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There will be a lot more fear politics to come as the party looks increasingly outdated and scrambles to try and prevent its own demise, and Sinn Fein will do what it can to keep that fundamentalism alive to help ensure its own presence and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
Yesterday evening in conjunction with REACH our group welcomed Ulster Scot historian and writer Dr. David Hume.
A former member of a Ministerial Advisory Group on Ulster Scots, he is a former journalist and senior administrator with a large cultural organisation. David was awarded a PhD in 1994 from the University of Ulster in Jordanstown. David told the intriguing story of the Ulster Scots from ancient times, through migrations, battle and siege, the Plantation of Ulster, the 18th century, the emigration of thousands to America, and the radicalism which underpins the Ulster Scots as a community. He also looks at the present position of the cultural community which defines itself as Ulster Scots and where it is going in the future.
A very enjoyable discussion and insight into Ulster Scots.
“Legacy Scandal: ‘London and Dublin must not let IRA snatch victory from jaws of defeat,’ says Ruth Dudley Edwards
In the latest essay in our series, RUTH DUDLEY EDWARDS writes that the NIO has come up with is a Sinn Fein wish list on legacy, but it is not too late to fight back (See below for link to rest of series):
In four decades of following events in Northern Ireland closely, I’ve seen much that appalled me, but the legacy scandal is particularly horrifying.
If the British and Irish governments aren’t shamed into repudiating this squalid monument to appeasement, so ably analysed in this sequence of essays, they will, quite simply, be letting terrorists snatch victory from the jaws of defeat with shocking effects on the future of the whole island.
The IRA leadership isn’t stupid. It knows very well that it was defeated by the security forces and is relentless in its mission to rewrite history so as to persuade the young as well as future generations that it won.
It does this by the perversion of truth, the contamination of evidence and the cynical use of the institutions of a liberal state against its most loyal servants.
I come from an Irish nationalist, Catholic (though not sectarian) background and was born, brought up and educated in Dublin, but in my late 20s I became a British civil servant.
After jumping ship to become a freelance writer I attended innumerable Anglo Irish conferences, and I came to know officials and politicians from both governments — particularly those from the Northern Ireland and Foreign Offices and the Irish Department for Foreign Affairs.
As they worked together before and after the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, I realised that foreign office diplomats were so anxious to see the point of view of the Irish that they were forgetting their duty to stand up for unionism — let alone the security forces who had saved the province from civil war.
It seemed to become widely accepted that the British government must be even-handed but that it was fine for the Irish to be part of a pan-nationalist front with nationalists of all stripes including those of Irish-America.
That attitude became ingrained and goes largely unquestioned. A country that had almost no supervision of its police force supported republican demands to emasculate the RUC and make the PSNI the most scrutinised force in the world.
Latterly, with Fine Gael apparently looking to form a coalition with Sinn Fein after the next election, you have an Irish prime minister opening the West Belfast Festival without one word of criticism of its eulogising of terrorists and bank robbers, and a foreign minister who blunders into disputes about the Irish language and prison conditions for dissidents that are none of his business.
It shocked me in the 1980s how little most diplomats seemed to understand what they were dealing with. John Hume dictated policy to the Department of Foreign Affairs, which persuaded its UK opposite numbers that concessions to nationalism would change the hearts and minds of republicans and that alienating unionists wasn’t a problem since they wouldn’t resort to violence.
In his arrogance, John Hume believed he could persuade republican leaders to follow him: instead, he unwittingly gave them a legitimacy that would ultimately enable them to displace his party.
As a journalist from 1993, I spent time trying to explain to unionists how the southern Irish establishment thought, and to the Irish and British the reality that Sinn Fein was gradually learning how to get its way with diplomats from both jurisdictions (and later, the US) through a mix of charm, cunning and threats.
Neither government seemed to see what was obvious about Drumcree – that republicans were creating the conditions in which they could secretly foment violence, destabilise Northern Ireland, and present themselves on the world stage as victims of bigotry and brutality.
What they succeeded in doing was tapping into the tribalism that is not far under the surface in the Republic. Both governments were in thrall to the peace process, which was used by officials and the nationalist establishment to sweep IRA misdeeds under the carpet.
The few journalists who pointed the finger at paramilitaries were accused of being anti-peace. It was impossible to dislodge the misconception that republicans would embrace peace and become democratic politicians as Irish revolutionaries had in the 1920s.
When Tony Blair swept into power in 1997, determined to become a great peacemaker, it was not long before the republican negotiators who had feared the machinations of Perfidious Albion were sniggering to each other after visits to Downing Street about “The Naïve Idiot”.
As far as the two governments were concerned, the 1998 Belfast agreement was supposed to solve everything, and the default position was to clear every new hurdle with another bribe for Sinn Fein.
When David Trimble was displaced by Ian Paisley, there was no senior unionist negotiator who really understood the republican gameplan. It was on Paisley’s watch that in 2005 the constant republican demand that there be no hierarchy of victims was enshrined in a government document defining a victim as “the surviving physically and psychologically injured of violent, conflict-related incidents and those close relatives or partners who care for them, along with the close relatives or partners who mourn their dead”.
As Sinn Fein diligently continued spinning their lying narrative about the past, as young people were told that the British state was behind most paramilitary murders, that nationalists had had no vote and that the IRA had had to fight for equality and human rights, few unionists did much to make their case in either Dublin or London.
