Present and future on hold until we deal with the past

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

If asking someone for information about murder or terrorism is a threat to the peace process then the process is pretty weak to begin with.

The conversation between Gerry Adams and the PSNI about Jean McConville was always inevitable. His offer to meet them means that he knew it was inevitable. And these sorts of conversations will remain inevitable for so long as there is no agreement on how we deal with the past. If that makes life difficult for people who have been members of, or otherwise linked to paramilitary organisations, then so be it. If it makes life difficult for security force members who broke the law, then so be it.

When you are emerging from conflict and trying to build a new, better society, then very difficult, very uncomfortable questions need to be asked. They need to be asked of people from all sides. To understand where you are today and prepare for where you want to be tomorrow, you need to know where you were yesterday.

That sounds like something that fell out of a fortune cookie, but it contains a basic truth. We don’t trust each other. We don’t understand each other. We don’t empathise with each other. We don’t share a joint vision.

Given those particular realities – and they are realities – it doesn’t take very much to kickstart yet another ‘crisis’ in the process. They come along on an almost monthly basis and each one is tackled with the aid of sticking plasters, fudge, torturously convoluted press statements and a trip abroad for Peter and Martin!

But the process has developed into a spaghetti Western model of politics: jangling music, staring, sweating, grunting, trying not to blink and hoping that, as they usually do, the British and Irish governments will step in and save the day.

But one day – pretty soon, I reckon – the governments will leave it too late to save the day. The DUP and Sinn Fein will reach the point of no return, the point at which no amount of plasters and fudge can save the day.

The whole dynamic of the elections on May 22 has changed. It’s no longer about Sinn Fein versus the DUP: this is now about Sinn Fein versus the PSNI, the ‘securocrats’ and what they describe as the forces opposed to the peace process. It’s a big moment for them because they will have voices from their grassroots questioning the value of their strategy in the Assembly and their support for the police and justice system.

Meanwhile, the unionist parties won’t even pretend to be interested in further cooperation with Sinn Fein. Indeed, the DUP has already issued a pre-election position paper stating that Sinn Fein won’t be allowed a ‘role’ in preparing some sort of joint narrative on the Troubles.

And if the TUV breaks into double figure percentage support in three weeks then the DUP, with general and Assembly elections due in 2015/16, will swing even further away from Sinn Fein (followed closely by the UUP).

In other words, this is going to be the most us-and-them election for quite some time – which will make it extraordinarily difficult for both Alliance and NI21.

It’s very difficult to build a middle ground when there doesn’t appear to be anywhere to build it. If there is to be a breakthrough for NI21 – the sort of breakthrough that allows them to retain their deposit, stay close to Alliance in voter numbers and, maybe, pick up a few council seats – then they need to persuade around 30,000 (plus) new or lapsed voters to take a chance on them.

At this stage, though, the party isn’t making enough noise anywhere.

The bigger problem – and it’s a problem for every single person and political party in Northern Ireland – is how we sustain the Assembly/Executive and a political/peace process if crisis seems fated to follow crisis.

There comes a point at which there is so little trust, so little enthusiasm and so little support, that it becomes impossible to keep the show on the road. It’s not that anyone wants it to collapse, as such; it’s more to do with the fact that none of them has an emotional or visionary investment in the place.

It’s almost the worst option for all of them: yet for unionists it still trumps direct rule, while Sinn Fein doesn’t have anything else in terms of a Plan B at this point.

Still, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that we have entered the endgame for the Assembly in its present form and for the DUP/Sinn Fein ‘deal’ of 2007. It isn’t working. I don’t think it can ever work. Government cannot be built on mutual veto, mutual contempt and a contradictory approach to the Programme for Government. The centre isn’t holding: the present isn’t working. And, as I said earlier, the present and future will always be hugely problematic if you don’t deal with the past.

Here’s the circle that needs to be squared. You cannot draw a line under the past and ask people to move on if they see no evidence of their government being able to agree on anything: and the government won’t be able to agree on anything, let alone the future, if they don’t find a mechanism for dealing with the past.

The two things are interdependent: one cannot exist without the other, a hardnosed fact that the ‘drawing a line’ proponents seem blind to.

Let me offer a suggestion. Reboot the Civic Forum and task it with drawing up proposals for squaring the circle. We don’t need any more hothouse talks hosted by ‘outsiders’: we need people who know the place and know the background and who aren’t afraid to challenge each other, challenge the political parties and challenge the general public.

The political parties cannot resolve the issue because they are seemingly incapable of solving anything.

The Adams story has been a massive distraction and enormous damage has been done to the peace/political process. So here’s the bottom line reality: deal with the past or don’t expect to deal with anything.