A few times a year I get invited to speak to visiting groups of academics, PhD students and political/government representatives from ‘conflict zones’ around the world about Northern Ireland; mostly to do with what lessons can be learned from our ‘peace process’.
It has been a difficult challenge for the last two years, because it really is very difficult to talk about lessons learned when the institutions have been mothballed (we’ve just entered the third year without them) and the relationship between the key players is worse than it has been for over 20 years.
Like all commentators I always start by acknowledging that Northern Ireland is a safer, less violent place. And it’s important to acknowledge it because I fear that the post-1998 generation, along with many born when the ceasefires kicked in in 1994, don’t really understand what life was like between 1970 and 1990. Crucially, I don’t think they understand how easily we could return to those days; and I don’t just mean because of Brexit and hard borders.
When society is deeply polarised; when there is no political stability; when a government cannot be formed; and when increasing numbers of people have given up on the prospect of a ‘normal’ society; it doesn’t take all that much to begin the return to the past. Particularly, as I have noted many times, when we still live in a political environment in which the past is ‘always in front of us’. The absence of political stability, along with the absence of collective faith in the future, almost always fuels a dangerous sense of disconnect and an unwillingness to compromise. That, in turn, fuels fringe elements; elements who do not rule out the use of violence at some point.
The first huge risk with the power-sharing of 1998 was that it was going to include Sinn Fein. In October 1972 a UK government Green Paper stated that any replacement for Stormont (which had been prorogued seven months earlier) would require both power-sharing and an ‘Irish dimension’. The only difference between October 1972 and April 1998 was that Sinn Fein had grown a substantial electoral mandate: and the only difference between April 1998 and May 2007 (when the DUP and SF cut their own deal) was that SF had established itself as the primary vehicle of nationalism.
I can understand why there are elements within unionism who believed that SF should never have been allowed into government; and that unionist parties should never have agreed to share power with them. But without the backing of Westminster it was clear that SF was not going to be excluded from the political process. Anyway, had Westminster tried to exclude them it’s very likely that the problems here would have become very much worse. It had been obvious since 1972 that the in-built strategy of successive UK governments (supported by their Irish counterparts) was to create a framework which both the IRA and SF would buy into (with unionists assured that the ‘constitutional guarantee’ ensured that the constitutional status quo could never be changed in the absence of majority support).
Almost 25 years of direct rule had done nothing to suggest that Westminster could be banked in the ‘Ulster’ unionist corner; which is why the UUP accepted the inevitability of SF in government in 1998: followed by the DUP in 2007.
But the problem with power-sharing in our particular circumstance (and I focus on this during my meetings with the visiting groups) is that it rests on a very shaky premise: namely, that it is, in fact, possible to create a stable government when the key players do not agree on the constitutional future of the place they govern. Don’t even refer to it by the same name on most occasions. It is not in the interests of SF to make NI more ‘British’. It is not in the interests of the DUP to make NI more ‘Irish’. Even some sort of separate invented identity dilutes their real identity. One of the lessons learned is that it has not been possible to ‘park’ the constitutional question.
It might, right at the start, have been possible to ‘park’ (but not forget) it, but that would have required a number of other elements: truth, reconciliation, understanding, forgiveness, an agreed narrative, a genuine commitment to work together and a willingness – however difficult – to focus on the future rather than old sores and even older arguments.
Again, though, that hasn’t happened. This is still a place of competing narratives. Still a place where everything seems to be measured by the plus/minus advantages to the unionist/nationalist communities. Still a place where the participants in a talks process have their eye on competing and contradictory agendas; and where every ‘resolution’ is, at its core, no more than ‘let’s-just-sign-it-off-and-hope-for-the-best’ blether.
The lessons so far? One: Whatever the hopes and confidence in April 1998 and again in May 2007, there seems to be no particular desire for what could be described as genuine, honest power-sharing. Two: The secretary of state and the five main parties say they are keen to reboot the Assembly and Executive, yet I see no evidence that they are prepared to tackle the mountain of outstanding, unresolved issues, rather than merely adding to them. (And, as it happens, I don’t believe Arlene Foster is correct when she says that the other parties, with the exception of SF, would ‘nominate ministers today’. My understanding is that the UUP, SDLP and Alliance have issues they want settled before committing to a deal). Three: The need to collectively examine and take responsibility for what happened in our joint past is not happening. It is not, now, going to happen.
The ultimate lesson? Learn from our mistakes. We aren’t; so it would be good to see others, particularly those in ongoing conflict zones, learning from them. A lack of everyday violence is worth celebrating. My fear is that we’re actually on a path on which a return to violence becomes both inevitable and unstoppable.