Waiting for the Next Crisis? – By Colin Harvey

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There is a human rights and equality crisis in this society and it is one of the reasons why we are where we are. It remains a reasonable expectation that the Good Friday Agreement would deliver more than simply ‘relatively stable’ power-sharing government. The transformative dimensions were lost along the way, and the political system could not take the weight of that ongoing implementation failure. Although they are not the only matters to be resolved, a comprehensive and credible way forward might quickly alter the current picture. We have already witnessed steps to make progress on equal marriage and women’s rights. Advances led from here, and then taken forward at Westminster. This is testament to an effective activist culture that has shown remarkable resilience.

There is much unfinished business, and this will always be a continuing conversation. The momentum for change is growing and robust. This is now a discussion about unlocking the potential of a place what wants transformation and the significance of basic honesty about the forces that are standing in the way of reform. The climate is not a conducive one and that only makes the dedication and persistence even more admirable.

As a contribution to this dialogue, these two themes seem relevant.

Firstly, this region is saturated with the symbolism and imagery of one community to a quite staggering degree. A casual stroll around Belfast, or interaction with many of the key public institutions, will often confirm that. It should not be contentious to state what is a basic fact. For reasons that are well known, there is structural and systemic disrespect for Irish identity and towards Irish citizens. Parity of esteem and equal treatment are absent. The idea that public life and institutions accept that constitutional aspirations are equally legitimate is some way off the truth. There are many embedded imbalances with practical implications for all communities. The days of pretending, of lowering the head, tipping the cap or bending the knee, of weaving euphemism into everyday life to survive or avoid facing this cultural and identity deficit should be long gone. Equality of national/constitutional aspirations, and the right to be British or Irish or both, must become part of lived experience. There is a long way to travel on this pathway but solutions are there.

Secondly, people are right to celebrate the victories thus far and to anticipate the progress to come on rights and equality matters. But it should be recalled that these are often symptoms of larger problems, and that we may just be waiting for the next crisis. A tick-box approach to current challenges will, hopefully, achieve the required changes – but what about other problems in the future or those that do not make the list? If power-sharing does emerge again we may just face years of obfuscation, delay and faulty implementation (think about what Brexit will add to this dilemma). There needs to be a heightened focus in the negotiations on implementation and enforcement. People must be crystal clear about what both governments and the parties will do and what will happen if they do not. Both governments in particular must realise that they can never walk away from their responsibilities and that bilateral engagement must be continuous. If structural reform does not lead to a better system of implementation for rights and equality, then we will merely be waiting for the next crisis to appear. Better to face into this now.

It may be that the combination of Brexit and a British government with little feel for the Agreement or subsequent agreements will prove too much to overcome. There is still something potentially appealing (if framed and structured in the right way) about drawing power back into this region and this island. In particular, there is a psychological wall on this island that you will not find on any map but is formidable in its ability to promote division and misunderstanding. Its existence needs to be acknowledged and a (nearly) century-long exercise in conversational avoidance addressed. Whether power-sharing institutions will help or hinder that discussion is an open question. But for those who do think it is a good idea to put the Agreement back together again (in all its parts) then – even in the face of the democratic offence that is Brexit – the answers appear readily at hand. The tragedy remains that they were always there.

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8 Comments

  1. Gerry Mander on

    Usual intolerant anti-unionist claptrap from a usual republican and leftist academic… no wonder Queen’s University has become a cold house for Protestants, Unionists, and Christians with people like the above working and teaching at it…

      • Gerry Mander on

        Didn’t say it did, but thanks to the likes of the Mad Professor who wrote above article, QUB is very much a cold house for Christians, Unionists, and Protestants… just ask Union Theological College for proof of that.

    • Gerry, I fail to see the point in referring to articles like the above as ” anti-unionist claptrap”, “cold house for Protestants, Unionists, and Christians”–we are where we are.

      Personally I think that a United Ireland is inevitable (within 25 years–I may still be alive); increasing I think the a no-deal Brexit is a distinct possibility, and that will mean a backstop and a border in the Irish sea; and I am certain that Ireland (both the UK and the Republic parts), just like the rest of the West, will continue along a secular path.

      We are where we are. And a number of things follow.

      First of all conservative Christians (Catholic or Protestant) may (will) have to start making distinctions between nation state and faith. The Belfast priest Fr. McCaffery has already written about this, in the Belfast Telegraph last year, saying, “we are presented with a new landscape, in which to properly be the Church of Jesus Christ, free now from any entanglement in the “emperor’s embrace”—Protestants could learn a thing or two from that type of thinking.

      From this it follows that the old Catholic/Nationalist/Irish and Protestant/Unionist/British labels and identifications will no longer work well.

      In terms of politics, Unionism has assumed the Union is safe, a mantra peddled by almost every Unionist politician and commentators for far too long. It’s not—if something has to be defended then it is, by definition, not safe. But no defence of the Union has even been made. Our politicians have sought to keep Northern Ireland’s UK status via so-called influence in Westminster; they have criticised Sinn Fein; opposed the Irish Language (when it was Presbyterians who promoted much of the language in the first place); they have conflated Unionism with social conservatism; and RHI has helped nothing.

