It's time to move on from the stale politics of peace

28 Apr 2015 Guest Author    Last updated: 6 Jul 2015

John McCallister

Independent MLA John McCallister calls for a realignment of politics in Northern Ireland and has some harsh words for the Make it Work campaign. 

Government and party politics in Northern Ireland are stuck in the tribal divisions of Northern Ireland’s past, but they are also stuck in the patterns and preoccupations of the Peace Process.

The Structures of Government created in 1998 were born out of peace process negotiations; they were designed to provide a pathway from violence to peace, from mistrust to consensus.

In reality the political institutions of Stormont have achieved much in delivering peace and relative stability, but, they have also frozen in time the divisions which existed 1998; in doing so they have created ineffective government and a body politic hooked on peace process style negotiations.

How do we change things? There is no easy solution, however, I firmly believe that changing the institutions of government, to provide for an Executive bound by collective cabinet responsibility, signed up to a negotiated and real Programme for Government,  held to account by an official opposition that can offer itself as an alternative, would be making real progress.

Such a change would force our politicians to focus in social and economic policies instead of – or at least as well as – tribal divisions. It would also create room for different parties and ideas to emerge.

The Stormont House Agreement provides both hope and despair in this regard. The despair is that, yet again, instead of the parties of the Executive acting like a Government and negotiating upon the issues behind closed doors and selling a joint plan to the public, they required the fanfare of both national Governments’ flying in, the US Administration on standby and journalists huddling in the cold outside. Peace process negotiations as opposed to genuine governance still reigns supreme.

The hope is that the issues which were the most contentious (and still are) were not about the past or tribal divisions, but about real political issues such as Welfare Reform and the economy.

The Stormont House Agreement, however, not only illustrated the weakness in the politics of our political parties and Government, it also illustrated some of the weaknesses of our Civil Society. No matter how well intentioned or seemingly progressive civil society’s Make it Work campaign appeared, I firmly believe it pandered to our addiction to peace process politics.

In providing three bland and inoffensive objectives the campaign attracted a very diverse group of people representing business, trade unions, the voluntary and community sector, the churches and many more.  Whilst these groups are vital for a vibrant civic society and democracy, their interests and demands from Government are not and should not be the same.

This was evidenced by the fact that when the Stormont House Agreement was reached, Peter Bunting assistant general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, who had supported Make it Work, almost immediately rejected the deal in light of the scale of the public sector cuts and the stance on Welfare Reform.

Whilst I do not agree with Peter Bunting on many social and economic issues, I firmly believe, as a leading Trade Unionist, he was right to do what he thought was in the interests of his members and in line with his politics. What I believe he was wrong to do was sign up to Make it Work in the first place, giving hollow support to the parties negotiating and misplaced hope to trade union members.

If we want Northern Ireland to become a more normal democracy, we have to wean ourselves off peace process politics and wean ourselves on to politics which more resembles the left/right split and the Government and Opposition split we find in the rest of the UK, Ireland and Europe.

This will require a vibrant civic society which produces ideas, criticises and praises political parties and Governments when individual groups believe it is necessary and warranted. The days of monolithic Government with an Orange and Green wing have to come to an end at some point; similarly the days of civil society ignoring their differences and monolithically coming together to get those orange and green wings over the negotiating line have to come to an end as well.

To transcend the corrosive tribal divisions of our past, we must be prepared to accept, argue and sometimes compromise on the left/right political divisions – it is our future.

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