Of course we're stuck in the past
Last week, Alex Kane wrote in the News Letter that “‘the Good Friday generation’ is as stuck in the past as anyone else”. As a member of that generation, his piece gave me pause for thought.
Young people in Northern Ireland are always expected to be the imminent panacea to the strife which has dogged us since partition. It's as if growing up against a backdrop of anything less than all-out armed conflict has somehow excluded us from that conflict’s lasting effects. While it would be unfair to ignore the fact that many young people in Northern Ireland are outspoken and hard-working activists committed to causes such as reproductive rights, marriage equality, and anti-austerity socialism, it is also worth noting that hand-waving “Young People Are The Future” rhetoric is essentially a nice way of kicking the can down the road - as in “sure, why worry about the state of things now - the Young People’ll sort it!”
But, as Kane notes, we probably won’t because we already aren’t. The mere fact that we didn’t live in the past doesn’t excuse us from engaging with it.
“So why can’t we all just get along?”
People my age have heard this question all their lives. In many cases they’ve asked it themselves. After all, wasn’t reconciliation one of the chief goals of the peace process? What have we been doing for the last twenty years, if not that?
But reconciliation means more than “just getting along”. It means making disparate beliefs, ideas and histories fit and work together. You can’t have one kind of reconciliation without the other. The problem of the past is a question of epistemology - whose version of the past becomes canonical, who becomes celebrated, vilified or forgotten. We’ve seen this played out in the last week in particular with debate around the “ownership” and legacy of the Northern Irish Civil Rights Association.
The wholesale acceptance of one version of history can never achieve reconciliation, and nor is it an adequate substitute. No one single political tradition can achieve reconciliation on its own. Neither can two single political traditions, hunkered down in their respective ideological trenches, popping their heads over the parapet only to take cheap shots at one another.
The mechanics of the Good Friday Agreement, though intended to put a check on supremacist discrimination, have served to enshrine division - the continued electoral dominance of the DUP and Sinn Fein entrenches it. Far from pluralist consociationalism, the DUP-SF model of power-sharing is a carve-up that excludes any diversity of opinion outside of their own agendas. While the problems within the Good Friday Agreement are arguably a once-necessary evil, a small price to pay for peace in 1998, a forgivable limitation of what should have been a provisional setup, the DUP-SF mandate is a self-inflicted condition in which the majority of people of voting age in Northern Ireland are wholly complicit. As Kane says, “we are choosing stalemate”.
The problems facing us demand imaginative solutions, but the conversation has been narrowed so drastically as to utterly prevent imagination. The loudest voices in our political class, the regional media that amplifies them, and the lumpen public’s vacillation between defeatist cynicism and parroting party lines all serve to perpetuate a cycle, a widening gyre which spins the discourse further towards the extremes of the Big Two.
For too many people, ‘unionism’ has become a byword for the DUP’s particular brand of evangelical British nationalist conservatism, and ‘nationalism’ and ‘republicanism’ are practically indistinguishable from one another, what with the IRA apologia and politicking that is Sinn Fein’s stock in trade. ‘Equality’, ‘diversity’ and ‘representation’ have been so diluted that they are now basically synonyms for the hegemony enjoyed by these two parties. Such a limited vocabulary is wholly insufficient to present a description, let alone a solution, to the depth and breadth of issues urgently demanding attention in Northern Ireland.
Unionist and nationalist conceptions of the past and present are not incompatible, with each other or with other political thought. There is no inherent contradiction between Irishness and unionism, no essential ideological link between unionism and cultural conservatism. Disagreement on the constitutional question does not preclude agreement on other issues: we can argue that the union with Britain delivers economic and welfare benefits to the people of Northern Ireland while agreeing that the British Armed Forces committed inexcusable atrocities in Northern Ireland for which they should be held accountable. We can campaign for the reunification of Ireland while still agreeing that various militant republican groups caused unjustifiable misery and suffering. We can remain agnostic on the constitutional question while still committing ourselves to the wellbeing and representation of the people who live in this country. We can build a robust and humane understanding of our shared history that acknowledges the experiences of people from all backgrounds in service of a pluralist politics that values the wellbeing of the people over petty cultural victory.
We can do that, but we won’t.
We won’t do it because, if and when we vote, we keep voting for the DUP and for Sinn Fein. We won’t do it because we think it has to be one extreme or the other. We won’t do it because we think it has to be both.
Unionist and nationalist histories are not necessarily contradictory. DUP and Sinn Fein histories absolutely are. It is not reasonable to try and synthesise two viewpoints that are so utterly antithetical. What basis is that for good government? Where does that leave the rest of us, those who don’t want to sit at either end of the ideological seesaw?
Why can’t we all just get along?
We can. Easily. But our supposed leaders can’t, and they won’t.
It is not possible to overcome Us and Them politics if we keep empowering Us and Them politicians.
Besides, yesterday’s Us and Them are now really all just Them. Their cultural differences may be as insurmountable as ever, but they are united in their total disinterest in really representing all of Us.
The solution to our problems is not to be found waiting for the DUP and Sinn Fein to find common ground that does not exist. It isn’t to be found waiting for them to do anything. They have made it very clear that they can’t share power, that they won’t share power, so power should not and can not be entrusted to them.
It is time to end the deadlock. It is time to end the carve-up. It is time to end the enshrinement and entrenchment of sectarian politics in even its most benign forms. It is long past time.
The DUP and Sinn Fein have taken more than a year to hash out some kind of agreement. If we are to stand any hope at all of building a pluralist society in Northern Ireland that works for everyone in the country, if we are to achieve any real, meaningful and lasting kind of reconciliation, we cannot keep counting on politicians who have proven themselves so unwilling to work to that end.
We can’t wait for an agreement. Even if it comes tomorrow, it’ll be too late.
We can’t wait for The Young People to take the reins. The Good Friday generation aren’t the first young people and we won’t be the last. We might be stuck in the past, but if we do the work and address that past, all of us, now, maybe the next lot can get stuck in to the future.
Wouldn’t that be nice?