One of the paradoxes of the peace process, and particularly the post-Agreement period, is that the political extremes have been strengthened at the expense of the political centre.
Yet, the survival and eventual growth of centre politics, leading to the emergence of genuine non-tribal politics, is integral to long term peace and stability in Northern Ireland. However, there are a number of specific dilemmas that have been posed to the centre ground by the peace process. How Alliance and others respond to these difficulties will determine whether such a future can be achieved.
Despite the Agreement, Northern Ireland remains a deeply divided society. People are still conditioned to view themselves as belonging to two tribes. If anything, this polarisation has increased since the Agreement.
There are at least 13 peace walls in Belfast alone, designed to keep people apart. One Cold War may have ended in Europe but another is very much alive in Northern Ireland. It can almost be said that peace has come at the price of reconciliation.
As a feature of communal segregation, lawlessness is on the increase. Terrorism may have declined, but conflict now manifests itself in new ways. There are deep tensions over policing and parades. An almost institutionalised paramilitarism pervades on many housing estates, providing a very real threat to law and order. The Agreement, if it is to be successful, must assert the primacy of the rule of law, and democracy.
The real strength of the Agreement lies in its creation of a set of political institutions with cross-community legitimacy. Yet the dominant vision overlying the Agreement is that of a society of two separate communities, equal in status, but with their own interests.
Under this model, there is little scope for cross-community politics. The architects of the Agreement set their faces against a government of the moderate middle in favour of an all-inclusive arrangement. Few incentives for moderation, and the development of non-sectarian politics are built into the system.
Unionist and Nationalist designations in the Assembly are particularly problematic. Whatever their claims of moderation, every Unionist in the Assembly, and every Nationalist in the Assembly has signed up to a designation that says that the ancient divide – above all else – is what defines them politically.
Through the related voting system, the voters for those parties that do not align with either Unionism or Nationalism count for less. This is not only discrimination against the centre but poses a fundamental barrier to the realignment of Northern Ireland politics along non-tribal lines. This area must be a priority for reform.
Despite agreement on the Principle of Consent, the continuing uncertainty over the constitutional status of Northern Ireland provides a further source of polarisation and instability. The longer this issue is view in zero-sum terms, the longer voters will be deterred from moving away from tribal camps lest their aspirations are undermined. The way out of this dilemma is to develop the identity of Northern Ireland as a region within a decentralising British Isles, and emerging federal Europe.
Since the Agreement, there has clearly been an increase in tactical voting. There is a perception that moderate Unionism and moderate Nationalism must be protected at all costs to preserve the integrity of the peace process by fending off the extremes. Parties are looking over their shoulders rather than looking forward. People are voting to avoid their worst fears rather than to realise their best hopes.
This dangerous short-termism merely serves to entrench the traditional tribal nature of local politics at the expense of the long-term future development towards pluralism. It reached ridiculous proportions in the South Antrim by-election when sections of the media argued that people had to vote for an anti-Agreement Ulster Unionist in order to save the Agreement!
In the peace process, most attention has fallen upon those parties that pose the greatest obstacles to the implementation of the Agreement, and who are courted by peacemakers in order to achieve progress. This increases their status as players and the defenders of particular interests at the expense of those parties that have consistently and faithfully sought to achieve the full implementation.
This focus on the extremes is bringing about its own electoral threat. In the February 1974 General Election, the narrow victory of extreme Unionism was instrumental in destroying the Sunningdale Executive. Today, both the DUP and Sinn Fein seem poised to make gains at the expense of the broad centre ground. Such a result would not have a positive effect upon the peace process.
This problem is not helped by disunity and lack of cohesion within pro-Agreement parties. However, it is magnified by the growing disillusionment with politics among large sections of the population of Northern Ireland.
There have always been a significant number of people who have been essentially non-sectarian in outlook, but who have been alienated by the tribalism and squabbling of local politics.
Such people have largely abstained from voting, but came out in droves in 1998 to vote ‘Yes’. There is a major challenge to motivate these people and equally a responsibility upon them to vote to defend their Agreement.
These are the threats being faced by the centre ground today. The nature and strength of the divisions within Northern Ireland today are such that unless they are reduced through movement towards a shared society, they will pose a long-term threat to the survival of the Agreement.
The Agreement is built on fragile foundations. It is not enough for peace and stability to be delivered through skilful conflict management from, at best, moderate unionists and moderate nationalists. We need more – we need a strong and vibrant cross-community politics in Northern Ireland.
The challenge for Alliance is to redefine its purpose and message to address this new situation, and to be radical. We are articulating a vision of a shared, non-sectarian society, and a united but diverse community. Every opportunity should be taken to develop integrated facilities, and to promote better community relations. Sectarianism and other forms of intolerance, such as we are witnessing in Larne and other towns on an almost daily basis, should be tackled head-on.
I believe that there is substantial support for a different type of Northern Ireland. However, it cannot be delivered through traditional sectional politics.