22 November 2012
“History will be kind to me for I intend to write it”
The ever-modest Winston Churchill is credited with these words which capture something of the spirit of every age. It seems to fall on each generation to seek their own glories and make their own mistakes. For instance, despite their best efforts England supporters can't live on the glory of 1966 forever. We all want our generation to be the most 'successful' whether in the sports field or in the political chamber. However, if this generation in Northern Ireland is to make that paradigm shift away from the 'them and us' mentality we need to learn something from the generations before us. In my last few weeks as a twenty something living in Northern Ireland I've found it really useful to look back at some of those who've been grappling with our troubles for a lot longer than me.
The Northern Consensus Group was started in the 1980s by two solicitors, one from each side of the traditional divide who felt compelled to do something in the face of escalating sectarian violence. The small group was made up of members of the Protestant and Catholic community. An extract from one of their publications states, 'members of the group seek solutions to Northern Ireland's problems which both unionists and nationalists can support without compromising their basic political principles and national aspirations.' They focused on what united rather than on what divided.
In 1984 they produced a short pamphlet called 'Untying the knot'. This set out five principles that helped steer their public engagement and ultimately that of our peace process. These principles were:
- No change in Northern Ireland's position within the United Kingdom unless a majority in Northern Ireland agrees. (This principle is now enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement 1998).
- The responsibility of Government must be shared between the two traditions. (Power-sharing is now the case in law and practice).
- The institutions of Government must reflect the different traditions. (This can be seen in the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements and practical examples like the promotion of the Irish language and Ulster Scots).
- All must give full support for the rule of law impartially enacted and administrated. (Sinn Fein now support the PSNI and policing and criminal justice powers were devolved in 2010).
- All must denounce violence as a means towards political ends. (There is no longer an 'armalite and ballot box strategy' by Sinn Fein, dissident violence has been condemned by all political parties).
It is amazing to see each of these principles now fulfilled and to note that 10 years before the IRA ceasefire, 14 years before the Good Friday agreement and 26 years before the devolution of policing and justice powers these principles were in the public domain. The Northern Consensus Group were not the only body putting forward such thinking and they themselves would not claim sole responsibility for all of the proceeding peaceful developments. Many people tirelessly sought agreement and peace over and above violence and dissent. However it's important to remember that these principles were published in a year when 72 people were murdered in sectarian violence. The vision and perhaps the madness of what was being suggested at that time is difficult to re-imagine in today's context.
My generation should be inspired by this sort of prophetic wisdom and foresight. What are the next set of principles that we need to be articulating now as our charter for the future? As in the generation before, the things we discuss now may be labelled as naivety or foolishness and we may not get it all right but we need a humble boldness to begin talking the language of the future.
The practice of law has changed a lot since two solicitors began a new conversation in Northern Ireland in the early 1980s. Alternative dispute resolution is now rapidly replacing contentious litigation. There will always be disputes, some of them irreconcilable but there are new ways to deal with them. Could the same be true of politics in Northern Ireland?
Current political discourse in Northern Ireland often begins and ends with what divides us. Vetoes and stagnation tend to win over agreement and progress. Putting constitutional issues to the side, as the Good Friday agreement has done, where is there potential for agreement? Surely the future holds a better way, still robust yes very much, but focused on resolution rather than adversary? Side-stepping traditional party politics what issues can we dare to see in a new way? Parades, housing, education, the past?
If you would like to discuss this article further please contact David Smyth, Public Policy Officer, Northern Ireland.