It’s a really important time in Northern Ireland.
It is now that we can refocus on the possibilities of politics as a hard-edged commitment to nurturing, inclusiveness, and openness.
At a shallow level, Northern Irish politics has recently been driven into cul-de-sacs by certain members of an increasingly well-remunerated political class, who often seem to find themselves having too much fun engaging in ritualised battle to concern themselves with the work of transforming Northern Ireland that they have actually been tasked with, and for which they are being paid.
All of the patient work of the peace process was in order to achieve structural change in governance following a long period of conflict, killings, sectarian exclusion, discrimination, corruption, and state-sanctioned murder. Some (not me) would argue that at least one side of the paramilitary activity was a normal response to all of that under abnormal conditions, and others (not me) would likely argue something similar about the paramilitary responses from the other side in retaliation.
Either way, almost all of the structural gains can be wiped out overnight if certain things happen over the next few days as they seem to be shaping up. If the Conservatives form a government with the DUP, a terrible beauty is born. The centre may not hold.
That’s 30, 40, 50 years of solid peacemaking, peacebuilding, and hard won advances at grassroots level to achieve subtle and carefully planned structural change in governance here, down South, and across the water in London.
Imagine where that leaves us in terms of the morale of the real (rather than industrial and professional) peace workers in the region. Imagine where that leaves us in terms of the concessions that paramilitaries made to achieve parity of esteem for their political representatives in the NI Assembly.
I’m trying not to dwell too much on this, but it’s serious stuff. And more serious when the socially-conscious and historically linchpinning middle ground of politics in Northern Ireland was pretty much wiped out of party politics last night. Think how important John Hume was in the peace process. Now imagine if he or other members of the SDLP hadn’t been in that conversation. We live in interesting times.
The already intense political life of Northern Ireland has been escalated by divisive rhetorical, fundamentalist identity politics, and oppositional competitiveness at every level. The further intensification of the political climate in Northern Ireland has effectively left us with a two-party conversation in which the two parties are explicitly committed to talking and implicitly committed to non-cooperation.
I remember being deeply inspired by John Hume when I was younger, and by David Ervine before he passed away, and I was deeply affected by both their pragmatism and their commitment to a politics that was first and foremost about people and their living conditions, not about ideologies.
David Ervine may have been a violent paramilitary at one point, but he epitomised in his later life what for me is the best kind of political attitude – a powerful, pragmatic, responsive gentleness.
For both of them, John Hume and David Ervine, working to improve people’s lives took priority in their politics over point scoring or tribal victories. There were lives at stake, and future lives could be saved by approaching politics with integrity, humility, intelligence, and an open heart.
There are a number of people in professional politics in Northern Ireland who do actually work for the common good, and not just the common good of ‘their own people’. Unfortunately, the election results have made it pretty clear that politicians who put the conditions of people’s lives before profit, before status, or before single-identity flag-waving have come to be considered inappropriate to the political games in Northern Ireland in the eyes of the majority of voters here.
This means that we are now in a very crucial period.
In Northern Ireland we need a focus on socio-economic change, healthy and nurturing community development, systemic changes in healthcare and education, and seismic shifts in the climate of our political life. We also need an Assembly, now more than ever. A properly functioning one.
The politicians most likely to work on all of that, in the cause of all of the people of Northern Ireland, are now those who have been left out in the cold, and, more importantly, out of the room where it happens, as Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical Hamilton might say.
Once you become inappropriate in the face of a majority your existence can be very quickly rendered irrelevant, and your voice, ideas, and aspirations can be ruthlessly rendered implausible, and even, eventually, erased from history.
What is vital is that we do not allow the apparent political implausibility of truly responsive, inclusive, humanised political activism in Northern Ireland to lead us to the assumption that it is impossible here as a political option. A politics built on the most helpful art of being human is entirely possible. But it might be time to stop only planting trees where they are going to be cut down. It might also be time to search for safer fields.
We need a broader and more radical social democratic conversation in the Wee North. More than this we need what England seems to have had – a revitalisation of grassroots politics as a lively conversation about supporting the most vulnerable people and any of us at our most vulnerable times, nurturing the lives of our children, breaking down the barriers of identity while respecting difference, and nourishing communities, spaces, and places in ways that enhance us all.
Every moment of contention is an opportunity for enhanced personal and political awareness.
We have a real opportunity in Northern Ireland right now. It was always there as an opportunity, but now it’s slapping us in the face and telling us to wise the fuck up. Maybe the lesson of all of this may be that the professional power games that the DUP and Sinn Féin play may not be our circus nor our monkeys.
There are powerful differences to be made elsewhere, every day, beyond the grandstanding of political display – in the power of the small and the ordinary; in the magic of people taking time for each other in good company; in the legacies of hospitality and humour; in the pleasures of a well-timed listening ear; in the understanding that turning up in person to acknowledge a death in your community is a recognition of the support we can find in sharing common humanity, beyond our labels, beyond our disputes.
Despite our reputation for being good at many more violent ways of being human, we have tended to do decency, kindness, and hospitality well in Northern Ireland.
Politics doesn’t have to negate that legacy. It can arise from it.
The time of possibility was always now.