I was happy to attend the Sinn Fein Youth Congress in March as someone who has been a community worker in what would commonly be called a “PUL” area for ten years; as a member of the Alliance Party; but most of all as a mother of two children. The topic was “reconciliation”.
The first step to what is generally called “reconciliation”, I think, is to recognize the last of those designations. We have become too used to dismissing other human beings. It is too easy to ignore someone else’s view simply because of that person’s label – “Unionist”, “Republican”, “British” or whatever. Of course, we all have our backgrounds, but the legitimacy of our views – however challenging – must be determined objectively and rationally on merit, not on the assumed label of the speaker. That does not mean that all views are equally legitimate – some, on rational reflection, have more merit than others. But it does mean that everyone has an equal right to express one!
I do wonder about the word “reconciliation”. Were we ever truly “conciled”? We grow up with our identities, they are not generally rationally chosen. None of that makes our identity any less real, of course. Every national identity is conditioned by upbringing in this way – it is just that, in Northern Ireland, we have two prime national identities rather than one. The notion that Republicans are merely guests in “British Ulster”, or that Unionists are Irish people who just got confused a bit, needs to be consigned absolutely to history. The constitutional question, and dealing with the past and working through all the other things which we tend to divide upon along the usual sectarian fault lines, cannot and will not be settled by emotional arguments suggesting people are not who they are! If we are to be “conciled”, we need to accept and indeed even rejoice in our unusual status as a jurisdiction with two principal national identities. And let us be clear, we will support Rory McIlroy in the Olympics just as we supported the rower Alan Campbell and the boxer Paddy Barnes – whether or not we share their chosen national identity, we do share their homeland! It is worth reflecting on that point.
What should “Loyalists” do and what should “Republicans” do to “concile”? Loyalists – by which I mean people who live in majority-Protestant, inner-city communities with typically poor levels of education and health – have suffered from very poor political leadership from the main Unionist parties (something which perhaps explains both my decision to join and my decision to leave the UUP). This concerns a range of areas, notably education, but it also includes the fact that they have come scarcely to recognize the country they live in. The constant refrain that this is “our country” – by which they mean a “British (and really Loyalist) country”, does not do justice to the intertwined nature of our relationships, nor to the dual national identity that we all signed up to (including the so-called “Loyalist” parties) in 1998. Loyalists have to come to terms with the fact “our country” includes Loyalists, Unionists, Protestants and British people – but not exclusively! In fact, for this to be “our country”, they have to find an accommodation with all those with whom they share a homeland. We are citizens of the same homeland – equal citizens.
However, you should be under no illusions that the path for “Republicans” is just as challenging. My family lived under security threats from “Republicans”, like many others. My father’s “offence” was that he was a businessman trying to make our homeland work! I suspect most of you would accept that was ludicrous. So, take that a bit further and ask yourselves this – if the Enniskillen bombing was wrong, which parts of that campaign were “right”?
That does not mean the “Loyalist” and “Republican” traditions are all or even mainly bad. On the contrary, part of the healing process should be restoring the strong points of each. Loyalists do have a proud military and industrial heritage, notably in World War One and around shipbuilding and other manufacturing. Of course, they fought alongside friends and relatives from every part of Ireland; and their manufacturing effort included their Catholic and Republican fellow countrymen. Republicans derive from an enlightened, cross-community political tradition based on notions of citizenship and freedom which are sharply at odds from the ethnic nationalism so-called “Republicans” too often promote. Daily, I seek to find ways to help young Loyalists focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of their heritage. Here, I would ask you, as young Republicans, also to focus on the prouder, inclusive aspects of your heritage. Many people most “loyal” to the cause in World War One were Irish Catholics; many “Republican” leaders prior to that were Protestant. So why is it that essentially no modern “Republicans” are Protestant? Whatever it is that has gone wrong, on each side, can be put right. But first we have to identify, and accept, what went wrong.
In closing, I am not here representing the Alliance Party but I would like to say a few words about it. In the past three months, our party membership has grown by more than 10%, the fastest growth since foundation. Naturally this is welcome, but it dramatically changes the party – as people who are openly “Unionist” and openly “Nationalist” choose to join the party in the interests of a “shared future”. This changes us – it moves us away from being a party of the “neither” or “none” to the party of the “both” and “all”. Where once the Alliance Party was a default home for those who rejected “Unionism” and “Nationalist”, it now incorporates them. That will be a challenge – the “change challenge” – as the party comes to assess issues of identity, symbolism and so on in a way it had never done before.
