Stormont power-sharing only embeds the us-and-them status quo

Alex Kane
Alex Kane

In his book, A Longer Shorter Way, the former Israeli Defence Minister Moshe Yaalon warned about what he described as “solutionism” and “nowism.” But that sort of eagerness for a deal – any deal – cannot, he argued, resolve deeply embedded problems or perpetual conflicts.

For Yaalon, “solutionism is perhaps best embodied by the can-do pragmatism of the American foreign policy ideal, which they believe assumes that any problem can be solved through sufficient will and enterprise”.

In other words, all you have to do to reach the final agreement, the agreement that resolves all of the difficulties, is to put the right sort of initial framework in place and then leave trust, time, good will and a new generation of voters to do the rest.

That’s more or less what happened in Northern Ireland in 1998. The Belfast Agreement did enough to persuade paramilitaries to back away (making it easier for the state’s security force operations to scale back) and allow unionists, loyalists, nationalists and republicans to commit to working in government together.

The Belfast Agreement left many issues unresolved – deliberately so. The period between 1994 and 1998 wasn’t long enough for old grudges to be set aside, let alone forgiven and there were still suspicions to allay and trust to be established.

At that point IRA decommissioning and structural dismantling couldn’t be taken for granted and – going by the results of the 1998 referendum – a sizeable majority of unionism hadn’t bought into the deal. But as long as we weren’t being “dragged back to the bad old days” and the new institutions remained in place, albeit suspended for lengthy periods, there was still the chance that the Agreement would deliver.

The high point of that ‘hope’ was in May 2007, when the DUP and Sinn Fein indicated that they were prepared to govern together. Even now, looking at the footage of Paisley and McGuinness walking down the stairway into Stormont’s Great Hall to the deafening click of cameras and thunderous applause and you can understand why so many people believed that this was the real turning point of the peace process; the ‘moment’ when the new-era Northern Ireland could finally begin to be built.

Yet here we are – with the third DUP leader since that ‘moment’ – and the DUP and Sinn Fein are still talking about a Fresh Start: and Foster and McGuinness are attracting headlines because they say they want to work with each other and will work with each other.

So, what’s the problem? Why, in terms of moving on to the next stage of the peace/political process, are we still more or less where we were in the summer of 1998?

Yaalon, writing about the Israeli/Palestinian problem, notes: “Today’s impasse stems not from a lack of political ingenuity or will but from a Palestinian refusal to accept the essence of Zionism, which is that Jews have a right to a state of their own in the land of Israel. Only when that is no longer in question can a negotiated settlement emerge: and there is no reason to believe that will happen anytime soon.”

Now then, substitute unionism or republicanism for Zionism and you will see that we have the same problem here. Unionists believe that republicans want to deprive them of their state, while republicans believe that unionists (albeit as ‘puppets’ of the British) have already deprived them of part of their state. Or, to put that in blunter terms: most unionists are prepared to share power with Sinn Fein, but only on the basis that it doesn’t compromise or undermine the constitutional/geographical integrity of their state; while republicans are prepared to share power with unionists, but only on the basis that it doesn’t prevent them from ending partition and removing Northern Ireland from the United Kingdom.

They share power, but for mutually contradictory purposes. They don’t have a common vision or agenda for the future, which means that there is no mutually compelling logic for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles or coming to terms with a supposedly shared history.

While what happened in Ireland in 1920/21 may be regarded as a two-state solution, what emerged in Northern Ireland was also, in essence, a separate, smaller, two-state solution. And what we have now – the ongoing outworking of the 2007 DUP/Sinn Fein deal – is a two-party state, in a two-state entity, with each party serving and prioritising the exclusive needs and constitutional demands of its own community.

It’s no surprise, then, that problems continue to be kicked down the road until some indefinite point in the future, leaving us with what Natan Sachs, referring to Israel, describes as “a view of leadership as stewardship rather than transformation, one in which potential losses loom far larger than potential gains”.

And that’s our enormous, unresolved problem in a nutshell. This is not about sharing power in Northern Ireland: this is about bolstering the us-and-them status quo that has dogged us for decades.

Most of the parties talk about governing together, working together, moving forward together and building a better future for our children. Indeed. Yet there is very little evidence that that’s what they are doing.

Unionism and republicanism have accepted that they do need to work together, but what they have yet to establish is whether they can work together for the same purpose and to the same end. The real Fresh Start requires them to move beyond the Pollyanna rhetoric and deal with the thumping, awkward realities of “dreary steeples” politics here.