Belfast Telegraph

Malachi O’Doherty: It's easy to sneer at We Deserve Better, but the hundreds of people standing in the rain last night showed that there is a genuine demand that a civic unaligned voice be heard

What political parties forget when they hog limelight is that for the public it's not a game. You can't eat a flag or run a health service in Irish, says Malachi O'Doherty

People in Portadown and (left) Enniskillen braving the rain to demonstrate last nigh
People in Portadown and (left) Enniskillen braving the rain to demonstrate last nigh
People in Portadown braving the rain to demonstrate last night

If the organisers of We Deserve Better were daunted by the criticism on social media, their confidence that they had tapped into a public mood was confirmed by the turnout at their protest rallies last night.

By 7pm the pictures were landing on Twitter showing hundreds of people in crowds in Portadown, Banbridge, Bangor, Newry, Derry and seven other centres.

The lesson was simple; there might be a lot of political cynics in the country who are past being able to believe that protest like this makes a difference, but there are many more people who want to have their say.

And what they are saying is that politicians should get back to work.

They don't like the effrontery of those who take their salaries and won't do their jobs.

And that is a basic and respectable position to take.

The new movement got off to a shaky start, however. Two speakers were invited to address the Belfast rally and were then stood down as divisive. These were John O'Doherty, of the Rainbow Project, and Elaine Crory, of the Belfast Feminist Network.

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And supporters of these movements were quick to argue that there was no point in calling for a return to devolution without these issues being addressed first.

But those issues, abortion law reform and same-sex marriage, really are divisive. Sinn Fein and the DUP disagree on them. That's where the division is.

It would be lovely to sort them out before restoring the Executive, but it is hardly fair that an Executive should be conditional on these being resolved first.

Several said it was pointless to simply wish people would go back to work before their divisions were resolved.

But the logic of that is that administration of the region, including health service reform, is not as important as the issues on which Sinn Fein and the DUP are divided.

When Dylan Quinn of We Deserve Better suggested that deadlocked issues could be worked out in a twin-track process which would give us government, some in the media were quick to point out that this was DUP policy, which, of course, inevitably invalidated it as a proposal.

Clearly, it was easier to sneer at this new movement than to endorse it.

And though Chris Hazzard of Sinn Fein, on the Today programme yesterday, listed a series of demands, the failed attempt at an agreement between Sinn Fein and the DUP in February showed that only one outstanding issue blocked progress, the question of a standalone Irish Language Act.

I suspect that the problem for We Deserve Better is not this actual deadlock at all.

It can't be beyond the wit of the parties to reach a compromise if they want one.

It should be easy for them to find a way of working out these concerns side by side with running the country; for instance, by reforming the Petition of Concern.

This could be done by giving the Speaker the power to reject a petition that had no direct community relevance or by raising the number from 30 to 35 or 40 of those who could trigger such a petition.

The problem is not that these things are not doable; it is that the will to do them is not there.

People have lost faith in the power sharing model of government. They have seen that it favours the more assertive factional parties and that those parties grow in contention with each other.

That is a formula for recurring crises.

We could have Stormont back in a week, but who would believe that it wouldn't collapse again very quickly?

What the emergence of We Deserve Better has shown is that there is a genuine demand in the region that a civic, unaligned voice be heard.

This was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, through the Civic Forum.

The architects of the Agreement understood that political parties in a divided society garner votes from people who have more complex views than are represented in their factional contention.

The way to get that range of opinion to feed into the political centre was to draw voices from civic society in a forum which might provide perspectives that cut across the old arguments.

The parties, of course, in their own interests scrapped the Civic Forum, some of them deceitfully declaring as they did so that they would implement the Agreement in full.

We Deserve Better was excoriated on social media for its political naivete and its lack of focus. It was dismissed as having no political insight into the nature of the deadlock and accused of silly, wishful thinking that simply asking for MLAs to go back to work would have a transformative effect.

And we have had other movements in Northern Ireland which tried to speak from the heart of a disturbed and helpless populace.

One thinks of the Peace People who, 40 years ago, took to the streets to call for an end to the killing and were scoffed off the streets by republicans who accused them of failing to understand the political game in play.

But what the parties forget, when they seek to hog the political debate, is that for ordinary people it is not a game. We lose out when the parties can't work together and give us the services we need.

You can't eat a flag and you can't run a health service in Irish.

We Deserve Better calls politicians back to their primary responsibility, which is to govern for all. And for that, hundreds last night stood in the rain and expressed their will, declining to take sides.

That may not impress the parties in deadlock. It probably won't. But there is more sense in asking for the deadlock to be broken than in taking sides on one side or the other.

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