Belfast Telegraph

Claire Hanna: DUP and Sinn Fein's zero-sum game of rival nationalisms is threatening our hard-won peace

No set of constitutional arrangements for these islands will make your neighbours disappear, writes Claire Hanna

Building relationships: John Hume
Building relationships: John Hume

By Claire Hanna

Whether it's a no-deal Brexit, the climate emergency or the fight to protect jobs and heritage at Harland & Wolff, there is an overwhelming sense that decisions about our future are being made - and our fate decided - not in Belfast, but elsewhere.

Despite political tumult, Northern Ireland has an overpowering atmosphere of stagnation and ennui. Whatever your long-term constitutional aspiration for this region, there is a greater need than ever for a return to the relationship structures that allowed people to imagine a better future in the Good Friday Agreement.

Those who want to polarise and drag society to the extremes here and elsewhere thrive on pessimism, fear and loss of hope.

Populism and the politics of conflict thrive on people feeling lost and disenfranchised by the political system.

Increasingly, Northern Ireland's discourse appears Janus-faced: looking to the past for retrospective justification and to future promises to distract from the failure to improve the daily lives of the people in the here and now.

But the here and now is where we live and we need solutions for the present.

A feature of political life here has been that a refusal to take responsibility seems to reap political dividends.

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The DUP and Sinn Fein, co-dependent in intransigence, have played a zero-sum game of competing nationalisms that has actually failed to grow the pool of either unionist or nationalist voters and has also squandered the opportunity of devolution that the peace process presented.

Given that both parties set each other's teeth on edge and caricature each other relentlessly, it is easy to conclude that Northern Ireland is ungovernable.

But someone has to govern it, someone will be taking decisions and collectively we have to decide if we want that to be in a way that is accountable and consistent with the principles of power-sharing.

I owe much of my politics to John Hume - civil rights campaigner, Credit Union activist, SDLP founder and the leader who did more than anyone to recast centuries of Irish nationalist thinking.

Hume's ethos was predicated on the idea that it was relationships that would bring about a new Ireland.

It wasn't about borders or flags, but about building relationships of mutual respect and trust on issues that transcend the constitution and building structures in which to develop those relationships in three strands: within Northern Ireland, on a north-south basis and east-west between these two islands.

However you view the changed political dynamic of the last three years, I don't think anyone could argue that people in Northern Ireland have become more united.

To date no one has yet come up with a better idea than his three-strand approach - that, whatever your longer-term constitutional aspiration, relationships and decision-making have to work in the here-and-now, within each strand simultaneously.

It is not hard to see the deep strain on each of those strands.

The Belfast poet John Hewitt called on all of us northerners:

To make amends by fraternising, by small friendly gestures,

Hoping by patient words I may convince my people and this people that we are changed, if not to kin to cohabitants,

As goat and ox may graze in the same field and each gain something from proximity.

That is the work of reconciliation 1998 sought - challenging, sometimes tedious, sometimes frustrating, but whatever happens in constitutional terms, the goat and the ox here will still be grazing in the same field.

Nationalists must understand that closer north-south co-operation and reconciliation cannot happen without co-operation and reconciliation within Northern Ireland.

Unionists must understand that maintaining the Union cannot come without respect and accommodation within Northern Ireland.

Nationalists and unionists have to reassure each other that they each haven't checked out of the strand one relationships in pursuit of their preferred constitutional change, because what both the Brexit and accelerated border poll campaigns ignore is the fact that there is no constitutional arrangement for this island, or continent, that makes all your problems, or your neighbours, go away.

Loudly announcing that change is coming is no match for building a vision that can appeal beyond one narrow electoral base.

I don't pretend to have all the answers to the many problems we face, but I passionately believe that we need to get back to those basics - politics build on relationships, respect for difference and an understanding that unionist and nationalist identities aren't mutually exclusive, fixed at birth, or the sum total of who people are.

Not all of the solutions are in our control. London and Dublin co-operating as friends and equals seems challenging and remote; the possibility of protecting fluid north-south relations is at the mercy of a Westminster Parliament which has proven itself unfamiliar with the complexities and needs of Northern Ireland.

But relationships within our shared home place are entirely within our own gift.

  • Claire Hanna is SDLP MLA for South Belfast. Alban Maginness returns next week

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