Politics in Northern Ireland are sclerotic… a civic forum could hold the answer, but it must be more than just a glorified talking shop
Such a body could become a mechanism for compromise, influencing a more constructive approach to political relationships, write Graham Spencer and Chris Hudson
One of the big misunderstandings about Northern Ireland’s connection with the rest of the UK comes from the conviction that fundamentalist unionist politics will preserve this relationship. Such a politics, because of little appreciation for the value for compromise, relies almost entirely on perpetuating a fear of republicanism to keep itself in place.
And a similar tendency can be found in republicanism, which relies on the continuation of fundamentalist unionism to maintain its own support base.
Sinn Fein’s public utterances about trying to ensure Ian Paisley MP was not re-elected recently were more designed to make sure that he was re-elected, rather than not. But the biggest threat to republicanism and the best way to build a stronger and inclusive Union is through moderate unionism. For both the DUP and Sinn Fein, it is moderate politics that is most feared, but which a progressive Northern Ireland needs most of all.
Fundamentalist unionist politics, as epitomised by the DUP, is, if not already dead, then dying. It has nothing to offer Northern Ireland beyond the myth that it is keeping Sinn Fein at bay. It displays no creativity and a resistance to pragmatism, which destabilises the rigid image of certainty that the party relies on.
Though there are individuals in the DUP who conduct good community work, this is not enough to sustain the party over the long-term and the complete absence of ideas or strategy about how to appeal beyond its own immediate self-interests will inevitably fail those it supposedly represents. The first stage of ossification is already evident and the second stage of withering and rot is becoming harder to deny.
There will be a lot more fear politics to come as the party looks increasingly outdated and scrambles to try and prevent its own demise, and Sinn Fein will do what it can to keep that fundamentalism alive to help ensure its own presence and purpose. But, ultimately, unless and until there is a dramatic change in its ethos and approach, the DUP’s game is up.
It is understandable why a unionist/loyalist electorate that existed through the conflict would vote for the DUP. But, as a younger audience with no lived experience of the conflict starts to influence voting patterns more and more, so conflict-related rhetoric is less likely to gain traction.
The best way to address this predicament is to accept that moderate unionism is the only realistic way out of the decline, but to do so it must promote and reflect the core values of inclusive Britishness and not just offer a softer version of the DUP. Those values relate to democracy, the rule of law, liberty of the individual and the tolerance of religious and cultural difference and collectively they constitute a sufficient consensus to keep the relationship between social responsibility and individual possibility intact.
Though the climate of Brexit has brought into focus two oppositional types of anger that compete to influence the shape of a Brexit outcome, it has not been suggested that the core values of Britishness should be jettisoned as part of this dispute.
Indeed, the two forms of anger could be seen as a struggle to try and re-engage with Britishness and understand its role and meaning in the modern world.
As Brexit dominates the political scene and the DUP strives to keep Northern Ireland’s linkage with the UK as tight as possible, this linkage does not extend to accepting other aspects of Britishness which show greater concern for more individualised forms of identity.
Yes, the DUP argument for Brexit is about a national identity, but it has no means by which to conceptualise or articulate a wider sense of Britishness. Nor is it able to grasp what the American political scientist Francis Fukuyama recently described as the change from “identity to identities” that is now reshaping the political climate, or how meanings of self and society are being expressed because of this growing diversity.
Rather, what the DUP is drawing from in its response to Brexit is what it has always relied on: holding the line and resisting and maintaining a strongly fixed position.
And what Sinn Fein is doing in response is recycling a transferable message about the value of a single, agreed, multi-cultural, or other Ireland, where the dogged reach for Irish unity comes with a welcoming face.
If Northern Ireland is in “post-conflict” mode, there is little evidence of a post-conflict politics to reflect this new phase.
The peace process initiated a process of compromise politics, which was then superseded by non-compromise politics, moving from a politics of tolerance to a politics of intolerance. The problem with this regression is that although, at a surface level, it may offer a degree of security, it also means the inability to move beyond very strict limits, since to do so risks undermining the very security being defended.
But since security in this instance depends on stasis, so there is no transformation built into the outlook. Furthermore, there is no dynamic, no optimism and no possibility of modernisation. That is why such a politics has no future and is ultimately doomed to fail.
Intransigence on the basis of resistance to and intolerance of difference creates a problem for Britishness which espouses the need to hold individual liberty and respect for others in some kind of balance. At a political level in Northern Ireland, there is next to no reaching out to those who find themselves not part of the single political and national identity being advanced on either side of the divide.
Fundamentalist unionist politics has no means to expand its popular support because it cannot reach out to those not of its tradition. And, although Sinn Fein’s republicanism may come across as more respectful in approach, it too is similarly contained and driven by the need to keep the DUP tied to its fundamentalist ethos and rigid positions.
But what good is this politics for a modern democracy that has supposedly exited from the terrible years of conflict? As the absence of an Executive for nearly two years demonstrates, dominant politics in Northern Ireland has failed and, indeed, can only fail because there is no mechanism by which to bridge the opposing forces of republican and unionist fundamentalism. Each now functions as an island separated by a sea of perpetual loathing and mistrust.
That said, and in the absence of a dominant moderate unionism, there is a mechanism by which to circumvent the impasse aside from handing power to the remaining political parties who do want an Executive to work and that is the civic forum that was legislated for in the Good Friday Agreement and which functioned for a short time after the Agreement’s implementation. We are told that the forum was unworkable, because it was too cumbersome and was not supported by the dominant parties, which, at that time, believed it to be an imposition and a hindrance to the conduct of daily politics.
The reality was probably different and that the forum was suspended because it either risked increasing expectations of accountability, or it was manipulated to be little more than an extension of dominant positions.
But the value of a forum is surely more important now than it was at the time of Good Friday Agreement? Properly managed and broadly representative in its diversity, a forum could help reactivate a new optimism and create new possibilities to reshape expectations about party politics that remains so obsessed about the past it offers nothing for the future.
Taking into account the different identities and political ambitions in Northern Ireland, the forum should, nevertheless, reflect the core values of Britishness. It should seek to advocate democracy not as a finite entity, but as a process that facilitates new political relationships and elicits fresh political thinking.
It should work to build further cross-community respect for the rule of law and policing. It should strive to try to make Northern Ireland a place where individual aspiration and opportunity become a reality and it should advance compromise and pragmatism in relation to public policy and political difference.
In effect, the forum should be more than a talking shop. It should monitor political responsibility and accountability and act as a think-tank to help deal with divisive issues and points of contention detrimental to the development and progress of Northern Ireland as a whole.
On that basis, its role and function should be expanded to become a new force for a common good, devising ideas and responses to problems that the dominating parties seem unwilling to make, or unable to contemplate. As such, it can become a mechanism for compromise, influencing a more constructive approach to political relationships as a result.
In the absence of a dominant moderate politics, a civic forum offers an opportunity to help advocate such moderation and, in the process, expose the damaging limitations of the fundamentalist outlook that now endures.
Given the advantages this could bring for stability, confidence and progress, Northern Ireland surely deserves no less.
Dr Graham Spencer is Reader in Social and Political Conflict at the University of Portsmouth. Rev Chris Hudson is minister at All Souls’ Church in Belfast