Not in my name – it’s time we heard from the silent majority on political Unionism, parades and the exercise of democracy
I wondered about writing this submission. You see I’m part of the much criticised silent majority, the so called liberal hand wringers, and whiners who never get involved and who are so much fodder for politicians and political commentators alike. People like me, look on with increasing frustration and impotence at the utter mess our politicians are making of government and their arrogance to do it in the name of democracy and of the people.
So I’m speaking up and I hope others of the ‘silent majority’ will do so too, in the hope that we can start a new conversation on our future. A future which is too precious to be left in the hands of our local politicians and their own increasingly narrow agendas – or political commentators either.
To know a little of me requires you to know a little of my past. Bear with me.
Around 1910 my grandfather a Roman Catholic from Monaghan travelled to Belfast seeking work. He found it in the shipyard and out of curiosity at the invitation of a fellow worker joined in prayer meetings in the shipyard at lunchtime. Shortly after he committed his life to Christ as his personal Saviour, joined the Brethren, preached in Gospel Halls and spent the remainder of his life evangelising in Ireland. His children followed and his grandchildren chose a similar path. A number are missionaries in Africa and Brazil. My father left the Brethren Gospel Halls but remained a committed Christian all his life.
My mother was a Covenanter from Armagh. Many of her brothers and the wider family were members of the Orange Order. We dutifully turned out at Scarva for the Sham Fight each 13 July so she could meet her assembled wider family circle, brothers uncles and cousins, wives and sisters and also admonish her brothers when they sidled off to the pub.
Both my parents voted Ulster Unionist, which is not to say that they would have described themselves as Unionists if anyone had bothered to ask.
My parent’s greatest gift was to encourage their children to think for themselves. They were always there as a source of advice if required. No attempt was made to force me to follow in their religious or cultural footsteps or deny me where I wanted to go. Neither my brother nor I joined the Loyal Orders, nor are we involved in formal church membership, seeking our discourse with God on personal terms.
My father ran a small grocery shop on the Albertbridge Road in the 1960s and early 1970s. It was in what is now called ‘an interface area’; then it was just ‘the road’. He employed the most able for the job and disregarded their religion as a basis of choice. Through the worst of the early years of the conflict until forced to close in 1973 my father served all comers and refused to be intimidated into boycotting sections of the community by both loyalist and republican paramilitaries. He had no time for and was deeply angered by the apologists for paramilitary terror groups no matter from where they came.
He also had that slightly bemused uncomfortableness about parades, especially around what we now call ‘blood and thunder’ bands, something which said ‘this is part of the Unionism I vote for but it is not part of who I am’.
The only discussion of a political nature with my father was when I turned 18 and became eligible to vote. He advised me never to vote for the sake of it, but to think carefully as to how my vote was used.
Politics for my father was a personal thing; it didn’t govern his life, but he would be appalled by the political Unionism of 2014. If my father were alive today I know what he would have said to the pan-Unionist coalition:
“You will do what you think is right for you – just don’t presume to do it in my name”
What my parents, and my father in particular espoused, was a tolerant, Christian, fair, open spirited approach. People who respected and upheld the law and did their level best to understand all sides of opinion. But in the end he made up his own mind on issues. Along the way he also happened to vote Unionist. That type of thinking hasn’t gone away, but as Alliance has discovered in this society there are precious few votes in tolerance.
I am my father’s son in many ways. I am for maintaining the Union also and I’m happy to debate my reasons why. I would be what is now described as ‘pro-Union’. I want that distance from current political Unionism where I have no natural home. I am also content that at some point in the future whenever that may be, when the economic, social, political, religious and cultural time is deemed right, that Ireland is united as one country. It is not a political or cultural aspiration but a belief that at some time in the future the people of this very small country will find peace within themselves and out of conflict forge a new identity acceptable to all.
So how am I to be defined? Saved from Popery? A traitor and a Lundy? A liberal lily white bleeding heart?
The general trend from political Unionist spokespeople when the going gets tough is to lump a very diverse span of opinion under one label – ‘the Unionist community’ and then attempt to tell us what we should be thinking, feeling and believing.
Political Unionism today needs to define for whom they are speaking, especially when only around 48% of people in Northern Ireland who had a choice to register and exercise their vote did so in the 2011 Assembly elections. This figure is based on an analysis of the 2011 census data and should not be confused with turnout, which is based on eligible individuals who registered to vote.