The Alliance Party stands for a “Shared Future”. This does mean “equality”, “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and so on – but it also means judging people on merit, incorporating a sense of fair play, not being afraid to reward hard work and efficiency, even promoting a dose of good old common sense! A “Shared Future” – and indeed “parity of esteem”, “reconciliation” and “equality” – is the precise opposite of “Nationalism”. “Nationalism” seeks to promote the values and interests of one particular “nation” (or, in our case, “community”), in the worst case suggesting these are superior to another nation’s or community’s and even in the best case suggesting they can be “equalized” with those of another nation in a way always bound to create instability. A “Shared Future”, on the other hand, seeks to promote the values and interests of everyone, as equal citizens of the same homeland. So here is your “change challenge” – are the values of Irish Republicanism, in its traditional form, more adequately represented by the narrow interests of “Nationalism” or the broad interests of a “Shared Future”? I think it’s the latter!
Finally, therefore, my own work is to broaden the appeal of Loyalism – as once the focal point of an outward-looking industrial and trading heritage; and to broaden the appeal of a “Shared Future” – to incorporate rather than reject people’s various identities. If you could broaden the appeal of Republicanism, and make its past as an outward-looking, radical, civic tradition more relevant to the future, I think that future will be very bright.
In the latest “Together Building a United Community” proposals from OFMDFM there remains very little detail, but also a particular concern that a “united community” concerns only bringing together “Protestants” and “Catholics”. This does not reflect the reality of modern Northern Ireland.
Firstly, modern Northern Ireland, not least in inner-city areas, is also home to recent immigrants from other countries and to people who simply cannot be reasonably identified as “Protestant” or “Catholic”. Implicit in what little we have seen of the proposals is that people who do not neatly fit into one “side” or the other should be forgotten about. This simply does not reflect the contemporary situation.
Secondly, there is more to the issue than faith. For example, not only is the sectarian divide reinforced by the education system, but so is the class divide – is there any chance of agreement on education reform? Health inequalities continue as a marker of social and economic disparities – is there any chance of a serious anti-poverty strategy? There are often rivalries merely between neighbourhoods. Segregation exists along many more lines that the “traditional” ones. What have the proposals to say about all of this?
A serious set of “Shared Future” proposals would pay a lot more attention to the reality of the present. There is a lot of positive work going on in community relations, but the challenge is to bring people together in a “united community” from all sorts of backgrounds, not just along a single dividing line. That is the objective – can our political leaders rise to it?
Is running a political party easy? Think about what goes into merely delivering, say, 10,000 leaflets in a particular constituency.
Someone has to manage the process of writing the content; a team has to go out and get the relevant photographs of the relevant campaigners (probably over several days); someone has to determine where they are to be delivered; the local Association has to ensure it has enough people right across the constituency to deliver them; maps and delivery routes have to be drawn up to ensure no cross-posting; someone has to oversee the printing and dispersal to the deliverers; and of course a few people have to have raised the money in the first place to pay for the print run (ideally in colour, of course). This requires a combination of good management, political experience and a large number of willing volunteers. It is far from straightforward!
There has been raised discussion, given recent events, of new parties in Northern Ireland. This is far from new – when I myself left the UUP in 2010, discussions had long been on-going about the potential for a new party. However, over nearly three years, they have remained just that – discussions. This is at least partly because running a political party, or even an Association of a political party, is no small undertaking and requires a lot of volunteers to be effective. Before even asking where any “new” party would fit on the spectrum, some key practical questions need to be asked.
Firstly, a new party will need volunteers. Leaflet delivery is only a minor challenge, compared to the real need to be out knocking on doors, collecting polling data and engaging with the public at civic events. This will require literally hundreds of volunteers who are prepared not just to meet for the odd lunch or write the odd letter, but to go out regularly – in the wind and the rain – and do the groundwork. Where are these people?
Secondly, to do any of this, it will need funds. Even a basic electoral campaign costs tens of thousands, usually a six-figure sum. Add to this basic running and administration costs on an on-going basis (even just for printing leaflets etc), and the turnover required is not insignificant – and even this excludes research funds (below). Where are these funds to be raised?
Thirdly, a point which is often understated – such a party will require information. Without any prospect of an Executive seat or even a Committee Chair in the near future, a new party will be poorly informed at legislative level compared to the established parties. This brings with it the need for highly knowledgeable research personnel and further funds to enable them to carry out their information and policy work. After all, you cannot develop meaningful policy if you do not know what is going on at the heart of government! How could a new party match the research resources of established parties who have access to public funds and information for this work?
