You cannot expect reconciliation and truth against a background of political/constitutional/institutional stalemate: nor can you hope to agree on the history, causes and roots of the conflict from which you imagine yourself to be emerging.
There cannot be justice when you have conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution. How does anyone make sense of a bitter, bloody, brutal past when, 20 years after a supposed peace deal, the key parties cannot sustain themselves in a consensual, power-sharing government?
As it happens, I also believe that we have chosen stalemate, rather than simply stumbled into it.
Speaking to Mark Carruthers on BBC’s The View on Thursday, Lord Eames said: “People cannot come to terms with the fact that a new generation, which is going to inherit the mistakes that we made in our generation, is a generation which is reading about these things in history books. They didn’t come through the Troubles or the trauma and that generation is inheriting what we are not doing.”
I think he’s wrong. I think this new generation (and let’s call them the Good Friday Agreement generation) is actually embracing stalemate.
They are not voting in sufficient numbers for Alliance (the self-proclaimed middle ground party) or other smaller parties. They are not building new political vehicles. As it stands, 66% of those who vote – and that includes increasing numbers who were around 18 in 1998 – are voting for the polar opposites of the DUP and Sinn Fein. And since you could barely put a bus ticket between the core polices of the DUP/UUP and SF/SDLP it seems reasonable to conclude that around 88% continue to vote for the same old us-and-them parties and positions.
In other words, the generation which Lord Eames speaks of is a generation which seems happy enough to encourage and bolster the past rather than the future.
I’ve mentioned before that I keep being told about a ‘new generation which wants to do things differently here’; but the fact remains that I see little or no evidence of that generation. I talk to many, many young people who are interested in politics – and I don’t just mean local politics – yet when I push them on Northern Ireland they quickly make it clear that they have a set position when it comes to the constitutional question. And it is that set position which shifts them towards a unionist or nationalist party, even when that party may not accurately reflect their personal view on moral issues like abortion and same-sex marriage.
I’m also told that young people aren’t ‘hung up’ on the constitution at all. But if that is true then why aren’t huge numbers of them voting Alliance, which is, by its own admission, agnostic or neutral on the constitution? The answer, actually, is pretty straightforward. In a divided society – which ours remains –personal identity will trump every other issue on election day. Even those agnostic Alliance voters will have a sense of what identity means to them – and will vote accordingly.
People who may have concerns about Sinn Fein’s past will still vote for the party most likely to deliver Irish unity. People who have concerns about where unionism stands on some moral issues will still vote for unionist parties – particularly the DUP.
The belief that there is a post-conflict generation just waiting in the wings to deliver ‘something different’ strikes me as nonsense. The Good Friday Agreement generation will be as divided as we are because the divisions remain exactly the same. The fixed position of politics in Northern Ireland – round which our parties campaign – is the constitutional question. Everything still comes down to the same two questions on election day: What am I? What do I want to be? After almost 50 years even the Alliance Party hasn’t got any further than promoting the middle ground as somewhere between unionism and republicanism. That isn’t the middle ground: that’s just a dollop of marmite between two lumps of constitutional concrete.
And in the same way that I think Lord Eames is wrong, I think Denis Bradley is also wrong. On The View, he said: “I think that the victims will also have to face something perhaps if they aren’t going to get justice and truth – which I think is getting less and less likely as the years go past. I think, as it dominates and darkens our lives, all of our lives, then I think the victims need to also recognise that there a lot of other ways of dealing with the past. And they may have to settle for dealing with things like pensions and welfare and good health facilities.”
I’m sorry, but pensions, welfare and good health facilities are not ways of ‘dealing with the past’.
All of the evidence – the increasing electoral/political polarisation; the failure to deal with the big ticket issues; and nothing resembling an agreed narrative of how we ended up where we are now – suggests that the past, as always, remains in front of us. It is not in the interests of either unionism or republicanism to encourage a shared future, because a shared future is the end goal of neither.
Robin Eames and Denis Bradley are decent, thoughtful men. The problem though, and it’s not their fault, is that the ‘moment’ for truth and reconciliation has come and gone.