‘Finish the job’ says former President Bill Clinton – Do our politicians know what the ‘job’ is? – Asks Terry Wright.

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Former American President Bill Clinton

 

If it is true as J K Galbraith suggested that ‘ politics consists of choosing between the disastrous and the unpalatable’ then the call of former US president Bill Clinton that our politicians should finish the job is, in the current climate, unlikely to find a favourable response. Can it, in the context of Northern Ireland politics, be taken for granted how each perceives the job to be done?

The failure to find agreement on the Haass proposals, the outbreak of hostility, brinkmanship and anger over the handling of the OTR issue, the persistent disputes over flags, parades, the past and victims added to the failed choreography of Obama’s visit and the G8 summit followed now by the Clinton visit lend considerable support to the view that in the continuing conflict embedding the peace process and politics, the main protagonists are always opposed and operate from competing and uncompromising agendas.

Contentious and unresolved issues are always guided by the need to force the unpalatable on the other side in order to avoid what might be seen as disastrous by the perceived constituency from which support is sought. There is a failure to mediate one to the other.

Any new attempt at resolution is born trapped within this dynamic and mind-set. Instead of sustainable solutions, progress is achieved only through fudge and ambiguity. This lies beneath the radar as part of the problem until ignited by a new revelation or confrontation fuelled by the blight of sectarianism and bigotry.

The Westminster double-speak of past governments that survives as a living legacy of institutionalised half-truths and behind the door deals is an additional ingredient. The combined attempt by London, Washington and Dublin to bring a neat solution to a complex situation has succeeded merely in producing a flawed and untidy containment.

Unwillingness to give is matched by an unwillingness to receive.

Espousing peace and renouncing violence, political leaders continue to contribute to an environment where violence can flourish not least within territorial, communal and hard-edged identities. Seemingly more comfortable with old problems than solutions and of long memory and limited grace, they continue to act as a monument to the past instead of providing footprints to the future.

This produces within a mandatory coalition that which can only work well through embracing diversity, mediation and inclusivity, shared ethics, aims and commitment to make the state work for all, a diminishing electorate which, for the most part, continues to vote for who they do not want.

In the absence of a viable alternative many are left disenfranchised and doubting the value and potential of politics. This produces a democratic deficit and the tyranny of a political elite whose opposing politics and individual strategies are counter-productive to change and progress. There is now a risk that, with the onset of RPA this will be further reinforced within the new more powerful councils. If wearing a football scarf can produce unbridled animosity this is a risk to stability, such as it is.

There is an argument for amending the political structures to provide for official opposition, reduction in MLAs and a slimmer Executive. Review is overdue but does the greater problem not lie within the essence of the politics?

It is this which indicates that the Assembly has reached the limitation of its capacity to change.

Within its structures politics seem to have abandoned the vision of reaching inter-party and inter-community consensus for the politics of incremental victory. Any unsavoury disclosure or incident, past or present, and unquestioning narratives are added to the tactical armoury and deployed. Such was a feature of the Haass process, at the time and since.

In the case of nationalism and more so republicanism, politics aspire to the narrowest of cultural and intellectual horizons. A sanitised narrative and mythology and as evidenced by the OTRs, an unscrupulous manipulation that never allows principle to hinder advancement of the agenda, characterises strategy and tactics.

Working at the end of the day towards the ending of the state whose name it dare not use, it survives on a sense of insularity and victimhood. It works to achieve through a political process what it failed to achieve through violence.

Unionism mistrusts everyone outside the family. Looking at issues through a set of experiences and a history that does not go away it reacts to rather than leads events. In spite of the reluctant manner in which it had to accept political change and a resulting feeling of defeat that remains within its psyche, it retains a belief that it is better than it actually is.

From time to time leaders within unionism talk of the need for change and an end to the social and sectarian obstacles that prohibit change but then retreat to policies and politics which reinforce them.

It is against this background that the desire and words of President Bill Clinton may be frustrated for you can never attain that which you fail to understand and you are unwilling to pursue.

The first necessity may not be getting people to finish the job but to agree what the job is.


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  1. Yes Terry. I agree. A clear lack of political strategic movement. President Clinton is right in telling them to get the job done they were tasked to do, but I don’t think that is possible as you flag up. Culturally, institutionally, socially, and politically there are blocks due to negative mindsets. Both Haass and Clinton are in fact in a timely way before the elections are (directly or indirectly) reminding us that the electorate can too ‘get the job done’ if the politicians are incapable of moving the log jam.