Fourthly, outside a few constituencies, such a party would have no reputation for delivery “on the ground”. When Unionists in East Belfast turned away from Peter Robinson they had the choice of a well-respected, high-profile Unionist candidate in Trevor Ringland – yet they chose Alliance’s Naomi Long. They did so because of her nine years’ hard work for people “on the ground”. If a new coalition didn’t stand a chance against that, what chance a whole new party?
Fifthly, it will have to be administered – so it will need to recruit people with knowledge and experience of the legalities electoral returns, the practicalities of good corporate governance and the management of sound financial arrangements, as well as a willingness to risk a career move to a party not yet off the ground. Where are these people?
Finally, even after all this, you have to be sure you are offering something new to the electorate that no one else offers, while at the same time being broad enough to make you attractive to voters in sufficient numbers. If you are “Unionist”, what makes you different from the DUP? If you are “Republican” what makes you different from Sinn Fein? If you are for a “Shared Future”, what makes you different from the Alliance Party? If you are so sure your distinct approach and policies are capable of gaining widespread support among the electorate, why do you think none of the established parties is offering it?
It is not as if this has not happened before. 20 years ago, the “national” Conservatives were the largest party in North Down Council; 15 years ago, the “integrationist” UK Unionist Party briefly held as many legislative seats as the Alliance Party; 10 years ago, the “non-sectarian” Women’s Coalition held two Assembly seats; yet within an electoral cycle they had each lost all their elected representatives. They, alongside the UPNI, UDP, NIUP and others, all show how difficult it is without the membership base, the funds, the researchers, the reputation on the ground and the electoral knowledge. This is even more the case when the reason you exist loses relevance, or when a larger party adopts your position, or when a main rival sorts itself out. Why would a new party now be any different?
Who knows, perhaps it is time for a new party to appeal to one particular segment of the electorate or another. However, those on the sidelines must realise that establishing a new party is much easier called for than delivered. It is only possible when all the above questions can be satisfactorily answered. Can they, really?
Sinn Fein’s recent call for a ‘Border Poll’ in three years is outside the terms of the 1998 Agreement, and is every bit as inflammatory as the delivery of leaflets targeting the Alliance Party on false grounds. Like those leaflets, it constitutes a deliberate attempt at raising tensions for an unattainable goal within this time-frame, causing untold harm by so doing. The fundamental problem is that politicians on either “side” of the sectarian divide are simply not telling people the truth!
Sinn Fein is, of course, democratically entitled to campaign for a Border Poll and there would be nothing at all wrong with a rational debate about it. However, anyone with even the remotest comprehension of Northern Ireland knows perfectly well that, if such a debate were held ahead of a referendum right now, it would be anything but rational. That is why the conditions required for the so-called “Border Poll” were so rigidly enshrined within the 1998 Agreement; conditions which state that there has to be evidence that it would lead to a change. No such evidence exists.
On 3 December, for the first time in the history of Ireland, Irish Republicans voted to fly the Union Flag over a Civic Building in line with the Crown’s own recommendations and in line with local authorities across the UK. That is what actually happened – think about this for a second! But how rational was the “debate” which followed? How should “confident Unionism” have responded to this obvious triumph?
Northern Ireland remains a fundamentally divided society. People’s choices – educationally, socially, politically and even constitutionally – remain more often than not conditioned by their “background”. Whenever that background is perceived to be under threat, however real that threat may be, there is potential for disruption and even violence. Sinn Fein proposing a three-year campaign at this time appears to confirm the fears of so many of the protestors that the “spectre” of a United Ireland is looming – even when, rationally, we know that it isn’t.
Any parent would know that the real issues we face are jobs, not flags; education, not symbols; health, not street names. Yet children are allowed out to block roads night after night, depriving themselves of training and education, and risking a criminal record. This is not the rational thing to do – but in the history of Northern Ireland, it is what happens when fear enters a community which perceives itself to be under threat.
To be clear, some Unionist Leaders are hardly helping matters with the suggestion that a return to the old days – in general, or specifically through things such as 365-day flag flying – is an option. We have seen this through, for example, the DUP bringing this to the Assembly Commission at Stormont – also at the height of recent tensions. To overcome the fear, change towards a better Northern Ireland has to be promoted, not manipulated. One of the biggest frustrations in inner-city, majority-Protestant communities is quite simply that people are not being told the truth!
Far from suggesting constitutional change is nigh, the census in fact suggests people are becoming ever more content with a “Northern Irish” identity, and that the key priority for politicians should not be inflaming tensions over flags or mock campaigns for “Border Polls”, but actually tackling the real issues around jobs, education and health that are most people’s daily focus. If politicians were to deliver tens of thousands of leaflets demanding better educational facilities, or calling for local polls on health provision, this would be a mark of a truly functioning, democratic society – this would remove the fear which is so much in evidence on the streets currently.
