For all of the hoopla and attention that accompanied Martin McGuinness’s decision to attend the state banquet (complete with the ice cream bombe and toast to the Queen) it struck me that there was an air of inevitability about the whole thing.
Since the mid-1990s Sinn Fein – along with the IRA –has crossed one rubicon after another: the acceptance of partition, an internal settlement, recognition of the policing and justice system, co-governing a Northern Ireland which remains in the United Kingdom, the standing down of the IRA, Sinn Fein locked at the hip with the DUP in Stormont. Each step was inevitable, as all steps are when you become a willing partner in political choreography. So shaking the Queen’s hand at the Lyric Theatre in 2012 and raising a glass to her in 2014 shouldn’t have come as a real surprise to anyone.
That said, I’m not going to let Sammy Wilson away with the nonsensical boast that McGuinness “sold his soul for a sausage roll”. The DUP was part of the choreography, too. If McGuinness and Sinn Fein are now viewed as acceptable company for the Queen then it’s precisely because they were originally viewed as acceptable company and partners for Ian Paisley and Peter Robinson.
The DUP that negotiated a carve-up, self-serving deal with Sinn Fein in May 2007 was not the DUP which rejected the talks process in July 1997 and voted ‘no’ in the 1998 referendum. The reason that the DUP and Sinn Fein found themselves forced (and there really is no other word for it) to conclude their own power-sharing deal was that there was nowhere else for them to go – other than walk away from the Assembly and the political process. In other words, the inevitability of McGuinness’s toasting the Queen was exactly the same inevitability that steered the DUP and Sinn Fein to the deal in 2007.
And what we are now seeing in the changing nature of the relationship between the British/Irish governments and their collective political establishments is also inevitable. This is the story of two countries going out of their way to indicate that, irrespective of the toxicity of political relationships in Northern Ireland, they will work together and find common values and benefits in each other’s culture and shared history. They are coming to grips with dealing with the past and accepting that progress is always possible.
No one in Northern Ireland, particularly Sinn Fein and the DUP, should underestimate the significance of what is happening at levels above them. In essence, London and Dublin are saying to Belfast that change is inevitable if done in a calculated, measured way. And it is the inevitable outcome of their decision in 1998 to jointly underwrite the Belfast Agreement.
One thing is clear: the Assembly will not survive if the DUP and Sinn Fein cannot find it within themselves to govern together in the best interests of everyone in Northern Ireland. They may believe that playing to their separate galleries is the best way of sustaining their top dog electoral positions, but in so doing they are simply encouraging polarity and mistrust. The language they use about each other and the manner in which they refer to each other makes a mockery of their individual claims to be working hard to build a better, more stable Northern Ireland.
Are they blind? Are Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness now incapable of seeing the reality of what is going on around them? Don’t they read the opinion polls that indicate that huge numbers of people have no confidence in the Assembly and Executive? Aren’t they aware that increasing numbers believe that the peace/political process is failing? Aren’t they worried that so many young people want to leave the place? Doesn’t it bother them that more and more and yet more people can’t be bothered to vote? Actually, they don’t give a damn. They run around like lobotomised chickens, clucking their pre-programmed mantra, “stop complaining, it’s better than it used to be”. And, when all else fails, they blame the media.
In fairness, they’re not the only ones to blame the media: there’s a school of thought which argues that we need a new generation of post-conflict journalists to report nice stuff, positive stuff, feel-good stuff. But how do you report what isn’t actually there? How do you report about progress on building a shared future, making decisions on welfare reform, sorting out education and improving relationships between the parties when there is no evidence of it? What is a journalist or commentator supposed to do when confronted with a speech in which the speaker attacks most of the other parties in the Assembly? What are we supposed to do when a tidal wave of press releases consist of little more than parties putting the boot into each other?
Northern Ireland is going to change: that much is inevitable. The DUP and Sinn Fein – or whatever other electoral combination emerges – are going to have to work together or perish together. In 1998 the vast majority of people voted for change, voted for the opportunity to do things differently. Yet the political parties tend to do precisely the same sort of thing they have always done, while feigning surprise that nothing is changing. They are fighting old battles and trying to settle older scores.
So here’s the question: are the local parties up for change? No, let me nuance that – do they really want change? I suspect not. They are too old and too set in their ways. And that, of course, begs another question: from where will the change come? At this stage I don’t have an answer, because we still don’t have any genuinely post-conflict parties. But I do know that change will come because I hear enough people telling me that change is necessary. It’s a longer process than I anticipated back in 1998: that said, it is inevitable and it will happen. What I’m no longer sure of, though, is whether it will be a change for the better.