Radical thinking to break NI political deadlock – By Peter Sheridan

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Image by Elle Rowan


Philosopher Onora O Neill in a recent article on trust said knowing whom to trust is now harder “because we have some very skilful faking going on.”

She goes on to say that “it’s extremely hard to distinguish between genuine and fraudulent claims. People can learn to make better judgements, but before trusting any putative expert you should look out for three things: honesty, reliability, and some competence.”

In our own context, it is difficult to know in terms of Brexit or with the prospects for the restoration of the NI Executive where the ‘very skilful faking’ is, and likewise it is difficult to distinguish between ‘genuine’ and ‘fraudulent’ claims.

Which of the various party political positions do we judge as honest, reliable, and competent?

The answer of course may be that, given they speak from their own narrative they may all to a greater or lesser extent be honest, reliable and competent.

If this is correct it is difficult to see how the next round of political talks will make progress unless something radically different is injected into the process.

We are very good in Northern Ireland at championing our own side’s rights, our right to protest, our right to parade, our right to our culture.

Surely good rights are when we seek to protect the other person’s rights and of course when the other person seeks to protect ours?

It would be interesting if the next set of talks began by asking each of the political parties to momentarily put aside thinking about its own rights and instead set out how it intends to protect the rights of the other community.

What are the practical and legislative measures nationalists and republicans could bring forward that would demonstrate to their neighbours that they seek to protect the cultural rights, traditions and identities of the protestant loyalist community, including the rights of the loyal orders?

Similarly, what measures could unionism bring forward that would show they genuinely and honestly want to protect the cultural rights, identities and traditions of their nationalist, republican neighbours?

Such an exercise might help those watching on to make a better informed judgement on where the “skilful faking” might be.

Against such a background we might be able to get a better handle on those measures of honesty, reliability and some competence.

Given that we have not been able to deal with the legacy of the past I also wonder if there is another way.

It is right that the door to the criminal justice system should be left open but I also think we need to be honest in terms of how much the justice system will be able to deal satisfactorily with the past.

Even for the most heinous of crimes the most time someone would spend in prison is 2 years.

I doubt therefore that we will ever be able to do justice to the scale of the injustice on any side.

Like many of my former colleagues in the police service and many other people in this society I was the target for people who would have wished me to join the next life quicker than I would have wanted.

In one instance the Garda had intercepted such an attack.

Is justice for me the prosecution of the person who was perhaps going to place a bomb under my car? Or is justice for me the prosecution of the bomb maker? The person who drove the getaway car? The person who at church on Sunday was gathering information about me rather than saying his/her prayers? The person who would have washed the bomb maker’s clothes? And so, the list goes on.  Which one of these would give me justice or does it need to be all of them?

In most cases there were between 20 – 30 people involved. Were this to be extrapolated out in so many instances, one can see the scale of the problem.

What if we took a different view? It is a given that the justice system should do what it can do but what if we used the legacy funds to commit to building a women and children’s hospital at the Maze/Long Kesh site?

After all, probably women and children suffered more during the conflict. They were the ones at home when their partner/father was out at work and didn’t return home because he was killed or badly injured, or their partner/father was in prison or absent from home.

The hospital would be about saving life, about healing and would leave a legacy that wasn’t just about the past but a legacy to future generations.

It could also have part of it dedicated to the continued healing of those mentally and physically scarred by the conflict.

We could dedicate it as a memorial hospital to ALL those who died or were injured in the conflict.


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  1. anne odling-smee on

    We can only trust others if we grow up together and are open to learning about more than our own tradition. Trust has to be constantly refurbished and never assumed.

  2. Heather Palmer on

    Looking forward and building a sustainable future is possible when honest dialogue happens. Thank you Peter for this thought provoking article. Perhaps a dedicated mental health and addictions centre could be part of the vision. Heal the hurt and protect the vulnerable across society.

  3. Barry Fennell on

    A thoughtful piece from my colleague Peter. Trust cannot be truly developed and nurtured within a segregated and broken society. There has to be genuine openness not just to learn about the ‘other’ but how we treat the ‘other’ which does include a willingness to protect the rights of the ‘other’. Do we have this at the moment? Unfortunately we don’t I believe. The ‘fixed’ and hardened positions of the main parties here means that the possibility of radical thinking and empathetic alternatives are beyond reach. The political stalemate at Stormont doesn’t help the search for possibilities it only restricts them – something has to change.

  4. It is unfortunately the case Peter Sheridan lives in the small confines of a Northern Ireland/Republic of Ireland narrative. Passing over such claims of ‘perpetrators’ spendind only 12 years in Prison – based on today’s penal code without addressing future change if, as the thrust if that comment is to be read as pitiful and unjust, it lacks the robustness other readers attach to the piece. Excuse the pun. Without exception it is the voice of the people who charge democracy with its mandate. If some are tied to it so be it but becer bieve tgey will alter course for a philosophical detour. Gerry Fitt paraded his socialism for Labour while it’s Government destroyed any ‘pre-reconciliation’ giving credibility in the process for loud mouthed Protestants to disfigure the meaning of a ‘Catholic’ faith – resident in their religion.
    I would suggest you settle down with a cup of tea or beverage of habit and review the various depictions of the Isreali Ballet – Green Table.
    A lesson post Ibsen of the mnirity always being right – amongst other things.

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