Belfast Telegraph

Northern Ireland politics is an illogical jungle, and we're all lost

By Fionola Meredith

I have never felt so profoundly disconnected from politics in Northern Ireland as I do today. It's the tedium that gets you. Same old, same old, always the same. The tortuous minutiae of who said what to whom and when; the supposedly cunning tactical choreography; the fatuous self-importance which demands the world's attention for every petulant, childish act.

It is quite literally mind-numbing. Frustration gives way to blank indifference, and you lose the will to care what happens next.

I am tired of Sinn Fein's overweeningly arrogant strategy of implausible denial, the farcical narrative of injured innocence to which we are all supposed to enthusiastically subscribe if we don't want to be damned as an enemy of the peace process.

I am tired of the DUP's sanctimonious stance, the default mode of hectoring piety to which it customarily retreats when events don't go its way, while behind the scenes the party scrabbles around searching for a semi-dignified way to maintain its desperate hold on power.

Have you ever tried to explain the labyrinthine, logic-defying weirdness of Northern Ireland politics to an outsider? Recently I attempted to describe the latest political convulsions to a visiting journalist and I watched as she registered a series of expressions: polite interest, rapidly giving way to confusion, incredulity and - inevitably enough - abject boredom. You're making it up, she said. I wish I was, I said.

Don't for a moment think that any of the current crisis is about standing on moral principle. It's nothing so clear and clean and honourable as that. In fact, what our political parties are engaged in is a complex process of animalistic gesturing, blocking and posturing, akin to a pack of male gorillas, which comes down to one basic thing: saving face. Demonstrating, for the benefit of followers, that they - not their opponents - are the ones in control. Calling the shots, if you will (there's a reason why metaphors of violence, rather than Bobby Storey's dainty butterflies, continue to seem apposite here).

The concept of 'face' - appeasing macho pride and hiding perceived weakness - is vital to understanding the political dynamic in Northern Ireland. If you found a system of government not on values of reciprocity, integrity and mutual respect, but on an uneasy, unstable entente between sworn enemies, then don't be surprised if the arrangement regularly descends into the kind of hostile, chest-beating stand-off we see today.

The only way that Stormont will return in any kind of workable format is if both sides find a way to save face: to be seen to maintain power and dignity, to give no ground. As ever, factual truth - such as whether or not the IRA continues to exist as a functioning organisation - will come a poor second to whatever face-saving narrative the parties can finally agree on. It's a front, a show, a fiction, a chorus of loud gorilla bellows, and that's the way it always has been. More fool us for believing in it, still more for voting for it.

Speaking of loud bellows, an unfortunate side-effect of the present impasse is the return of the grey old men. I'm talking about the political analysts, the commentators, the soothsayers and rune-readers. The ones who - merely by the accidental virtue of being an old man, no other qualifications required - are somehow believed to possess superior insight. It is their job to explain the behaviour of the gorillas to us and help us understand what their antics mean. In fairness, a few of the old men do actually know what they are talking about and their views are worth hearing. I suspect they know who they are. The rest rely on recycled platitudes and pompous intonation to achieve the effect of authority. I suspect that they know who they are, too.

And that's the worst thing about this whole sorry picture. In some secret, inadmissible place, politicians - and a good many of their beneficial parasites, the political commentariat - are actually enjoying the crisis. They feel, at last, important again, just like during the Troubles. The blood rises up and beats in their brains as they thrill to the invigorating effect of political turmoil, the heady sense of restored power and significance. Once more the world is looking, once more the world is listening to what they have to say.

But then, inevitably, the world turns away with a weary sigh. There's nothing new to see here. Because nothing ever changes.

Same old, same old. Always the same.

Belfast Telegraph


From Belfast Telegraph