Belfast Telegraph

Could loyalists and republicans bond over climate change? (No, really)

A reciprocal interest in issues that impact both communities equally could reduce the significance of divisive questions, such as the border, argue Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson

The possibility of basing politics on inclusivity and respect effectively died with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness
The possibility of basing politics on inclusivity and respect effectively died with Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness

Whatever the future holds for the revived Stormont Executive, it is clear that the power-splitting game that the DUP and Sinn Fein have played is starting to come apart and that the scaremongering both have relied upon in recent years is losing its persuasive appeal.

The notion that these two parties are best-placed to protect the interests of their respective constituencies no longer convinces those constituencies as it once did, largely because fear is not working as it once did.

One of the reasons why we believe that the politics of Sinn Fein and the DUP is not serving Northern Ireland is because both lack the ability to meet the needs of Northern Ireland as a whole - and, indeed, cannot do so, because neither can think or act in ways that reflect the importance of a single society.

The inability to respond to the desperate shortage of resources for public services, as in health, was but one obvious example where the manipulation of fear and the desire to maintain power is prioritised more than dealing with urgent social problems and quality-of-life issues.

Moreover, given that this is a situation that the DUP and Sinn Fein have both worked so hard to create, it is highly unlikely that they will be able to unmake it through any meaningful transition that is representative of some new way of thinking.

Both have no means by which to provide the more flexible and more embracive politics that Northern Ireland needs for a positive and hopeful future.

The DUP may have good individual representatives, who are doing their best to address the needs of people at constituency level, but overall the party cannot reach out to those outside of its own hemisphere, and Sinn Fein is the same.

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Only a politics of moderation that is able to move beyond fear and insularity can do that.

Within the wider unionist and loyalist population, the idea that change is a dilution of culture and status must be countered and overcome.

A perceived fear of change must shift to recognition of the need for change, which is essential for evolution and survival.

Examples of meaningless debates in recent months on areas such as civic nationalism and civic unionism do nothing to address the urgency of this either, but merely play into the division that intransigent politics feeds from.

Such debates continue to depict society as little more than a conflict of identities, where "you have this so we have that" thinking dominates.

Notably absent has been any discussion about the importance of citizenship, or what an integrated Northern Ireland might look like. Most would agree on the need for a National Health Service and would fully support the ethos that underpins it. Most would also agree that television is better with the BBC than without it and that this service is also an example of public commitment to deal with the tricky terrain of difference within a context that respects tradition, diversity and change.

But, compared to the politics of both Sinn Fein and the DUP, such tolerance or accommodation of difference is non-existent, as one side remains obsessed about achieving a united Ireland while the other remains obsessed about preventing it.

For the DUP, perhaps the best way to counter the possibility of a united Ireland is to explain to Catholics why they are better off in Northern Ireland than out of it. But this will require articulating the merits of Northern Ireland as a society for all rather than some, and so valuing inclusive dialogue over exclusive dialogue.

On the need to start talking about how politics might serve Northern Ireland as a whole, we believe that loyalists have a significant role to play.

Apart from those sympathetic to dissident republicanism, it is clear that the majority of those who support Sinn Fein believe in a republican transformation project that has already reached its conclusion. Yet, in relation to unionism, such a transformation has hardly begun.

It is not a matter of loyalists providing degrees of cover for the DUP by saying things that will make it easier for the DUP to give the impression it is changing, but loyalists taking ownership of inclusive narratives about a society for all and communicating this as a meaningful and cross-community social conversation.

The three main loyalist paramilitary organisations set a precedent for thinking along these lines in the Declaration of Transformation Statement of April 2018, when they stressed the importance of recommitting to a Northern Ireland "that enables all to realise their potential and aspirations" and helps "to create a society that is at ease with itself in its diversity and difference".

Here was clear acknowledgement of the need to respect inclusivity and difference. Here, too, was the seed for developing a new concept of citizenship in a mature language that those such as the DUP seem incapable of comprehending, let alone articulating.

Loyalist paramilitary leaders were instrumental to the Good Friday Agreement and they want politics to return to the spirit of that agreement with its emphasis on parity of esteem and respect.

Yet, to expect the DUP to conduct politics in this way is to expect an approach that is fundamentally at odds with what it believes and stands for. The possibility of basing politics on inclusivity and respect effectively died with Martin McGuinness and Ian Paisley.

The potential for any positive influence that loyalism might bring to bear on a process of positive change has been ignored by much of the media, who remain wedded to stories about division, irreconcilability and animosity.

Instead of asking loyalists to expand on what they meant in the DTS and encouraging others to help in that expansion, the obsession is to see common problems in polarising terms and to read those problems through a kaleidoscope of national identity divisions and mutual loathing.

Looking at difference as a measure of social attitudes in this way, it is hard to see how such a focus can help the public imagine a new, more integrated Northern Ireland.

And this is especially so when the issues that communities are encouraged to look at, respond to or be concerned about are nearly always constructed through intimations, or expectations, of a united Ireland.

It is, surely, time to move the discussion of difference on to issues and concerns that are important to all; where the potential for division is minimal and the potential for respect and responsibility is increased.

Progress in these areas will reveal the merits of integration through dialogue and engagement and make Northern Ireland more appealing to those outside it as a result.

This in turn will help encourage investment and boost job creation.

There is a notable desire in loyalist communities to engage with issues of personal identity, education, employment and climate change. These areas are of reciprocal interest to those from nationalist and republican communities as well and so have cross-community impact.

They are areas that are of importance to all. It is in addressing problems of common importance that are held to have clear social importance, where better relationships, understanding and tolerance can be forged.

Much of what is emerging from loyalist communities in recent discussions points very strongly to this realisation, but awareness is not enough. The discussion needs to be more public and elicit wider reaction and response.

Media-nominated spokespersons for loyalists are not the answer.

Collective positions and communications that open and develop cross-community debate about what kind of Northern Ireland is needed now and for the future, however, is the route to that answer.

Graham Spencer is Reader in political conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls Church in Belfast

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