Northern Ireland’s two largest parties are locked in yet another round of negotiations on policing and justice, the spectre of the Orange Order and its marches casting its usual shadow over proceedings. But the new ‘Platform for Change Northern Ireland’ – which will be launched in Belfast next month – dares to ask if we can indeed have normal politics here.
Chaired by Robin Wilson (the former chair of the think tank Democratic Dialogue), Platform for Change seeks to empower citizens who feel apathetic or politically disempowered. This is, most likely, a common feeling throughout Northern Ireland, where the parties we elect seem unable to get much done.
For citizens, it can be easier to retreat into middle class consumerism, ‘benign apartheid,’ or our old familiar sectarian ghettos – all the while complaining about the Machiavellian and ‘bigoted’ politicians on the ‘other side.’
But there are a number of reasons why our Assembly doesn’t work that can’t be reduced to the personalities of individual politicians and the so-called ‘extremism’ of Sinn Fein and the DUP.
Wilson has written much on the structural limitations of the political institutions established by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, and these concerns are reflected in the Platform for Change document. Among those limitations is the necessity for politicians to designate themselves ‘nationalist’ or ‘unionist’ in the Assembly, thus ensuring that ‘Other’ voices do not really count.
While the framers of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement surely intended this as a measure to prevent the abuse of political power by one group over another, our experience of devolution is that it has also served as a potent mechanism preventing progress on a number of issues. The Platform for Change document reads:
There must be a serious debate about how to make the institutions of governance more flexible, so that they are less fragile. Deadlocking vetoes must be replaced by incentives to conciliation: it was simply unacceptable that the executive should fail to meet for five months in 2008 as rising unemployment and spiralling fuel prices cried out for an effective, collective response. And electors deserve the right to choice between alternative, cross-communal coalition options.
In such a context, the debate on a bill of rights, which lacks any current definition, can focus as it should on providing safeguards against majoritarian abuse of power, without requiring MLAs to ‘designate’ in Orange or Green terms. Otherwise the long-term future will be the entrenchment of sectarian division, against the backdrop of a Europe which for two decades has been removing its dividing lines.
The Platform for Change document identifies three areas in which citizen activism should focus: Education, Sustainable Development and Community Relations. These are issues on which the Executive and the Assembly have failed to take the lead. The people of Northern Ireland have rather passively allowed our politicians to get away with it.
The document, though relatively short, does include some concrete proposals in these areas, such as these on community relations:
- intercultural education, including non-formal education, should be a priority across the education system;
- ‘shared neighbourhoods’ should become the model, and protected by vigorous pursuit of the perpetrators of intimidation, not rehousing of their victims;
- the Police Service of Northern Ireland must ensure everyone can enjoy the rule of law, providing the necessary security to remove the ‘peace walls’; and
- the public realm should be protected as the property of all, with zero tolerance of sectarian appropriation by flags and emblems.
I teach a master’s level module called ‘Reconciliation in Northern Ireland,’ and sometimes my international students ask me if ‘non-sectarian’ politics has ever been tried here. I usually say ‘yes,’ citing the ideals of the Alliance Party or the efforts of a few small groups and individuals. But really, it seems there has been little will for ‘normal’ politics up until the present time.
The people behind the Platform for Change reckon that the time could be ripe for Northern Ireland to break this political pattern. This may be idealistic, but it is an idealism grounded in the idea that building a sustainable, post-conflict society requires investment (even hard work) from citizens and politicians alike.
To lend your support to the Platform for Change, visit their website. The launch will take place will take place in the Black Box, Hill Street, Belfast, at 12.30 on Thursday, 25 February.