The eagerly anticipated BBC adaptation of Sally Rooney’s Conversations with Friends starts tomorrow. It might seem unlikely but this novel by a thirtysomething bestselling writer has much to teach the crusty veterans of political conflict in Northern Ireland.
It seems every generation has to be reminded of the need to, and the risks of, reaching out to the other. Though this place has been submerged in talks all my lifetime — secret talks, peace talks, proximity talks, bipartisan talks, new deal talks, talks about talks about talks — few have ever really grasped the most important element in any conversation.
People didn’t want to hear what unionists felt about the NI Protocol. When unionist politicians repeatedly said that many unionists from all walks of life felt unhappy about its constitutional ramifications, the response was dismissive, patronising and, sometimes, triumphalist.
Now even with a mandate to do something about it, they meet the same response.
Put bluntly, the fact it’s politically advantageous to disadvantage unionism means more to some than solving a problem that’s upsetting the Good Friday Agreement equilibrium.
The Assembly election proved that unionists were indeed bothered by the protocol. The DUP, UUP and TUV all oppose it and have been handed a substantial, renewed mandate to get significant changes to it.
It was always clear that the DUP, win or lose, was going to drag its feet over a new Executive. No party can go to the electorate with a pledge, then immediately abandon it. Besides, unionists care about it. Anyone with even half an ear on the conversation would have grasped that.
For that matter, anyone paying attention would have ‘read the room’ on Brexit in NI and at least stood aside from endorsing it in favour of the public mood.
Still, when it comes to seismic, Sinn Fein edges this election. For the first time in 101 years a republican party holds the top post at Stormont. But my own conversations with friends on all sides reveal a much more complex picture of what people think.
Nationalist friends say that ironically unionists campaigning on their distaste for a SF First Minister galvanised the nationalist vote for the party. “When they refused to answer the power-sharing question, people heard nationalist/Catholic, not SF.”
If unionism had had its ear to the ground, it would have known many would lend their vote to SF.
Unionist friends persistently describe a struggle with the idea that SF, a party so closely linked to the IRA, should get such endorsement from ordinary Catholics.
That conversation feels awkward in 2022, but is among the several views from the conflict which simply must be heard. Until it is, with those others, it will point an accusing finger at how little in fact society here has progressed.
Which of course highlights the most important conversation that’s never properly taken place: the one we shushed up — and still do. Where victims are given time, space and support to tell what happened and how they feel. Where we listen with empathy and self-awareness.
What’s the formula for reconciliation and legacy? It’s very simple. In fact, the simplicity of it may well guarantee that it never ever happens.
It’s this. All victims on all sides deserve visible justice from all their killers and their abusers.
If you can’t accede to that principle, then I don’t know what process you claim to be in, but it isn’t a peace one. You’re certainly not involved in reconciliation or a process of healing. You are involved in hiding, ducking, diving, dodging. That’s just a fact. ‘Justice for all’ used to be the slogan. Some think you can get away with some justice for some.
Another interesting truth is that no matter how difficult some unionists — and not just unionists — find SF success, the ones I’ve been talking to also believe that if the protocol is resolved, unionism should nominate a Deputy First Minister to serve alongside Michelle O’Neill.
Fancy another truth?
The whole point of the Executive was to progress the peace process. Not to carve a path to a united Ireland, or cement a union with Great Britain; not to stifle dissent, erect obstacles, get one over, embarrass, humiliate, pretend it was Westminster or have damnable red lines.
The Executive was meant to identify obstacles and remove them, name problems and solve them, set targets and objectives for a free fair society and meet them. The end.
Pleas that the Assembly can’t deal with the protocol are simply false. Any common view in support of change at Stormont would shift Brussels faster than the prospect of Russian gas did. Similarly, a nod from SF would quickly unblock the impasse.
But the sense of the Assembly as a bearpit has grown steadily over the last 10 years. Blockages over Legacy, the Irish Language Act, RHI, now the protocol, were all solvable in the chamber.
Within the two main blocs, there are so many points of view. One friend argued that dismal as the SDLP’s election showing was, it was now down to votes SF could never plunder. Others said SF momentum would build. A republican saw the risk of the high point — that somehow a peak of under 30% was an oddly modest figure after those long decades of struggle. Several friends felt unionism had been reinvigorated but lamented its divisions.
But the stunning Alliance gain feels like the real Conversations with Friends vibe, where millennials put status quo before the constitutional question — though one spooked unionist pal feared that ultimately the party would back a United Ireland. Another felt we’d witnessed a definitive breakthrough.
What’s amazing about my conversations with friends is that they happen at all. That we share frank discourse with no risk of anyone walking away from the table. Our friendships are fomented in the stuff of real life. We constantly talk about politics — we share a stake in this place — but never fall out over it.
Well, actually, we did once. During a Drumcree dispute a nationalist friend walked out in high dudgeon “to get a Joe Baxi home if your mob’s roadblocks allow me”.
Turned out the streets were so deserted, he couldn’t even get a taxi and wearily staggered back through the door an hour later. “Right, stick the kettle on, round two,” he said to cheers and hugs.
Ultimately we all just want things to work.