Belfast Telegraph

Mike Nesbitt: Why toxic mantra of 'nothing is agreed until everything is agreed' is Grim Reaper of Northern Ireland politics

Vulnerable communities are suffering because of inaction over issues where there isn't even any disagreement, says Mike Nesbitt

Reconciliation has no agreed definition at Stormont, according to Mike Nesbitt
Reconciliation has no agreed definition at Stormont, according to Mike Nesbitt

In a previous article in the Belfast Telegraph I argued the political way forward was to return the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement to its factory settings and negotiate from there.

But that begs the question: what do I mean by the "factory settings" and what should be up for negotiation? After all, the agreement is broad - covering constitutional issues, rights, safeguards and equality matters and policing and justice, as well as the fundamental matter of relationships.

For many on the unionist side back in 1998, all those issues played second fiddle to the pain of being asked to accept the transitional arrangements around prisoners and other such matters. Much like the Eames/Bradley Report on dealing with the past, the fundamental proposals got lost in the widespread anger that focused on one deeply unpopular proposal (in the case of Eames/Bradley, it was a universal "recognition" payment to all who had lost a loved one in the Troubles).

The key aspect of the Agreement was its focus on relationships. You could argue that, over the 100 years of partition, those relations have never been right. Eamon de Valera boasted of Eire being a Catholic state, provoking James Craig, Northern Ireland's first Prime Minister, to respond that Stormont was a Protestant parliament for a Protestant state. Not exactly inclusive leadership.

That's why the 1998 Agreement's declaration of support is such an important start to the document. The participants all agreed to take the opportunity for a fresh start to build new relationships based on tolerance of each other, reconciliation, building mutual trust and showing mutual respect.

If we are to return to the factory settings we need to ensure we have a common understanding of the meanings of the values and concepts that are bandied about in the everyday language of our divided politics.

Take the first: tolerance. Does that mean nothing more than putting up with "themuns" and their beliefs and behaviours? If so, I think we need to deepen that commitment. The absence of hostility is not enough. We must strive to embrace diversity and its potential to enrich us all - all possible without having to sacrifice who you are. It's about compromise, not appeasement.

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Reconciliation is even trickier because, believe it or not, there is no agreed definition at Stormont. During the various talks, from Haass/O'Sullivan to Stormont House, I challenged the other party leaderships to take a blank page and write their own definitions of reconciliation. I said I suspected we might end up with five significantly different views.

No one disagreed, but neither was anyone prepared to engage in the experiment. Until we do we leave many victims and survivors fearing the term is a Trojan horse, fearing reconciliation means they are required to hug the person who hurt them.

There is an academic definition of reconciliation, or at least the beginnings of one. In 2004 Brandon Hamber and Grainne Kelly produced a five-point vision.

It suggested reconciliation involved developing a shared vision of an interdependent and fair society, acknowledging and dealing with the past, building positive relationships, significant cultural and attitudinal change and substantial social, economic and political change.

In fairness they went on to put flesh on those bones, but my time as a Victims' Commissioner takes me in a slightly different direction. Reconciliation is a personal journey, ending in an acceptance of what happened to you, or your loved one(s), including the unfairness of it all.

It's accepting there is no such thing as "closure" this side of the grave. Rather, there is a burden to be carried and reconciliation lightens that load.

Forgiveness is another term we have yet to define. Is it something that has to be earned as opposed to mercy, which is a gift from the injured party? Or is forgiveness again something internal: the giving up of all hope of building a better past?

Then there is the toxic concept of collusion. Again, there is no agreed definition of the meaning of the term and until there is it will remain a weaponised word, pumping toxicity into our journey in search of a shared future.

Finally, regarding terms without agreed definition, there is the very concept of dealing with the past.

For politicians that means a narrow focus on truth and justice. While that may be all-consuming for some victims and survivors - and why wouldn't it? - the legacy of our bloody past is measured in many more ways.

As well as the lost lives, there are the thousands still alive who suffer lost opportunities in education, employment and social inclusion.

We know what to do: improve their mental health and wellbeing; attend to their physical needs; ensure they are not left lonely; break the curse of inter-generational hardship.

But, too often, we fail to act, because of the intervention of the one term we all seem to understand collectively. That is the notion that "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed".

The concept may have its place in a negotiation, but over two years after the collapse of Stormont, it is like the Grim Reaper of politics, killing off the prospects of progress where agreement is obvious.

For example, since survivors of historical institutional abuse were vindicated by Sir Anthony Hart's report, some have literally died waiting for its implementation.

The most seriously injured from the Troubles wait for a payment to recognise their restricted earning potential down the years.

The so-called "bedroom tax" looms - and so it goes, an ever-growing list of issues where there is no significant opposition to taking action to help, except the "nothing is agreed ..." formula.

So, if we do return to the factory setting of the 1998 Agreement, let us park the "nothing is agreed" mantra and begin by implementing everything we do agree on.

There is no need for so many vulnerable people to suffer while waiting for full political agreement.

And who knows? Maybe starting with the issues we agree on would give us the confidence and momentum to grasp the nettles.

Mike Nesbitt is Ulster Unionist MLA for Strangford. He was the party's leader from 2012 to 2017

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