Labels like PUL serve to aggregate rather than delineate the various sections of Unionism, while working under the (wrong) assumption that PUL or the undefined ‘unionist community’ hold the same values and concerns around the so called ‘culture war’. Given that parades have doubled since 2005 and we have more marching bands than ever, is this so called culture war being waged by political Unionism or only waged against it?
The problem with the current parades debacle is that 17 years on from Drumcree when it was evident that this ‘make or break’ parade did not have the widespread support claimed of it, what has changed? If anything very many people from a liberal unionist/pro-union background are deeply uncomfortable with the closeness to loyalist paramilitary groups displayed by the OO and political Unionism and the tacit support for the sense of intimidation which comes with the blanket erection of flags and emblems and the siting of bonfires.
Such liberal unionists/ pro-union people are declared ‘guilty prods’; unenlightened; backsliders from their heritage; Lundys, no better than republicans. Perhaps, like my father, they can think for themselves and reject the type of politics so marked by the parades and flags dispute as entirely unrepresentative of a broader pro-union narrative, a narrative which is content (rather than complacent) about a Union which is not going away anytime soon and that does not believe that flying the Union flag on designated days is an all out attack on cultural values or a narrative which doesn’t have people choking over the word ‘Derry’; where people can say ,’Northern Ireland ‘, ‘the North’ and every other variation in between without falling into the political semantics war of the DUP and SF. It’s a world where we can debate and disagree but still shake hands.
It is also a narrative which remains deeply suspicious and distrustful of SF attempts to re-write the atrocities of the past into some apologist justification or where getting to the truth is a broadly one sided affair.
Within all of that it recognises that there are many many pro-union supporters who wouldn’t go to the end of the street to see an OO parade or the bands that accompany them; not because they are opposed, ignorant or unenlightened about Orange culture, but because they are completely indifferent to it. It neither defines their culture or their politics.
Defending that culture is also not the basis for decisions on whether political institutions should stand or fall.
The Orange Order holds a disproportionate influence and membership among DUP elected representatives when set against the OO’s wider community support. The apparent ambivalence towards and increasing dependence of both the Orange Order and political Unionism on the support of loyalist paramilitary groups, still involved daily in serious criminality, to shore up their cause is anathema to many people who are being prayed in aid under the ‘unionist community’ banner.
The whole idea that the DUP will hold paramilitaries or anyone else to account after any public disorder occurs in the coming weeks is quite ridiculous. The selective distancing by the OO and Unionist politicians from public disorder, intimidation or violence around parades is now a recurring theme in their commentary and actions around parades. We can only hope for a peaceful 12 July in North Belfast. It certainly isn’t guaranteed.
The cultural and moral unionism espoused by the DUP and their ‘mini me’ UU stable mates is now at odds with the majority of societal thinking in NI in 2014.
Only in our completely dysfunctional enforced coalition arrangements could the type of political behaviours we are witnessing on both sides run for so long. Rather than face up to big issues obfuscation and delay become the default option.
The wider population have no say. Once elected, parties of whatever hue can say and do pretty much whatever they like to further their own political, moral and cultural ends. Increasingly the Courts are being asked to make decisions any other functioning government would do in a heartbeat.
The legal struggle by the Family Planning Association to have DHSSPS disclose draft abortion guidelines in 2013, after a four year delay prompted the following comment from Lord Justice Coghlin one of the Appeals Court Judges who heard the case. “There comes a stage in any government activity when delay becomes much more than simply the government going ahead with its work and becomes a matter of real concern to the governed… It can be interpreted by the governed not so much as the diligent work of government (but) as a paralysed government that because of its cultural and religious divisions simply cannot bring itself to discharge its duties”
This trenchant insight stands also as a wider commentary on the failure of the enforced power sharing experiment we are suffering. The view that If you don’t vote to shore up this failed experiment you have no right to complain also needs challenged. The vote, as my father taught me, is a precious thing. It is not there for the asking, but to be earned through mutual respect. I no longer vote. I can only vote for parties and personalities. I can’t vote to change my government. The D’Hont ministerial ‘pick ‘n mix’ system ensures that voting on the basis of party policy becomes a lottery. We operate an abstraction of democracy and I won’t prop it up with my vote any longer.
