Moving beyond political paralysis in Northern Ireland

Belfast, Northern Ireland (openDemocracy) – It appears as if Northern Irish politics needs to be shut down and re-booted. To add to the growing list of seemingly insurmountable challenges – welfare reform, dealing with the legacy of the past, and identity and culture – to name but a few, last month’s report on paramilitary activity, ordered by the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, has further hampered political progress.

The report was commissioned following the Ulster Unionist Party’s gracelessexit from the Executive, undertaken as an act of protest in response to the ‘news’ that the IRA structures of the 1990’s remain intact. The report confirms the Chief Constable’s statement, and indeed, what almost every conscious member of Northern Irish society knows: paramilitaries remain a part of Northern Ireland’s social and political landscape.

Intense talks – which, we are told- are our only hope of ‘saving’ a broken system, once again dominate the news. Why are we at this point of deadlock? Seventeen years after the historic Good Friday Agreement, which won Ulster Unionist Party and Social Democratic and Labour Party leaders the Nobel Peace prize for their role in shaping it, the major Unionist parties have awoken, as if from a moral coma, and begun to question the continued existence of the IRA.

As is so often the case, whilst David Trimble and John Hume won notoriety as committed peace-builders in 1998, women had broken the path long before them. Some 22 years earlier, in 1976, Mairead Maguire and Betty Williams, founders of the Peace People movement, became Nobel Peace laureates for their pioneering efforts in advancing nonviolent modes of resistance and change. Having been at the sharp end of much of the physical and psychological traumas of the conflict, it was women who worked to develop solutions.

Yet when we return to the current, gendered ‘peace’, the murder of former IRA member, Kevin McGuigan, on 13th August, has brought the Stormont Executive to the point of collapse, as the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland stated, in response to the killing that, “some of the Provisional IRA (PIRA) structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place” but its purpose “has radically changed since this period.”

This came as news to the DUP and UUP, who, despite having access to the publicly available, and indeed costly (running to £600,000 per annum), Independent Monitoring Commission (IMC) reports which, from 2004-2011, totalled twenty six in number and repeatedly emphasised that the Provisional IRA had not “gone away”, were shocked into action by the Chief Constable’s words.

It is more surprising that the Unionist parties needed a new report to tell them what was already widely known.  In 2011, the IMC even praised “the very considerable progress PIRA had made to follow a political path.” Nevertheless, the UUP have transformed this killing into a lever of power.

We are left, then, with half a government. The UUP refuse to re-enter Stormont until Sinn Fein admit that the Provisional IRA still exist. What this will achieve is anyone’s guess. Meanwhile, the DUP, after several weeks of toying with the Ministerial spaces which they occupied, are back to work.

 

What has not yet been discussed is how we move beyond moralising about paramilitary groups, with Mike Nesbitt simply insisting they should “go away, and take their flags with them.” These organisations (Ulster Volunteer Force, Ulster Defence Association and Provisional Irish Republican Army), in whatever guise, have been part of loyalist and republican areas since the beginning of the Troubles.

They shaped the war and, despite the consternation of middle-class Unionists, their participation was necessary to end it and begin to build peace. Only the men (and it’s always men) with guns can lay down the guns. Calls for them to “go away”, then, are redundant.

Back in the real world, where the NHS is chronically under-funded, where food bank use and homelessness is on the rise, those with the power and resources to do so must call a halt to the politics of self-interest which have failed the people of Northern Ireland.

What is needed is a new, political agreement, which brings to the table all sections of Northern Irish society. After the release of the report on paramilitaries, the Progressive Unionist Party called upon the First and Deputy First Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive to resign from their roles, and for the Good Friday Agreement to be revisited, and a new system of government and opposition to be crafted.

 

This new agreement could re-calibrate our political system, and perhaps even see votes cast along class lines, as opposed to the ‘ethnic tribune’ voting which has characterised, and damaged, so much of post-Agreement Northern Ireland.

A new dispensation might go further, and commit itself to principles of participatory democracy, which sees individual participation by citizens in political decisions and policies that affect their lives, especially directly rather than through elected representatives.

More specifically, it would firmly locate women at the centre of conflict transformation and peace-building strategies, as the UN Resolution 1325 outlined was not only a right, but an imperative to building a sustainable peace. The destruction of the Civic Forum, a mechanism for ensuring widespread participation in politics, must be reversed, and new modes of engagement made a priority.

This measure would counter the current, widespread reluctance to engage in formal politics. It would also bring in the many, committed groups and individuals operating in the community and voluntary sectors, who are facing destruction via waves of austerity. Such “meaningful participation”, at an everyday and structural level, would begin to rectify the harms visited against many, particularly women, as peace has been negotiated above and around them.

Smaller, political parties and their members could participate in this new system. Workers, students, women’s groups and refugees could deliberate upon, and shape policy, as opposed to being represented and/or ignored by middle-aged men with no understanding of their lived experiences. The “incomplete peace” offered by elites has brought little dividends to deprived areas, whilst Northern Ireland remains a cold house for women seekingreproductive rights and recognition.

Yet we must not take this to mean that peace cannot mean a just and equitable society. Peace can be positive, and can include the currently marginalised, the disenchanted and the voiceless. Above all, in our political vision for this region, must sit a shared commitment to ensure that the horrors of the past do not ever happen again.

As Betty Williams outlined in her Nobel acceptance speech, “every death in every war that was ever fought represents life needlessly wasted, a mother’s labour spurned.” She also said that, “The Nobel Peace Prize is not awarded for what one has done, but hopefully what one will do.”

There is much more to be done. Yet the work of women and grassroots activists has limited scope whilst they are excluded from power. To truly transform our society and address the social, economic and cultural injustices visited on so many, we must include women at every level.

In short, this must be the last engineered ‘crisis’ to threaten the Northern Irish peace process. People have waited too long, accepted too little, and have been failed too abjectly for this to continue. Re-work the Good Friday Agreement. Bring everyone to the table. And begin to build a just and peaceful society.

This report prepared by SOPHIE LONG  for openDemocracy.