There is no justification for a single road to be blocked, but we should be clear: one of the reasons for the on-going protests is the straightforward point that too many politicians are not doing their job and people feel they do not know who to trust. Now, more than ever, we need politicians prepared to stop raising false expectations and instead to tell the people they represent the truth!
I am the very proud mother of two children – an elder son, and a younger daughter. The age gap is nearly three years.
Soon after my daughter was born, my son was able to walk in and out of her room more or less as he pleased. After all, it is his house and it is his right. No one was worried because he caused no trouble and no damage, certainly not deliberately.
In later years, as any parent of children of different genders knows, this began to change. He began deliberately intervening when her friends were around; he began deliberately obstructing her from doing what she wanted to do; he began, frankly, being a bit of a nuisance sometimes. Inevitably this led to a situation where I, as both children’s mother, had to adjudicate on this childish behaviour. I had to determine whether his protestations of innocence were genuine; I had to determine whether she was over-stating the problem; I had to determine what the appropriate bounds of his entering her room would be. There was no doubt that he still had every right to do so, even theoretically when he was not wanted, but not if he was setting out deliberately to cause her offence or nuisance.
I seriously doubt, by the way, that every one of my own determinations was fair. There are no doubt times when I allowed him to cause nuisance for too long; there are also no doubt times she over-reacted and I was too hard on him; but in the end, someone had to determine these things and do so, on the basis of experience, as fairly as possible.
Needless to say this was another weekend when I had to determine whether his initial actions were appropriate: whether he had breached rules I had previously laid down for him; whether she had over-reacted; and what penalty if any would be appropriate. As any parent knows, it is not easy. While I admit I may not always get it right, I would not appreciate some outsider intervening on behalf of either child and suggesting that someone else should make these determinations!
I should note that, on the vast majority of occasions, they do behave reasonably; most of the time they get on perfectly well in her room, watching videos or playing games. If they behaved reasonably all the time, there would be no need for me to make any determinations at all. As they get older, the need for me to intervene becomes more infrequent. Nevertheless, the simple fact remains that until they reach full maturity, my adjudications are still sometimes needed as a last resort, when there is no agreement between them.
My reasoning for opposing Elected Mayors during the week was specific to Northern Ireland, but nevertheless I was pleased to see them largely rejected in England.
The whole campaign smacks, as too often, of politicians trying to solve problems which none of the voters actually believes to exist. No one could explain how an elected mayor would help pay the mortgage, help secure the nursery place, or help fund the MS drug a family member desperately needs. Because, of course, it wouldn’t.
Such reforms were part of the Conservatives’ attempts to look modern. They have actually merely contributed to the Conservatives looking detached. This was why I was so staggered to hear Dawn Purvis was on against me on the subject!
Let’s get on to the real issues.
I was delighted to appear on BBC Radio Ulster Talkback to discuss the issue of elected Mayors.
Although it has its moments of controversy, our particular system of rotating, civic mayors has generally been a chink of democratic light even during our darkest days. People of all backgrounds across all districts have, usually at least, been able to feel represented by their first citizen at least occasionally. Indeed, it could be argued that the system has encouraged some to reach out – such as Alex Maskey laying a wreath at the cenotaph or Ian Stevenson attending a Hurling final. It is important that we do not lose this with RPA.
Elected Mayors would, essentially, be a return to majority rule and would play out carve up in Northern Ireland – with districts becoming clearly “Unionist” or “Nationalist” all the time (even if the minority were, say, 40%). This is because they bring with them a degree of executive power (otherwise there isn’t any point in having them) which puts a lot of control into a single person’s hands. The nature of our divided society is that that person would not even seriously attempt to be representative of the whole district. Power sharing would simply cease to exist – a reversal of all the lessons learned over the past 30-40 years. I have to say I find the Green Party’s stated enthusiasm for this reversal at best naive and at worst outright dangerous.
It is questionable whether Elected Mayors are really a good idea other than in the largest cities. They are essentially an importation of the American Presidential system into the British (and indeed Irish) Parliamentary model – an immediate clash. In a true world city like London I think the system works well, as the whole metropolis needs a figurehead and a decision maker; however, elsewhere the jury is out. Besides, do we really have a spare £60,000 in the pot from the ratepayers of your average small town to pay an Executive Mayor? Do we really want still more elections?
In the end, I cannot help but think the whole debate misses the point.