Building a future together
The next few months promise to some of the most exciting in Northern Ireland’s history. At long last, despite all the setbacks, we are finally in reach of an agreement in the Talks. We are closer to an historic breakthrough than at any time since 1973.
This current phase of Talks has lasted almost two years. Despite all the play acting, walk-outs and refusal to engage on substantive issues from many, the process is still on course. Both the British and Irish Governments have invested so much political capital in achieving a positive outcome, with the assistance of the Americans. The three independent Chairmen have made an enormous contribution to our forthcoming success. If some of Northern Ireland’s politicians throw this precious opportunity away, it will be hard our people to forgive them.
The shape of this agreement has been clear for quite some time: power-sharing regional government, accountable North-South arrangements, protections for human rights and entrenchment of the right of the people of Northern Ireland to democratically decide their own future, i.e. the principle of Consent. Alliance has been arguing for all of these principles for many years.
The significance of political parties from right across the community can agree on a new set of institutions for Northern Ireland, and the people of Ireland both North and South say ‘Yes’ in a referendum will be enormous. For the first time, all the people of the island will be agreeing on a common way forward. A powerful message will be sent to the paramilitaries, both Republican and Loyalist, that your violence can serve no political purpose.
These new institutions will not by themselves solve all of Northern Ireland’s problems. There are many social and economic problems remain to be tackled. Many of our politicians have neglected such issues as they have concentrated on constitutional and security issues. Northern Ireland will remain a deeply divided society. The cancers of tribalism and sectarianism that plague our society must be addressed.
Our new system of government will give the people of Northern Ireland the tools to build a new society. We will be given the opportunity to construct a new future together. Alliance is committed to helping them in this task of building a fair, just, peaceful and prosperous society.
But there are many obstacles to be faced. It can be anticipated that extreme Unionism and extreme Nationalism could join forces in some unholy alliance to bring the hard-earned agreements crashing down.
It is not enough to have an ‘historic compromise’ on institutions of government if the people of Northern Ireland are thrown into mutually opposed tribes. There is substantial evidence from other countries’ experiences with power-sharing that the more rigid the divisions within society, the more unstable that system of government will become. In Northern Ireland, we have the added problem of competing claims for self-determination. Success in our new experiment will depend upon increasing the pluralism within Northern Ireland and mutual acceptance of the principle of Consent.
Already, there is much more pluralism within Northern Ireland than people frequently imagine. Not everyone identifies themselves with Unionism or Nationalism, many people reject tribal politics and become frustrated when other people attempt to label or pigeon-hole them. Furthermore, neither Unionism nor Nationalism are monolithic blocs.
Yet, many people persist in describing Northern Ireland in terms of a ‘two communities’ problem. As if it was not bad enough that the ‘troubles’ have deepened the polarisation in our society, the use of such language creates and reinforces mindsets of division and separation. Perhaps it suits the agendas of some people, but it is deeply damaging to building a common sense of community within Northern Ireland.
Alliance believes that it is important that people are allowed to break out of tribal constraints, that such steps are acknowledged and appreciated, and that they are not disenfranchised or lose any political rights as a result of these choices.
We have been careful in the Talks to ensure that in the forthcoming system of government sectarian divisions or a ‘two communities’ analysis are not entrenched. These structures must on the one hand recognise that there are deep divisions within society, but be flexible enough to accommodate and even encourage a realignment of our political system away from one based on sectarianism to competing perspectives on how to deal with social and economic problems.
Policies pursued by the new Assembly and North-South body should be appraised on the basis of sharing v separation. Will they help overcome the sectarianism and segregation endemic in so many aspects of our society or further add to these problems? The promotion of integrated education is a central objective.
Northern Ireland’s politicians have so far neglected its many social and economic problems. Alliance has called for a strong devolved Assembly with legislative and tax-varying powers to give public representatives the opportunity to shape society. No one seriously believes that Northern Ireland can survive and prosper without help from outside. But we in Northern Ireland need to escape from our dependency culture, and take more respsonsibility for our own actions. It is important that decisions, where possible and efficient, should be taken as close as possible to the people they affect.
We all need to turn our minds to the values that we want to underline Northern Ireland society, post-agreement. For a liberal party such as Alliance, these are straightforward. We must look to a liberal society based on respect for the individual, no matter what culture he or she chooses to identify with, tolerance for diversity, and respect and protection for everyone’s human rights. We need to foster a entreprenurial spirit to help in the creation of wealth, and the social conscience to ensure that everyone has a stake in society and has equality of opportunity, particularly access to free and quality health care and education.
Lord Alderdice is Leader of the Alliance Party.