the deadlock at Stormont.

It is unusual for our top judge to make openly political criticisms, but he described the lack of political direction as a "period of intense frustration".

He specifically said that the failure to pay compensation to victims of historical institutional abuse, as recommended by an inquiry in January last year, was an example of the negative impact of the lack of a functioning Assembly.

Victims have been told by the Government that the recommendations cannot be implemented without ministerial approval. No Executive at Stormont, therefore, means no compensation for victims.

The Lord Chief Justice also stated that, in the absence of a functioning Executive, there is currently no process within the current legal framework for civil servants to resolve "difficult and challenging disputes".

This is not the first time the Lord Chief Justice has had to make public criticisms. In January last year, he rejected criticisms that Troubles-related inquests, conducted under his direction, were skewed against the security forces.

In September last year, he criticised the delay in dealing with legacy issues, especially legacy inquests, but this was his first major public criticism of the actual deadlock at the heart of the system.

He is to be commended for bluntly highlighting the impact that the deadlock is having on the lives of specific groups of people in our society.

But the fact that he felt compelled to speak out says a lot about the gravity and dangers lurking within the current state of our politics.

If we do not listen carefully to what he - and, indeed, Senator Mitchell - has said, then we make a huge mistake.

Our political system (if you can call it that) needs a huge wake-up call. Politicians need to respond to the dangers lurking in the undergrowth.

Politics is always the art of the possible, and the possible can only be achieved - even here - through compromise.

If the political system remains permanently dysfunctional through "a vacuum of leadership", the potential danger that Mr Mitchell has talked about could degenerate into something worse, even violence.

Drew Harris, fresh from his imaginative appointment by the Irish government as the new Garda commissioner (having been Deputy Chief Constable of the PSNI), stated that the greatest threat to the people of Ireland is dissident republicanism.

It is incumbent on all our politicians to stop that threat from becoming a reality through unnecessary disagreement and futile deadlock.

Belfast Telegraph

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