Asked to offer a positive summing up, at the Belfast Salon debate at Belfast Exposed on Tuesday night, I was stuck for something to say. Another contributor, professor of sociology at Queen’s University, Liam O’Dowd commented, with some justification, that my response was rather fatalistic. On reflection, things are not as grim as my conclusion suggested.
Yes, my attitude to the current carve-up at Stormont IS fatalistic. That is different from the type of fatalism, typical of some unionists, which O’Dowd detected. I am not infected by the determinist notion that ’Ulster is sold’, that a united Ireland is inevitable or that Northern Ireland’s future is grim.
On the contrary, I believe that people here will continue to lead productive lives and get on with the project of restoring some form of normality to the province, despite our politicians.
Jason Walsh offered a much better summation, arguing that the current hegemony of the DUP and Sinn Féin is unsustainable, because it doesn’t represent authentic politics, and politics are bound, eventually, to prevail.
Jason echoed a point made by the debate’s chairperson, Pauline Hadaway, who asked whether failure of the current system is not required, in order to underline its futility and emphasise the necessity for something different. Pauline’s idea has merit.
The Belfast Agreement established the principle of power-sharing. It entrenched certain requirements for equality of aspiration. However, ultimately, the structures which it put in place actually institutionalise the sectarianism which the agreement was supposed to overcome.
At Belfast Exposed, I argued that Voluntary Coalition is a necessary next step, if we are to provide the politics which people in Northern Ireland deserve. It is doubtful that we are yet ready to jettison designation in the Assembly. We can, however, operate a system of government and opposition within the confines of community safeguards.
The interesting aspect of Tuesday night’s debate was that each of the panellists aspired to politics which are not dominated by the constitutional issue. Our differences arose when we were asked how we would achieve that goal. For Malachi O’Doherty, the solution lay in the reinstatement of the Civic Forum.
In contrast, Jason and I were sceptical about a power-grab by civil society, but we argued that our regional politics require more involvement in a broader national framework in order to flourish. Of course my preferred framework is the United Kingdom, Jason’s is a 32 county Irish Republic. Small but significant details!
Liam O’Dowd suggested that a subvention from the British treasury is effectively subsidising our exceptional politics. He implied that greater fiscal responsibility within Northern Ireland would hasten the development of new, more conventional, political faultlines.
The difficulty, as a member of the audience observed, is that very few people in Northern Ireland consider it a standalone entity. I hardly think that SNP style, ‘devolution max’ is a panacea for our problems.
The truth is that the DUP, at least, is taking a beating at the polls, because it is commonly perceived that devolution is not working as it should. As yet Sinn Féin has emerged relatively unscathed, despite scandals which would have rocked most other groups.
Still, I am hopeful that if rival parties can make themselves relevant, by addressing the type of issues which dominated the discussion on Tuesday evening, then they can offer something which will make voters’ trip to the polls worthwhile. Otherwise we are stuck at the DUP / SF dead-end. And that prospect could bring the fatalism out in anyone!
A piece for Forth Magazine.