Where Now for Northern Ireland?

Where Now for Northern Ireland?

By David Ford MLA

As 2005 begins, Northern Ireland remains in political limbo. People have a right to be disappointed and indeed angry. 2004 saw insufficient progress and what limited movement there was has been set back by the apparent IRA involvement with the Northern Bank raid.

It is far from clear if the two Governments have any idea where to go from here.

The shocking humanitarian tragedy unfolding in South Asia should place our own local problems into stark context, and should bring some local parties to their senses.

Alliance started the process of reform of the Agreement. Last January, we published our proposals for reform, Agenda for Democracy. This put forward many radical ideas for improving accountability and collective responsibility within the Agreement, and removing the institutional sectarianism, including the creation of a voluntary coalition power-sharing Executive.

Throughout the Talks over the past year, Alliance worked hard to bridge the gaps between the DUP and Sinn Fein and to create the space for movement. We put forward a number of compromise ideas that have been taken up by the Governments and other parties.

Nevertheless, we are acutely aware of the limitations of a process that has been based entirely around getting the DUP and Sinn Fein to serve in government together, without much consideration of how any such power-sharing arrangements could be sustained. Not to mention making other reforms to the Agreement to improve the effectiveness of government and to remove its institutionalised sectarianism.

In December, the gaps between the DUP and Sinn Fein seemed superficially narrow, but now in the wake of the Northern Ireland Bank raid there is a deep chasm of mistrust between Republicans and everyone else.

The fundamental principles of the Agreement are now defined and accepted by all of the main parties, including the DUP. The DUP are prepared to buy into a reformed Belfast Agreement. The Governments and parties have now conceded that reform of the Agreement is not only required but can take place. These are important developments.

Furthermore, the people of Northern Ireland, and indeed the international community, are now aware of how far the DUP and the Republican movements are prepared to go.

Nevertheless, there was over-optimism that a deal is not only now possible between the DUP and Sinn Fein but could actually hold. The basis for this belief was that any deal including the DUP and Sinn Fein could be more secure, as both the parties with the ability to bring the institutions crashing down either politically or through violence would be bound into the process.

A more realistic perspective is to recognise that while both the DUP and Sinn Fein have moderated to some extent, they remain parties on the relative extremes of the Northern Ireland political spectrum. The lessons of international history are that it is extremely difficult to create and sustain a political process on such a basis.

Unless there is a meaningful attempt to overcome the ingrained patterns of division and to build a united community from the bottom up, disputes over matters such as parades, policing, symbols and who gets more funding are likely to provide plenty of opportunities for these parties to have major rows.

The so-called moderates in the UUP and SDLP have not sought to play a constructive role over the past year, and have thrown up obstacles to progress. When they had their opportunity neither was willing or able to deliver. Both were constrained from acting as they were constantly looking over their shoulder.

The irony is of course that that both these parties put in place a system of institutionalised sectarianism that made it inevitable that they would be outflanked by their more hard-line rivals. The SDLP are now complaining about the deepening Apartheid in Northern Ireland, when they did so much to reinforce it in the Assembly.

Alliance is committed to finding a way forward over the weeks and months to come, but it is clear that action is required in three regards.

First, it is time for a more fundamental review of the Agreement. The package announced by the two Governments in December was billed as comprehensive, but it was not. It addressed all of the issues raised by the DUP and Sinn Fein, but did not deal with matters such as the Designation system for MLAs.

Instead of propping up structures that didn’t even work very well when the UUP and SDLP were in charge, it is time to examine different mechanisms. We must restore devolution, on a basis that will work, rather than make further attempts to resurrect a system that has so obviously failed.

The principles of the Agreement remain the only basis for movement forward, but the proposals we published in ‘Agenda for Democracy’ have much greater chance of success than was achieved throughout 2004.

In particular, our proposals for a voluntary coalition are now even more relevant. These were not developed just to exclude Sinn Fein, but to provide for more coherent and effective cross-community government. It is entirely possible for Sinn Fein to be part of such arrangements, provided that they can meet the same standards of democracy, human rights and the rule of law as other parties.

However, if Sinn Féin are not prepared to do so, it removes the Republican veto, and allows other parties to move forward.

Second, there must be a full and unambiguous commitment to democracy, human rights and the rule of law. There is still a tendency for commitments in this regard to be hedged. The proposed statement from the IRA, even in its fullest form, falls short of what is required.

Third, and most crucially, serious attention must be given to community relations issues.

There is a clear, mutually-reinforcing relationship between the divisions in society and the problems within the political system.

All matters that have the potential to undermine the political process must be addressed as a matter of urgency. Alliance is most disappointed that there was no reference to community relations issues within the Governments’ package.

It is now imperative that the Northern Ireland Office progresses its work on ‘A Shared Future’ with some urgency. The community consultation has been carried out and showed a strong commitment to a united community, where people can live and learn, work and play, together in safety.

We need a clear commitment from government to this vision, and the new policies to put it into practice. Improving community relations is a necessary requirement for political progress, and vital for the future of this community.

David Ford is Leader of the Alliance Party

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