Northern peace process a stalemate between enemies who loathe each other
Opinion: Progress requires an unambiguous understanding that the future is shared
Fri, May 3, 2013
Fifteen years after the Belfast Agreement and more than six years into devolution, the storm clouds are gathering. Austerity has robbed Northern Ireland of the “happy shiny people” rhetoric of 1998. But the malaise is deeper. In spite of huge efforts, there is a gaping hole where there should be answers to the question, “where next?”
The peace process has seen things that seemed unthinkable become commonplace. It was as if the long night had ended. So why, if things are so good, do things feel so bad? And what should be done? The answers take us into the heart of the carefully worked “non-agreements” at the heart of the peace process: no agreement about the future, and none about the past. Indeed, the prize of agreeing to share power depended on not agreeing about them.
Revisiting national aspirations to accommodate others would have stopped negotiations in their tracks. The mantra that “you do not have to change and neither do I” was presented first as wisdom, second as morality and third as obvious. It was clever politics, but nonsense.
Without change, the peace process is a stalemate between enemies who loathe each other. Without a shared basis for mutual accommodation, there are just contradictory visions of the future wrestling for supremacy. And there is a significant risk that more incidents such as the flag riots will explode.
The only way to keep negotiations going was to admit nothing and demand nothing.Official silence seemed good politics. But endless recrimination in practice still suggests that the agreement traded a just war for an unjust peace.
The priority was to get the show on the road. Then the impossible could be managed into the possible. A combination of political agreement, international support and unexpected symbols of partnership allowed new things to happen. Economic life returned. Miracles happened at interfaces. Yet perhaps the clearest signals came from private investors. The peace dividend, when it came, went mostly to quieter places. The cleavage in socioeconomic experience between conflict zones and the less contentious suburbs continued or even deepened.
Over time, community initiatives to create breathing space at the interface were no longer novel but tired. Connections between local leaders now looked like gate-keeping. New initiatives in policing were undermined by confrontations over parades. The need to assert that “we won” prevented any serious initiatives to create a shared future. We opted for community control and separation over integrated schools or shared housing, kept celebrating the past as if we were still enemies.
Progress now requires an unambiguous understanding across the political leadership that the future is shared – the North will have to reflect its hybrid British and Irish character in everything it does.
The legacy of violence in the past has to be faced, requiring political agreement on prosecutions and amnesty, agreement on expectations for victims and the reintegration of paramilitaries and their organisations into democratic community life. Perhaps more creatively, we might agree to celebrate the end of violence, so that cultures which developed in hostility acknowledge that they have now changed, committed to a more important relationship of equality and acceptance. A shared future requires:
- Sustained effort to develop free and equal access to public and residential space. This is an issue of the rule of law as well as housing and public services.
- Planning education to make meeting and friendship for children from all backgrounds a real possibility in schools and youth services.
- Formal agreement on symbols and cultural celebrations relating to nationality and religion to prevent them being understood as discriminatory or violent.
The alternative of a deteriorating climate of inter-community relations, sporadic serious violence, ongoing terror and abnormal policing, mutual recrimination and the potential for worse is real and obvious. It would be a tragic conclusion to a noble attempt at a new beginning.
Duncan Morrow is director of community engagement at the school of criminology, politics and social policy at the University of Ulster