    The basic problem we have now in simple terms is a tyranny of the majority over the minority as JS Mill would have indicated. The great and growing disaffected section of the electorate may in time be motivated but at the minute radical and real change seems over the horizon.

    I’ve always maintained that the party political system is creating the inertia as much as the GFA institutions and somehow it needs to be changed. But that in a liberal democracy can only happen from the bottom up unless the two governments of the UK and ROI impose it.

    I can’t see that happening. Options are limited. It will take a really angry electorate to shake it up. One that is finally and truly sick to its back teeth with sectarian mindsets and all that goes with it. This body of ordinary people is growing, but cynical efforts by various parties and bodies to sectarianise politics here are ongoing. It is a confused, frustrating and difficult political landscape. One where we could easily get lost!

    So to go back to the fundamental strategic question, ‘what is the job?’ I would say it is empowering the electorate to give a mandate to effective politicians to deliver this.
    That means creating an educated electorate. That can happen through school citizenship education, active trade unionism, encouraging extra mural education classes like the Workers Education Assiciation used to do etc. It means basically enlightening the electorate. Positive change will be spontaneous. Instead of looking for a solution we should be looking as the vehicles and institutions to deliver change.

    ‘Build it and they will come’!

    We need vision and to belief in this world that can be created. Vision has been stifled. And hopes dashed. Time to build a real inclusive and caring society.

  2. We are hamstrung by the lack of leadership by our First Minister.

    He does not feel he can face up to the no-men on his own side as they have been giving him a hard time since he floundered over the flegs issue, parades, protests and riots.

    So he has been making decisions which he thinks may curry him favour with those who will never trust him, but he hopes that his hissy fits will eventually provoke Sinn Fein into walking away from the joint governance of this God-forsaken little hole of a province.

    But he could well be adopting a very bad tactic and finish up with no friends at all, and in politics having a friend or two is never a bad thing. The only problem is that the rest of us will suffer waiting for him to get his comeuppance.

  3. Terry,

    Thanks – a good article.

    We have become used to the horse trading between the DUP and SF since 2007, where noting is agreed until everything is agreed. In 2014 that has developed into an OFMDFM against the rest approach on ‘pure’ policy issues, such as ESA, and the failed attempt at planning interventions in relation to strategic planning applications. However getting down to the wire on the Haass issues has exposed the failure of Unionists to push any bargaining position on parades and flags. There are no big bargaining chips left. It was Unionism which forced the u-turn over the Maze but spun as a reaction to the Castlederg Republican parade.

    Herein lies The DUP’s problem. They need concessions on parades and flags where Republicans no longer need to bargain. There may be no agreement on the Irish language act, but Irish is having a resurgence and within communities which are traditionally badged as unionist or loyalist. The issue of parades as well as nationalist opposition does not command the widespread support across a community which is increasingly less ‘Unionist ‘than ‘for the Union’. The flag issue is a matter of broad indifference to many within the middle class unionist community. The flags issue, again was badly mishandled in East Belfast and has allowed the high ground to be taken by militant loyalism.

    By contrast, Republicans in ‘dealing’ with the past can interpret it any way they like and will continue to do so. Unionism can only find expression of their frustration by increasingly stalling and frustration the functions of government and a greater acceptance of a broader church of support which includes militant loyalism and paramilitary influence.

    That continues to find expression in council chambers. During Direct Rule, councils were held up as going some way to balancing the ‘democratic deficit’ in Northern Ireland, however bereft they may have been in terms of actual functions. Since 2007 councils have suffered from a democratic squeeze where constituents can turn to MLAs to get things done. Even going to 11 councils – the RPA ‘fudge’ option – there is a real debate needed as to the purpose of local government, certainly in terms of the services it provides.

    It costs around £700m a year to run local government and the amount of services they provide will not climb above 5% of total public sector spending. The estimate is £415m under the new council model. Many services are mismanaged and run at a loss. £146m subsidy for leisure services over the last 5 years. £30m wasted on consulting services for the procurement of three(!!!) waste management systems which councils could not or would not sign up to.

    Local government now does so little that all of their delivery functions could be subsumed into Departments or outsourced to the private sector. We should not forget that domestic rates are a further tax on already taxed income. What benefit would some of that money do on our high streets and local economy rather than the sinkhole of waste in local government. There is considerable concern about the transfer of the planning function to councils and their political interference in the process.

    We have long debated here the downsizing of the public sector. Let’s start with local government – which after reorganisation will have four times the number of councillors than MLA seats and far from being the training ground for regional government represents the pond life of our political system always quarry for a lazy press and media anxious for a soundbite.

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