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Main identities in Northern Ireland are irreconcilable and it would be wise to stop thinking otherwise

Talk of reconciliation by any of the parties is not worth giving consideration to. The political climate is virtually unrecognisable to that of 1998, writes Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson


UUP leader David Trimble and SDLP chief John Hume with U2 frontman Bono at a 1998 concert in Belfast to promote Good Friday Agreement

UUP leader David Trimble and SDLP chief John Hume with U2 frontman Bono at a 1998 concert in Belfast to promote Good Friday Agreement

UUP leader David Trimble and SDLP chief John Hume with U2 frontman Bono at a 1998 concert in Belfast to promote Good Friday Agreement

As the 20th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement approaches and Northern Ireland stumbles on rudderless and without government for well over a year, it might be worth reflecting on how the optimism of 1998 has descended to the pessimism of now.

To begin with, Sinn Fein and the DUP had little or no input into the Good Friday Agreement.

The DUP stood outside the negotiations, while Sinn Fein focused mostly on the symbolism of decommissioning and prisoner releases, avoiding the intricacies of the three-stranded architecture that formed the agreement in the process.

Sinn Fein removed itself from any suggestion there was value in a common approach to political problem-solving in the wake of Good Friday when it decided not to support the agreement at that time. The IRA stated the agreement fell short of a basis for a lasting settlement and it was a further month after Good Friday before Sinn Fein decided to accept a northern Assembly.

Both Sinn Fein and the DUP, to a lesser and greater extent, therefore marked their relationship with the Good Friday Agreement by an initial dissociation from it and in the process distanced themselves from its ethos of compromise. The substance of the agreement came about almost entirely from the efforts of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists working with the two governments and with the smaller parties pushing for greater inclusiveness where possible.

While the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists had accepted and taken ownership of the agreement from the start, Sinn Fein and the DUP determined it was more politically expedient to stand apart from that expectation.

Both parties did not want to be seen as being part of any collective decision-making structure and, indeed, saw inclusion as the death-knell for the exclusive politics they represented and would come to benefit from.

On the basis of deliberately remaining aloof, or disconnected, from the negotiations, the DUP and Sinn Fein did not have to manage the disputes about what the content and implications of the agreement might mean, as the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists did. In doing so, it was these two parties that came to demonstrate the value of compromise and offered a glimpse of what a shared society based on mutual respect might look like.

The political climate of Northern Ireland today is barely recognisable to that of 1998 as the exclusive and incompatible strands of unionism and republicanism use politics as a blame-game.

The environment of compromise that gave hope and impetus at the time of Good Friday has dissipated.

Nobody should be under any illusion about what the polarisation emanating from Sinn Fein and the DUP - who clearly loathe each other - has done for the prospect of a shared and inclusive Northern Ireland.

That prospect has effectively been eliminated by the obsessions of short-term political gain based on the manipulation of tribal fears and insecurities.

Both the DUP and Sinn Fein have no real interest in making Northern Ireland work as a stable political entity. Sinn Fein would undermine their argument for a united Ireland if Northern Ireland were to run smoothly and effectively.

Similarly, if that were to happen, the DUP would lose its credibility as a bulwark against republican advancement and ensuring that terrorists do not become the dominant party of government.

The best and worst that can come from this tension is stalemate or deterioration. Certainly no progress for Northern Ireland as a whole can come of this relationship.

What now endures is intransigence and resistance to the possibilities of cross-community political progress.

Sinn Fein's push for an Irish Language Act is another step at trying to dilute unionist culture by using the pretence of equality. It remains part of a long-term strategy to make political ground not by focusing on the issues that effect all such as health, education, the economy, the environment and employment, but by concentrating on aspects of culture which feed into identity and a sense of belonging.

How many people waiting for hospital treatment, mental health support, seeking employment, or help for better education, wake up thinking about how urgently they need an Irish Language Act?

What has become apparent is that the more culture becomes a point of political dispute, the more this reveals a failure of political imagination.

In such a climate, any claim about the need for reconciliation is also pointless. The two main political identities in Northern Ireland are irreconcilable and it would be wise to stop thinking otherwise.

Reconciliation, if it exists, is more likely to be found at the level of individual connection, where one moves towards respecting the other because of a shared experience and understanding and not because of some need to assert political identity. Indeed, such assertion is a guarantee for more conflict - not less. That is why talk by any political party about reconciliation is not worth giving serious consideration to.

More pressing is the refusal by the DUP and Sinn Fein to form a government. Those who think that democracy is based on the formation of a government in response to the wishes of the people through the electoral process might be advised to rethink this assumption. Why? Because, by refusing to form a functioning government, both the DUP and Sinn Fein are acting undemocratically and in defiance of the will of their respective constituencies.

If two elected parties can ignore the responsibilities of being elected they should be removed from government and replaced by the remaining parties, who would then carry out those responsibilities for them.

At minimum, the British Government should remove the DUP and Sinn Fein from having any influence, or say, over culture, finance and the law and allow those offices to be run by the other parties who are prepared to carry out the respective duties of those offices until the next election.

Zero-sum politics, where situations are read from a win-lose perspective, may be bad enough in a society which has not experienced civil conflict, but in one which has suffered the pain and divisions of such conflict that scenario becomes particularly dangerous and, indeed, risks re-sowing the seeds of hatred. The politics of denial and disrespect has taken root again and only shows signs of getting stronger. The atmosphere of compromise has given way to the atmosphere of no compromise.

What has developed instead of hope and progress is a growing sense of disillusionment and disregard for shared responsibility for Northern Ireland as a whole.

The divisive political landscape that is now evident has removed any scope for respectful conversation about the problems being faced and, indeed, has led to such problems being seen entirely in oppositional, or strong and weak terms.

The tragedy of this is that the opportunity for it to be otherwise has been within reach.

The relationship between Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness was a personification of compromise just as was the relationship between Seamus Mallon and David Trimble.

Paisley and McGuinness provided an image of mutual regard that moved beyond the simple win-lose impression that now prevails.

That moment of opportunity should have been cultivated by both parties to build a wider respect for compromise, but was instead denied the care and attention needed for it to take hold. What the loss of both Paisley and McGuinness has revealed is the absence of those within their respective parties who are able to build similar bridges.

Instead, each party resorts to dismissive response and counter-response.

Though one must recognise the contribution of all who supported the Good Friday Agreement and who, in different ways, enabled it to happen, perhaps it is worth reflecting on the role of the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists who laid the foundation for the peace that followed and who, even with all its difficulties, favoured the art of compromise.

It was that tendency for compromise that made things seem more possible and moved Northern Ireland from despair to hope.

It symbolised the possibilities of change and opened the space for all to see the chance of a better future. Sadly, that opening has now closed. The possibilities for Northern Ireland have shrunk because of it.

However the DUP a nd Sinn Fein manage to limp through the current logjam (if, indeed, they do) it makes little difference. The next one will be along shortly. The politics of exclusivity that they each represent can only keep Northern Ireland shackled to the conflict mentalities of the past.

And, until such thinking changes, little else will.

Graham Spencer is reader in social and political conflict at the University of Portsmouth. The Rev Chris Hudson is minister of All-Souls Church in Belfast

Belfast Telegraph