Liam Kennedy: Does Northern Ireland even have a real political future?
Yes, there is, says Liam Kennedy, but Robin Swann, Naomi Long and Colum Eastwood will need to step up to the plate
We have lived with a "negative peace" for 20 years. As a society, we appear more polarised than ever, the optimism of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement having long since evaporated.
We have seen the two big political beasts, the DUP and Sinn Fein, mop up a majority of votes on the unionist and nationalist sides respectively. The British have largely disappeared as active agents in the conflict, so we are back to a bare-knuckle fight between the Orange and the Green. Neither party seems interested in exercising power with accountability through the medium of the local parliament at Stormont.
Equally worrying, the DUP and Sinn Fein, almost by default, continue to gain momentum in what is increasingly viewed as a zero-sum game.
Hence, the communal drumbeats for Acht na Ghaeilge, loyalist bonfires, a border poll, flags and emblems, IRA commemorations, greeting the Pope (or not), Orange marches (or not) and whatever yer having yerself (provided it's about symbols and not substance).
At the same time, such is the nonchalance of the big parties, hospital waiting lists can wait; compensation for sexual abuse victims can be put on hold; and planned corporate tax reform is no longer urgent (however much it might benefit the local economy).
Much better, it seems, to feature in the Guinness Book of Records for the longest non-functioning government in the Western world.
Viewed against this barren political landscape, is there any hope? What follows is a modest, but positive, proposal, written from a nationalist background, but discussed with unionist friends.
What is needed is a strengthening of the middle ground of Northern politics. And the prospects? Let us not forget that at the last Assembly election, in 2017, the combined votes of the Ulster Unionist Party, the Alliance Party and the Social Democratic and Labour Party came to 34%. The DUP and Sinn Fein combined vote came to 57%, which is less than overwhelming.
Around 10% went to other parties, with perhaps half of these going to socialist and labour parties and progressive independents.
So, viewed in terms of votes cast, as distinct from seats gained, close on four out of 10 in the population favoured moderate, progressive political forces. This accords better with the everyday experience of life in Northern Ireland, where many in the workplace, in shops, supermarkets, trade unions, at sporting events and elsewhere are not consumed by political zealotry.
A simple, practical - dare we say it - ecumenical measure to expand the middle ground of political representation would be a series of agreements in the centre of the political spectrum to share votes across the traditional nationalist and unionist divide, making full use of proportional representation.
In the present circumstances, can there be any possible reason for voting for the DUP and its parish-pump unionism, its fundamentalist Protestantism, its anachronistic notions of Britishness? Can there be any good reason to vote for Sinn Fein and its outdated nationalism, its bloody past, its belligerent inactivity at Stormont and Westminster?
Pragmatic electoral arrangements, as well as promising electoral gains and blunting tendencies towards increasing polarisation, would also give expression to a shared set of values and a generous understanding of identity. These are prior to and more fundamental than differing constitutional aspirations.
The primary commitment must be to a working democracy, something with which DUP and Sinn Fein seem to have difficulty. It is surely time also to acknowledge that everyone in Northern Ireland has elements, to varying degrees, of an Irish as well as a British identity.
The DUP has trouble with such an understanding. But I think, for instance, of Alderman Chris McGimpsey from the Ulster Unionist Party, also an Orangeman, who has no such inhibitions. Nor should any moderate unionist.
It is undeniably the case, by virtue of our geographical origin, overlapping histories and shared communal experiences (including the experience of terror) that our identities overlap and interpenetrate.
I would also suggest that, as part of strengthening the middle ground of politics in Northern Ireland and ditching the reactionary extremes, there should be a renewed appreciation of British elements to the identity of Irish nationalists.
In recent centuries, English was not only the language of the peoples of Ireland, it was the language of Irish nationalism and of Irish Catholicism. Hundreds of thousands of Irish people - human chains across the Irish Sea - have enjoyed better standards of living in Britain than on the smaller island.
Social refugees, such as unmarried mothers, sexual minorities, abused teenagers and battered women, have often found Britain a more compassionate destination than their "home place" on the island of Ireland.
Let us rejoice in these Irish-British connections linking Northern Ireland, the Republic of Ireland and Britain. As the writer Fintan O'Toole has put it: "The British and Irish are no big deal to each other, which itself is a very big deal."
Predictably, perhaps, this liberating release from historical grudges has made slower progress in the north, but we need not be laggards forever. At least, the radical centre need not be so.
In this respect, the long neglected Strand Three - the east-west dimension to the Belfast Agreement - may well be the most transformative of all, in that it gives recognition to the multi-layered nature of identity in these islands, whether one defines oneself as primarily British or Irish, or indeed Northern Irish.
The way of the DUP and of Sinn Fein is not a shared future, but increasing polarisation and sectarian division. There is every reason, on the basis of shared fundamental values, why the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the UUP, as well as various labour groupings, should co-operate voluntarily. Have Robin Swann, Naomi Long and Colum Eastwood the courage to seize the challenge?
The immediate aims might be:
- to re-invigorate all three strands of the Belfast Agreement;
- to advance a genuine human rights agenda (and not a partisan and selective one), and;
- to devise tactical voting arrangements that would privilege progressive candidates, irrespective of party affiliation, who were best-placed to displace DUP, or Sinn Fein, candidates at election time.
I think of my friend and sometimes intellectual opponent, John Wilson Foster. He is British and Irish, deeply committed to the Union, yet an outstanding scholar of Irish history and culture. I am Irish and British (Eireannach is Briotanach) and have spent most of my working life in the "Far North".
Our constitutional aspirations may be different, but there are more basic areas of agreement that take precedence over an endgame which may be decades in the making and which, in any case, is unknown.
The more important task is building a cohesive society at peace with itself, be it veering toward the United Kingdom, or a united Ireland. That means, inter alia, building a creative alliance of political parties that foregrounds co-operation, dialogue and mutual electoral support.
It also means stepping out of historical redoubts and inventing a public discourse that embraces and celebrates our Irishness, our Britishness and our mutual interdependence.
Liam Kennedy is emeritus professor of economic history at Queen's University, Belfast