Northern Ireland's culture of low expectations
Northern Ireland achieved a milestone this year. Another proud, shining achievement to add to the long list. At the time of writing we’ve had 589 days without a government, a record for a European country during peacetime.
Holding the record for “longest time without a government” is a tough job, but someone’s gotta do it.
The limbo we live in is having a real, damaging effect on our public services and way of life. A decision to give NHS staff a 6.5% pay rise in Great Britain can’t be looked at here because there isn’t a health minister. The lack of an Assembly is wreaking havoc on our education system. People’s livelihoods are on the line because Stormont isn’t working.
Gaining in momentum on social media over the past few weeks, the #WeDeserveBetter campaign is calling for Northern Ireland’s politicians to get back round the table and get back into government. A day of action has been called for today, August 28th. The campaign has been endorsed by Belfast Live and has been featured heavily in papers like the Belfast Telegraph and Daily Mirror.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with wanting the Assembly to return. I would rather have our government back, imperfect and annoying, than what we have now. I just can't get excited about a campaign that calls for the return of the Assembly under the guise of bringing about a better era for Northern Ireland, while offering no meaningful change or reform. Is this really the sum of our ambitions?
There’s something painfully realistic about #WeDeserveBetter. It’s the cry of a population so ground down and fed up that it has lowered its expectations to the bare minimum. Such is the depth of our political malaise that basic, functioning government, led by the two parties that got us into this mess in the first place, is dressed up with the language of utopia. A utopia that doesn’t even include the people who’ve been fighting for better since before the Assembly even existed.
We Deserve Better courted controversy over the past week when it disinvited speakers from The Rainbow Project and Belfast Feminist Network. It was claimed the speakers were told that their platforms were too divisive and that the campaign wanted to focus on the restoration of the Assembly. There was more controversy on the 25th August 2018 when a Trade Union activist was disinvited from speaking at the rally when she appeared to disagree with an anonymous poll about MLA pay.
Organiser Dylan Quinn is now saying that this was all down to miscommunication and is now saying that the campaign will be calling for abortion reform and equal marriage. This doesn’t, however, appear to be the main message from people touting the campaign online.
Does anybody outside the internet bubble care about these sorts of problems? Who knows. Either way, it’s all been very confusing. Whatever happened, some activists have come away with a bitter taste in their mouths.
I’m not an activist by any means. When I have attended rallies and protests I nearly always see a Trade Union flag, a pride flag and a crowd of people standing beside the Belfast Feminist Network banner. Often, the people holding these banners know each other. Some of them will tell you that they have attended rallies with veterans of the Northern Ireland Women’s Rights movement and Civil Rights Movement who have been protesting for decades.
One thing that I’ve learned, even after attending a few protests, is that activists here consider their struggles to be interlinked. Pro Choice activists support the fight for equal marriage. LGBT activists support the #trustwomen campaign. They go to Black Lives Matters protests, they protest against education cuts and Donald Trump. You can’t fight one fight, I’ve learned, and ignore the rest.
We Deserve Better is trying to stand on ground built for it by a tradition it rejects. It feels distant from what came before.
Is returning Northern Ireland to 2015 really the best we can do? Even when we had a functioning government thousands of people languished on waiting lists and suffered from education cuts. The welfare reform bill, given royal assent in 2015, has brought about a welfare system that is nasty and cruel. People were saying we deserved better when the Assembly was functional. 2015 did not represent everything good and wonderful about Northern Ireland.
We are used to less here, used to normalising behaviour and situations that would be unacceptable elsewhere. Small, even minor achievements uplift us when others would shrug. I am not churlish enough to dismiss the fact that our parents dreamed about what we have now. Our imperfect peace is precious, and I am grateful. It still feels as though if we’ve internalised our low expectations and made them a national gold standard.
There will always be a debate about whether it is better to achieve small goals bit by bit or aim high and go for it. Either way, people shouldn’t be afraid to ask for more, to expect more than what they have. Not doing so makes our politicians lazy and our society the worse for it.