Us-and-them politics isn’t going to go away, you know

Alex Kane

Alex Kane

There are two Northern Irelands (indeed, we may even suffer from multiple personality disorder).

There is the one that paints itself pink for the Giro d’Italia and braves the wind and rain to watch groups of cyclists whizz past during their race from Belfast to the north coast and back again.

Lambeg drums were painted pink; hair was dyed pink; shop fronts got a coat of pink; children and their parents dressed in pink; bicycles were painted pink in solidarity with their more exotic continental cousins; newspapers printed in pink; and town halls, city halls, Stormont and statues were bathed in pink.

This was a Northern Ireland that wanted to tell the rest of the world that it knew how to relax and have fun: knew how to party like everyone else and knew how to share streets, city centres and viewing positions without the need for the police and water cannon to keep them apart.

This is the face of Northern Ireland that many of us (including the media) like to show when we know that world-ranking entertainment and sporting events are happening on our doorstep.

For all of our own psychological and political angsts we actually want everyone else to like us.

And then there’s the other Northern Ireland.

A Northern Ireland where the first and deputy first minister can tear lumps out of each other before heading off to a press conference and photo-opportunity at the opening of the new grounds at Ravenhill, or the arrival of the Giro d’Italia competitors in central Belfast.

They grin and pose like affable monkeys, doing their best to pretend that the spirit of goodwill in the gathered crowds is something to do with them.

But it’s got nothing to do with them: that goodwill exists despite rather than because of their joint efforts. At a time when the increasingly fragile political process needs a Morecambe and Wise duo we have ended up with Burke and Hare.

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson tried to lay the blame for the dysfunctionality on Sinn Fein’s doorstep: “In the last week they have shown why they are not fit to be in government and there are many other reasons.

“Unfortunately we have inherited a system endorsed by the electorate which puts them there as long as they get votes.

“I and my party didn’t vote for it. Indeed we warned of the consequences which we now have to live with.”

Hang on a cotton pickin’ moment! The DUP is in government with Sinn Fein precisely because that’s what the DUP voted for in the spring of 2007.

The DUP didn’t inherit the present carve-up from the UUP or anyone else.

The DUP promoted a ‘fairer, better deal’ in the 2007 Assembly election and promoted the ‘stability and robustness’ of the institutions in the 2011 election.

If there is a whopping fault at the heart of government—and there is—then the problem is of the DUP’s and Sinn Fein’s making.

The SDLP, UUP and Alliance are in no position to point the finger and bellyache, either, because those three parties are part of the problem: shoring up the dysfunctionality by their presence in the Executive rather than forming a coherent, 35-strong alternative from the backbenches.

Those parties could learn a lot from the Northern Ireland that rallies to events like the Giro d’Italia and golf classics.

They could also learn a lot from how the British and Irish governments have handled their relationship in the past decade or so, particularly in terms of the speeches and nuancing that accompanied the State visits.

President Higgins made a very good point: “There are a lot of very difficult memories and it would be to my mind wrong to suggest to anyone that you should, as it were, wipe the slate clean.”

The UK and RoI realised that you just couldn’t wipe the slate clean and expect to make progress. Both State visits involved admissions and acknowledgments and apologies from both sides.

There was no glossing over of ugly facts and no hiding of uncomfortable truths—because progress and cooperation cannot be built on half-truth and blinkered vision. In accepting those realities both governments have manoeuvred themselves into the best relationship they have ever had.

The problem in Northern Ireland is that the parties seem incapable of the Atticus Finch (from To Kill A Mockingbird) approach to politics: putting yourself in the other man’s shoes and looking at yourself from his side of the fence.

And if you aren’t prepared to do that, then an understanding of the past—our collective shared past—becomes impossible. Which probably best explains why our parties have little option but to bicker and bitch.

Let’s face it, how can you make progress, let alone even manage the basics of cooperation, with people you neither like nor trust?

Can we ever get past the us-and-them dimension of politics here? Well, of the people who still choose to vote, almost 90 percent of them vote for us-and-them parties. That’s not going to change anytime soon because that us-and-them aspect is an integral part of the bigger constitutional issue, too.

It is argued by some that many of those who don’t vote have moved beyond us-and-them.

Actually, I don’t think that’s true. They are merely in denial, hoping that if they don’t mention it, it will somehow go away of its own accord.

But it’s not going to go away because it still matters to almost 50 per cent of the electorate.

Let me put that more bluntly: us-and-them politics isn’t going away, you know.

In other words, there will be no new institution or political environment that doesn’t have us-and-them in a central position. Ironically, in exactly the same way that unionists have had to get used to working with republicans, non us-and-them parties would have to get used to working with us-and-them parties.

That’s just the way it is, I’m afraid.

Is genuine cooperation and power-sharing ever going to be possible here?

Probably not, is my best guess. But if it is possible then it’s going to require a lot more thought through strategy and reality-facing policy than is on offer from anyone at the moment.




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