SPEAKING in Dublin on Thursday the Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, commented that Northern Ireland remained a “deeply divided society”.
The following day both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness accused him of interference, arrogance and lecturing.
So there you have it: far from being a divided society Northern Ireland has changed so much that the DUP and Sinn Fein now launch joint attacks on a member of the Cabinet!
Shouldn’t we regard their response as a good thing, though? If nothing else, it suggests that there is increasing cooperation between both men and their parties and a joint determination to protect and promote the Executive.
Indeed, on Wednesday they issued a statement which said they were “pleased to announce agreements across a range of policy areas and initiatives that will be taken forward over the course of the next number of weeks”.
Yet for all their optimistic bullishness about progress I’m not convinced that their enthusiasm is shared much beyond their own offices.
And it’s worth noting that Wednesday’s statement didn’t amount to much more than announcing a few appointments to various bodies, dealing with stuff that was supposed to have been dealt with years ago, backtracking on some previous decisions, setting up another few reviews and hinting (no specific details, of course) at progress on a ‘shared future’.
If this had been as important as they would have us believe then you can be pretty sure that it would not have been issued at this stage, with so many people on holiday and readership and viewing figures down.
So dull and uninteresting was it that the only aspect the media focused on the following day was the withdrawal of the UUP from the cohesion sharing and integration (CSI) committee. Now then, I know what most of you are thinking: goodness gracious, the UUP actually made a decision about something!
Anyway, they didn’t really have much of a choice in the matter, for this is what Wednesday’s statement had said: “The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have received a report from their representatives on the CSI working group. They are encouraged that considerable progress has been made. The First and Deputy First Ministers will meet with party leaders in early September to conclude the process.”
In other words, the DUP and Sinn Fein had absolutely no interest in what the representatives of the other parties thought about progress.
All that mattered was that the two big parties had clearly been working to their own agenda and were satisfied that they could nail something into place in September. All that Nesbitt and McDonnell could expect was a meeting, in which they would be presented with a take-it-or-leave-it option.
And that is the scale of the contempt in which the SDLP and UUP are held by the DUP and Sinn Fein. Robinson and McGuinness don’t even try to pretend that they have any interest in what the others think: in precisely the same way that they didn’t even think it necessary to tell Basil McCrea (chair of the Department for Education and Learning committee) that there had been a rethink on the future of that department.
Mike Nesbitt left for his holidays last week. He would barely have reached his hotel before hearing the news that Robinson and McGuinness had issued a statement about Executive plans for the next few months, even though the UUP is a member of that Executive and that he won the leadership contest on the back of a very public, unambiguous commitment that the UUP would remain in the Executive.
That’s a measure of how he is rated by the DUP and Sinn Fein! The UUP don’t even show up on their radar any more.
The decision to withdraw from CSI was the right decision, for there is clearly no point in the UUP remaining on a committee in which it has so little influence. Whether Nesbitt was instrumental in making that decision (and I don’t think he was, by the way) is neither here nor there: there wasn’t any other choice which could have been made, given the circumstances.
Mind you, it’s a decision that won’t have much impact on the wider problems facing the party. Apparently there is to be a relaunch conference in September, but I’m not sure what the point of that will be in the absence of a clearly identified destination. Plus, it will not be possible to relaunch from within the Executive committee.
Anyway, back to the main plot. I think Owen Paterson is right when he says we are still a divided society. That said, I think the shape of the division has changed in one particular way: those who still vote are voting overwhelmingly for the continuation of the political divide between unionism and republicanism; yet those who aren’t voting (almost 50 per cent and counting) seem to be rejecting that form of division.
I have argued for some time now that it will take entirely new, post-conflict parties to reach out to the non-voters and offer them something different.
But even if those parties do emerge how do they get around the problem that there is still no role for an official opposition and that Assembly voting still requires cross-community support of designated unionists or nationalists? What would happen, for example, if a majority of MLAs in 2020 designated themselves as ‘other’?
The DUP/SF concept of a shared future seems to be one in which the age-old dividing lines and parties remain in place, but with enough safeguards and us-and-them symbolism to keep both sides happy. And maybe they are right.
But that still leaves us with the fact that almost half of the electorate are choosing not to vote: and that divide between what the voters are settling for and what the non-voters are not settling for strikes me as a fundamentally more important division than the one between Protestants and Roman Catholics or unionist and republican.
To some extent we know what unionist and republican voters want, because they are voting for it at Assembly, Westminster and council level. But we don’t know what the non-voters want (although the fact they have stopped voting for the existing parties tells you something) because there is no one offering them new platforms or agendas.
So yes, Northern Ireland remains a divided society: but the division is now between those willing to accept the same-old, same-old and those who are rejecting those parties.
The next few years could be very interesting ones on the political/electoral front!
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