Increasingly it feels like a relatively small number of people on this island are involved in a “long war” while the vast majority of us are more focussed on a “long peace”.
When Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill asserted that Northern Ireland “isn’t British” at the Conservative Party conference it was not a surprise, but it was revealing. Her comment provides a clue as to why power sharing is not currently working.
Over our history, too many of the leaders in our society, particularly some of the more extreme elements, have promoted a suffocatingly narrow perspective on identity. The Belfast Agreement asserted the rights of people here to identify “as British, Irish or both”. Is the reality not that by far the most accurate label for most of us is “both”?
Northern Ireland is actually as “British as Finchley”, even though it is clearly not as English and it is also as “Irish as Cork”, although our Irishness is distinct from that of the Republic of Ireland. What the Agreement didn’t mention, is that in effect we are all Northern Irish, irrespective of our different views on the constitutional position.
It is an identity that is a flexible, multi-layered concept. We should embrace the unique access to various identities that Northern Irishness affords us and resist attempts to put us into simple boxes. Extreme ideologies have used identity in order to exclude and demonise the “other” , which has too often hampered the development of good relations across these islands.
Bearing that in mind, we should not forget that it was the political middle ground that opened up prospects for a peaceful future, without conflict or division. While they’ve now been manipulated into the margins of politics, we mustn’t forget that the architects of the 1998 agreement ultimately won the argument, over more extreme ideologies that then moderated their positions in pursuit of power.
It is also clear that the two governments did not support the middle ground properly. Then, they compounded matters in the St Andrews Agreement by changing the way the First Minister was designated, which actually entrenched a narrow way of looking at identity and politics; reinforcing the “them and us” mentality that makes every election into an exercise in “if you don’t vote for us you get them”.
Despite that electoral advantage, the DUP and Sinn Fein have since shown an ability to gain power, but little potential to do much with it.
Looking to the future, if we are to have an Executive and it is to share “responsibility” properly, then there should be an explicit, public commitment by all parties, in order to qualify for places in the Executive, to promote their chosen constitutional preferences first and foremost by prioritising making this place work for the benefit of all its people.
They mightn’t stick to their promises, but we’d have a standard to hold them to.
On that basis, we should then move to joint First Ministers. Whatever the constitutional position we who live in Northern Ireland have to share it and so the least we should expect is that we are governed by politicians who work constructively for the benefit of us all.
Make these changes and then call an election to let the electorate decide. Much has been achieved in our society over the last twenty years, as we work to undo the damage resulting from an unnecessary conflict. Our politics remain polarised, while I feel increasingly the people are not. The challenge is how do we ensure the people de-polarise politics before politics increases again the polarisation of our people!