When I supported the Good Friday Agreement it was with what I described in this newspaper as “tempered enthusiasm”.
Oh yes, I had huge personal and political difficulties with it, but the fact was that nobody had come up with anything better since the Stormont Parliament had been closed in 1972.
By the mid-1990s it was clear that the political establishments in London/Dublin/Washington/Brussels were rowing in behind a comprehensive deal: and it was also clear that unionists were not going to be able to set their own agenda.
At that point it made sense to me to tie Sinn Fein (as well as the SDLP and Irish government) into a political/constitutional settlement that kept Northern Ireland in the United Kingdom. If a united Ireland was to emerge further down the line it would be a matter for a majority of people in Northern Ireland to determine and, in the meantime, it provided unionism with the opportunity to make the pro-Union case without a background of terror and instability.
Some people said that the GFA allowed “terrorists into government”. Yet those same people weren’t offering a viable or available institutional alternative and had spent most of the previous 30 years condemning successive British governments for not defeating the IRA.
So the choice in 1998 was this: sign up to an agreement that maybe, just maybe, paved the way to something new and better in Northern Ireland or, reject it and see what the British and Irish governments came up with. It wasn’t an ideal choice from a unionist perspective; but it was the only choice at that moment.
I also hoped that new institutions would, given time and growing trust, provide a platform for old enemies to reassess problems, as well as allowing a new generation of post-conflict voices and vehicles to emerge with their own fresh agendas and solutions.
Yet here we are, a few weeks from the beginning of the fifth mandate of the Assembly and, party politically speaking, things look pretty much the same as they were. Two power blocs are still at the face-off stage of engagement: not quite hating each other, but not quite trusting each other, either.
Back in 1998, almost 70 per cent of the electorate voted for that first Assembly: yet by 2011 that had tumbled to 55 per cent. Last year’s local government elections recorded a 51 per cent turnout, suggesting that a further drop is likely on May 5. All that tells us, of course, is that the vast majority of people who could be bothered to vote are choosing – yes choosing – to vote for the same-old, same-old.
That’s not the fault of the DUP/SF/UUP/SDLP/Alliance, all of whom are getting a mandate to do what they’ve been doing since the DUP/SF deal of 2007. But it does mean that they’re probably down to core vote territory, which, in turn, means that they have very little room for flexibility.
But there is another Northern Ireland to be considered. And it’s a Northern Ireland where change is happening on a daily basis. Even though little seems to have changed on the political front, it is blindingly obvious that huge shifts have occurred on the socio/moral front.
The debates we have heard on abortion, homosexuality, same-sex marriage, secularisation et al would not have happened on the same sort of scale 20 years ago. People would have kept their heads down and their voices low.
But they don’t do that any more. They use social media as a vehicle and they have discovered they are not alone. They go to rallies and public meetings. They’ll be turning up at election hustings to ask the candidates for their views on these socio/moral issues.
There’s a young generation – in their 20s and 30s – who have opted out of voting and party membership. But they aren’t tuned out or apathetic. They do care what is going on around them. They do have an opinion on lifestyle preferences and personal choices. They do have a much more laid back response to living and let live. And yes, while they do have an opinion on the constitutional issue, it doesn’t influence their views on the socio/moral stuff. Whether it’s a united Ireland or United Kingdom this generation will want the same degree of tolerance, understanding, compassion, forbearance and choice as part of their citizenship.
And it’s along that line that we’re seeing the ongoing and growing disengagement and disconnect between voters and non-voters in Northern Ireland and between the party political establishment in the Assembly and a new kind of ‘societal establishment’ which is developing down the Hill rather than on the Hill. I’m not, by the way, saying that this younger generation speaks with one voice on all of these issues, but I am saying that they want a different way of hosting the debate and they want decisions made rather than constantly kicked into the long grass.
If turnout at the election falls below 50 per cent that would pose problems for the Assembly and Executive, because it would not represent the people of Northern Ireland: and when a governing institution doesn’t represent the people it is robbed of moral and political authority.
If the five big parties don’t want to find themselves in that debilitating position then they need to understand and then respond to what is happening outside the Stormont bubble. Change is coming. It is unstoppable. The sooner they realise that, the better for all of us.