The Sinn Fein leadership directs a ruthless cult intent on gaining power in the Republic and then bullying Northern Ireland into a united Ireland. As the contributors to this series have laid bare, what the NIO has come up with is a Sinn Fein wish list. But it is not too late to fight back.
The DUP are in an unprecedentedly strong position at Westminster and have no excuse for not making the complete revision of these obscene legacy proposals their priority.
They should have a task-force at work studying the many brilliant suggestions that have been made here in order to make truly equitable proposals about how the law can be upheld, the justice system can favour victims rather than perpetrators, the police can be saved from a system designed to discredit them and the story of the troubles can be told by historians.
Few of Sinn Fein’s opponents bother to tell the wider world what is going on here, but it is vital that the republican narrative should be countered at every turn in Dublin and London as well as Belfast.
It’s no good blaming politicians and journalists and civil servants for misrepresenting what happens here.
If you don’t bother to make your case about it publicly, you will lose the argument. Deservedly.
• Ruth Dudley Edwards is a writer and commentator. She is author of The Faithful Tribe: An Intimate Portrait of the Loyal Institutions and her most recent book is The Seven: the lives and legacies of the founding fathers of the Irish republic
On Friday September 28th , Reach UK hosted what is thought to be an inaugural event between a Loyalist Community Group and members of the LGBT community. Held in the Reach office , Newtownards Road, Belfast. As part of their ethos of an inclusive Britishness for all, Reach UK invited members of the PUL and LGBT communities to come together in a spirit of inclusivity and diversity
About 50 guests including youth workers from the Ulster Unionist Party filled the premises to attend the event which had two themes, Ulster Scots Translations and a Life Time Achievement award ,
First up was the presentation of Ulster Scots translations in both electronic / PDF format and framed posters for the offices of Cara Friend , A series of framed posters relating to bullying, suicide awareness, safe school space and the youth work provided by Cara Friend were presented to members of Cara Friend by the renowned author , historian, past MLA , Doctor Ian Adamson OBE, we are very grateful for the translation of the literature into Ulster Scots which Dr Adamson kindly carried out for us via his Pretani Associates community initiative . Cara Friend provides a unique youth service in N.Ireland which supports LGBT young people through one to one support sessions and the provision of safe-space groups. They have over 500 service users with more than 1000 people in receipt of training.
Secondly , to mark the date, Ulster Day , Reach UK launched its inaugural Lifetime Achievement award which will now take place on September 28th each year , the first recipient was Belfast Councillor Jeffrey Dudgeon MBE, a member of NIGRA since 1975, with a background in the Department of Health , Jeffrey won a 1981 landmark case in the European Court of Human Rights which decriminalised homosexual behaviour. This case also set a president in the USA . He is a Unionist Councillor for Balmoral area where he represents all members of the community without fear or favour. A copy of his book on Montgomery Hyde , the Unionist gay rights reformer in the 1950s was presented to the members of Cara Friend . Reach Chairman Jim Wilson presented Jeffrey with a cut glass trophy award inscribed “ for a lifetimes outstanding achievement , promoting the rights of all “ . Jim also highlighted the work of the PUL community through the years in the promotion of rights and a proud arts and cultural tradition we can all be proud of .
It was with sadness that , as referenced by Finola Meredith in her Belfast Telegraph article , a group of Nationalist , Republican and neutral(?) Councillors in Belfast City Hall prepare to celebrate the LGBT community in the form of a stain glass window, that , perhaps the greatest champion of the LGBT community, Jeffrey Dudgeon MBE has been deliberately and cruelly excluded and written out of history by those protesting the most about discrimination and inequality , this simply because he is a Protestant and Unionist , the PUP Councillor Julie Ann Corr-Johnston also is excluded because of her religion — shame , shame, shame .
Happy Ulster day folks.
Ulster’s Solemn League and Covenant, commonly known as the Ulster Covenant, was signed on and before 28 September 1912. The signatories, 471,414 in all were in protest against the Third Home Rule Bill introduced by the British Government in the same year. Sir Edward Carson was the first person to sign the Covenant during a carefully choreographed ceremony at Belfast’s City Hall. Carson marched in military procession toward the hall, behind a flag said to have been carried by King William III’s troops at the Battle of the Boyne.
In the grand entrance he leaned over a circular table, tightly draped in the Union Flag and signed with a silver pen, followed by Lord Londonderry (the former viceroy of Ireland), representatives of the Protestant churches, then by Sir James Craig before the throngs waiting outside were ushered in, 500 at a time, until the doors were closed near midnight.
Women added their names to a separate declaration pledging to associate themselves with the men of Ulster.
We, their descendants, just as they were, are duty bound to defend our country and its people from any perceived threat to our way of life.
We know the war prepared
On ever peaceful home
We know the hells prepared
For such as serve not Rome
The terror, threats, and bread
In market, hearth, and field –
We know, when all is said,
We perish if we yield.
On Sunday 9th September our group took part in a Memorial dedication on the Shore Road, Belfast.
Among its participants was the British Legion, Army cadets, Somme associations, some orange order members and community groups including Dalaradia. The parade was led by the City of Belfast Fifes and Drums flute band.
The procession made its way along the Shore Road, North Queen Street, Limestone, York Road – stopping to lay wreath at the Times bar while continuing on the Shore Road stopping at memorial for dedication.
Lest we forget.