      I’d suggest that Unionists find some arguments, but it’s too late. Personally, I think that the pursuit of single-identity politics is a problem all over Ireland—we’re all guilty of it—but Unionists have held so tightly to a single-identity Northern Ireland that we have suffocated it.

      As for Union College, it doesn’t need Queen’s to be a theological college, and PCI certainly doesn’t need Queen’s to be a Church.

      • Gerry Mander on

        Peter, I respect your opinions, your refreshing independence of thought, and your measured, civil objectivity on these complex cultural and constitutional matters, let me just say that upfront.

        But on a number of points you made, I must respectfully agree to disagree;

        1) The author of the above article is a well-known republican and leftist academic who clearly is an intolerant bigot; hating the fact that N.I. remains a part of the United Kingdom, and further hating any outward cultural expressions thereof. Respect has to be earned and that individual has shown none for the PUL community and culture at large, so therefore deserves none in return. I stand by every word I wrote without apology.

        2) I believe and have always believed in a separation of church and state (not just to protect the latter from the former but also to protect the former from the latter, now more than ever!), but NOT a separation of faith and politics; my own views (and those of many people of faith) on the latter are inextricably informed by my convictions in the former, there’s nothing wrong with that, and should not be attacked or demeaned or marginalised, as some are trying to do of late.

        3) It’s nothing to do with either UTC or the PCI ‘needing’ Queen’s University to be a theological institution – it clearly isn’t and neither should it be – but what was done to Union by QUB recently was nothing less than a vindictive and venal act of petty discriminatory retaliation because the latter disagrees with the former’s biblical view of human relationships… let’s be clear about… it was entirely political and partisan in nature and intent, designed to put UTC out of business.

        Anyway, it’s great that we can have civil conversations on this site unlike other ones that remain nameless where if you express any opinion other than the standard liberal-nationalist axis, you get virtually lynched online.

        Long may this site continue, and kudos to Eamonn for having a properly independent forum for all range of opinions, long may it continue.

        • Gerry, thank you for your kind words.

          Let me assume at least some common ground regarding point (2); that you are correct about point (3); and further assume the context I highlighted earlier: I am certain of a continuing secular path in society, and an approaching United (secular) Ireland.

          What interests me, then, is (1) how do conservative unionists respond; (2) how do conservative Christians respond? (There may or may not be overlap in these groups.)

          My conclusion is that my national identity will have to come second; and because this has never been a practical issue for most people in Ireland before, we’re going to have to figure out what the new-normal looks like.

          That’s the thought behind my comments. N.I.’s place within the UK is under attack; secular institutions are putting pressure on the church, but the question remains: how to respond.

          Yes, the Church can take a more ‘prophetic’ role “free from the “emperor’s embrace” ”, but how then will it relate to other aspects of State life—not working with a university may be one thing, but is Remembrance Day, for example, another? It seems there are some choices to be made.

          The national identity question also throws up some problems: I am not in favour of a United Ireland outside the UK (certainly not the socialist republican version); a mere bolt on to the current RoI seems unworkable; and I can’t see the RoI going for a Eire Nua federal style arrangement. Neither do I like the ever-closer-union of the EU (and if Irish Republicans were true Irish Republicans, they wouldn’t want that either).

          In short, the lines have been redrawn, and the old assumptions no longer work. I’m not saying I have answers, in fact, I’m not sure there are any. I’m expecting a United Secular Ireland in a Bureaucratic EU Super-State, with previous loyalties and identities relegated to second or third place. Perhaps, however, that will be every bit as much a surprise for traditional Irish Republican as it is for traditional Ulster Unionists.

          • Gerry Mander on

            Thank you too for the civil and informed response, Peter.

            I have no problem with a secular state in and of itself; just so long as the right of religious-based conscience (within reason) is upheld and codified… no-one should be forced to violate their conscience and values through legal coercion, and the UK Supreme Court effectively ruled as such in the recent Asher’s case, thank God.

            At least Ireland has a WRITTEN constitution (even though one far too easily amended); I’d feel a lot more comfortable under that than GB’s unwritten Parliament-is-sovereign model… that way lies tyranny, and we’re lamentably seeing that as time goes on of late.

            If a UI happens in my lifetime, I’ll embrace and participate in it as fully as I can… I just hope political ‘unionism’ is making contingency plans for such an event, but I fear they are not…

  2. Gerry

    “If a UI happens in my lifetime, I’ll embrace and participate in it as fully as I can…”
    As will I.

    “I just hope political ‘unionism’ is making contingency plans for such an event, but I fear they are not…”
    As far as I can see, political unionism has two plans, which may be summarised as follows:

    (1) Have you got your ticket for the boat, yet?
    (2) There is no Partition… there never was any Partition…

    Meanwhile (and I’m not particularly fond of class terms, but) working class Protestant/Loyalists will continue to be demonised by one and all, under represented, misrepresented, and lacking in educational opportunities; but allowed to become a useful anachronism and cautionary tale as if they were some kind of fairytale villain–and that, perhaps, is the saddest aspect of our potential future.

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