Our entire GFA enforced coalition experiment is predicated on the belief, (the reality) that if a Unionist or Nationalist government were elected it could not be trusted to govern in the name of all the people. No dissention here. Power sharing since 1998 has shown that even when together in government Unionists and Nationalists cannot be trusted to exercise power for the greater good. There has been no indication in the past 7 years that the trend is moving towards any sense of consensus politics.
The greatest strength and the cornerstone of a democratic system is the ability to change a government through the ballot box. That fundamental cornerstone is denied to the electorate in Northern Ireland.
Tony Benn, a strong upholder of democracy and a consistent opponent of the EU’s far reaching powers as they affected the UK, devised five questions by which we might judge whether we reside in a democracy.
(Tony Benn Commons Hansard [16 Nov 1998: Column 685] Volume 319 Debate on: European Parliamentary Elections Bill) So how do we break the political and cultural impasse and allow some kind of normalisation of politics to develop? What if we apply Tony Benn’s last test – “How do we get rid of you?” Therein lies the problem – we can’t. Enforced power sharing means our elections become the political version of recycling.
Put plainly, we don’t reside in a democratic system as the rest of the world defines and understands it. What we have is an illusion of democracy which has everything to do with maintaining political power and nothing to do with the people our politicians purport to govern. The exercise of power is an exercise in veto politics. Forming an official Opposition at Stormont is not going to change this.
Our political system encourages the ‘trenches mindset’ which power sharing needed to remove to succeed.The largest parties will continue to appeal to their core vote, which is enough to bring them home at elections. The vote is confirmed by playing to the fears and prejudices of the party faithful on constitutional, cultural or moral issues. There is no need to reach out to a broader community vote to maintain the status quo. If the Unionist vote is shredding it seems to be on the basis of a debate on just how hard line political Unionism needs to become.
The big promises of the GFA; the gamble that many people, hurting from the traumas of the past were prepared to take in the cause and hope of a better future have not materialised. Victims are rightly asking what was the point of our loved ones’ sacrifice? Is this it? Is this the best we can do?
Yet despite all the high drama and farce that surrounded NI21 the party touched a nerve especially among the young post conflict generation tired of tribal choices; an as yet to be articulated hunger for something new and a readiness to move on. Wider society in Northern Ireland does not need to wait for political permission to start a debate about our future. We have a political system with political mindsets that are still wallowing in 1690 and 1798. Don’t try and change them: they are beyond that type of redemption.
There has been no real attempt at forming a post GFA political party in Northern Ireland unfettered by the baggage and history of other parties and focused on building an inclusive society and a vibrant economy. It is unlikely that one will come soon without significant encouragement from the silent majority, including the business community. Our academic institutions should be facilitating a debate on an alternative to our enforced coalition arrangements and a move to full democratic government arrangements. It would require impressive injections of funding to allow the kind of professional support structure to underpin it. Don’t hold your breath.
Sixteen years after the GFA we are now sufficiently generationally mature to hear and to respond to the voices of the future as we did with Hanna Nelson as she upstaged President Obama last year at the Waterfront Hall. “I’m a shy girl who has never done this type of thing before…” she said, but she spoke with more reason and passion than many in positions in leadership here can muster at this time :
“…Peace is not easy. And it takes a lot of work to make it happen. I think that it is easy for some to sit back and just hold on to the past. For peace to be an actual reality however we all need to take responsibility in the present. Our past, our future. It is all about time. It is in the present time that we really need to be responsible, accountable people; and live to make a better future for ourselves. There is no time like the present. Now is the time to start making permanent peace happen in Northern Ireland. Because we, the young people in this room want and deserve to live in peace”
Our young people are turning to the conflict generation as their accusers rather than their benefactors and well they might ask:
‘‘Where is the bright future you promised, because the land of our Fathers has become no Father to me?’
They are answering with their feet. It is particularly sad that not only are our young people already leaving for a future elsewhere but that parents are encouraging them to get out while they can.
This political madness which is tearing us apart must be brought to an end. Democracy here is a conceit and power is being exercised for selfish ends on both sides. I do not believe our raw divisions can now be healed from within. The failure of the UK and Irish governments and the US administration to admit that the experiment of 1998 was a gamble that has not worked needs their immediate and focused attention. They cannot remain as watchers in the woods any longer. It is they who must create the space and the circumstances for new politics to emerge.
If for no-one else do it for the sake of our young people – do it in their name. Is this so called culture war being waged by political Unionism or only waged against it?