Alex Kane: If we pessimists were wrong, I would be out of a job

About six years ago I was a member of a panel discussing the role of journalism and the media in a post-conflict society, particularly in relation to Northern Ireland.

Monday, 25th November 2019, 6:17 pm

I began by explaining why I didn’t believe Northern Ireland was, in fact, a post-conflict society (describing our position as ‘conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution’) and why the weight of available evidence had led me to the conclusion that the hopes and opportunities which accompanied the referendum result in May 1998 had exploded into dust.

I ended with the observation that I didn’t expect things to get better, adding that it probably wouldn’t be too long before even the optimists in the room would be sharing my pessimism.

It was an ‘the emperor has no clothes’ moment. I was accused of being an enemy of the peace process: “Why don’t you use your media platforms to push the message that the agreement is working. Why are you putting yourself on the same side as those who want to destroy progress?”

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Irish Prime Minister Bertie Ahern with Tony Blair in December 2006 to discuss the St Andrews Agreement weeks after it was signed. "That deal further polarised the two communities," writes Alex Kane. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/AP pool

I tried to explain that I didn’t see it as part of my job to write what I didn’t believe. I had voted YES in 1998 and really wanted to see a new-era Northern Ireland and a new way of doing politics.

But that wasn’t happening. Indeed, I believed the St Andrews Agreement had, to all intents and purposes, further polarised the two main communities and reduced everything, every policy, to a permanent numbers-game territory.

Why shouldn’t I say so and write so? The relationship between my column and my readership is built on the understanding that readers accept that I’m telling them what I truly believe.

They may not agree with me. They may think I’m clinically bonkers. They may want to roar their approval for me from the rooftops one week and then throw me from the rooftops the following week. That’s fine.

If I think there are huge problems for the peace/political process and have evidence to back my arguments, then I will make my argument. I will not trot out some flapdoodle propaganda just because some people try and persuade me (and, believe me, they have tried) to write what I don’t believe.

My approach may keep me off the invitation list for lots of pat-each-other-on-the-back events, but hey, it’s a price I’m happy to pay.

Over the past couple of decades I have heard a number of academics (and some politicians, as it happens) push something which is described as ‘peace journalism.’

It’s the Pollyanna approach to politics: no matter how bad things may look on the surface, and no matter how much worse you actually know them to be below the surface, you should simply ignore that reality and find something positive to say. Yet nobody ever asks why, if things really are so good, the Pollyannas rarely offer anything more substantial than, “Well, it’s better than it used to be.”

Here’s the blunt truth: if the pessimists here are, as the Pollyannas keep saying, ‘utterly wrong,’ then I’d be out of a job. And if I had has much ‘influence’ as those trying to bend my ear to be more optimistic seem to think I have, I’d be first minister in a functioning assembly. I say what I see. I call what I think. What you read is what I believe. If I see or hear anything which gives me unexpected cause for optimism I will write about it.

It’s what columnists do.

The other thing worth saying is that I don’t have a lot of time for the tit-for-tat approach. I mentioned in a radio interview last week that I believed the DUP had scuppered a deal in February 2018 because they couldn’t bring key players with them on an Irish language act. I was answering the question I had been asked. Afterwards I fielded unionist responses: ‘Why didn’t you mention that Sinn Fein had collapsed the Assembly in the first place?”

The thing is, I have said and written it many times, pointing to the fact that Martin McGuinness’s resignation letter in January 2017 had brought the assembly and executive crashing down.

Even before that letter I had written a piece in which I argued, “If that is Sinn Fein’s position — a willingness to let the assembly go — then it poses a huge problem for unionism.”

Which is why I further argued, after the letter had been published, that it could take years for the assembly/executive to be rebooted.

If I write a column one week about unionism and the challenges it faces, I get unionists complaining that I haven’t mentioned Sinn Fein and the IRA. Another week I write about the challenges facing nationalism and I get told by nationalists that I haven’t mentioned 50 years of unionist rule and loyalist paramilitaries. You can’t cover every base in every column.

You can’t write a paragraph about one side or the other and simply follow it with a counterpoint/balancing paragraph about the other side. Columns don’t work like that.

I’m a unionist: plain, simple and unembarrassed. I don’t expect every other unionist to believe in precisely the same things as I do. I will make my pro-Union arguments anywhere and everywhere: and if I think there are flaws in how we present our arguments then I will say so.

I’ve spent 30 or so years making the case for unionism reaching out and embracing anyone from any background (which is why I was pleased to see the recent comments from Arlene Foster and Emma Little Pengelly about Next Generation Unionism). I will continue to do so.

I don’t let Sinn Fein/SDLP/nationalism/Irish government off easily, either.

And never have. I get the same levels of criticism from their supporters on my timeline as I do from elements of unionism/loyalism. So be it.

All I can do as a columnist/commentator is address the specific questions I’m asked about or thinking about at the time. I’m not and don’t set out to be a lobbyist.

I accept you won’t always like what I write: yet, to be honest, if you did like everything I said and wrote then I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t be doing my job properly.