We’re trapped in ‘them and us’ politics

Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson  (left) and  deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.
Northern Ireland First Minister Peter Robinson (left) and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness.

The ‘them along with us,’ version of democratic government isn’t working. It’s profoundly disappointing because, early on, we had such high hopes for the Good Friday Agreement.

As it turns out, both ‘them’ and ‘us’ have too low a pain threshold. So long as the parties can’t tolerate electoral pain, little can be achieved. It’s a case of no pain – no gain. The Stormont five party coalition will continue to exist only for want of an alternative.

For democracy to work, parties need vision and courage. Newly elected governments usually get unpopular measures out of the way early, in the hope that the pain will have dulled in good time before the next election. The strategy may or may not work but don’t expect progress where government exists only to strike populist poses.

The DUP think they’ve endured enough pain merely by agreeing to go into the Executive with Sinn Féin. They see that as a once and for all sacrifice. Do you remember all that talk about, ending the “concessions”? Well, that’s their agenda now. Anything unpopular with their side or popular with the other side is out of the question. The classic example of that was the sudden about-turn on the Maze Peace Centre. Also for instance, education reform is stuck in limbo, we’ve no agreement on flags and parades, there’s no agreed narrative on the past, there’s no Irish language act, there’s no understanding of the other side and we have ultra-conservative, theocratic government on social issues.

The First and Deputy First Ministers tear lumps out of each other but have to smile sweetly when visitors are in, such as for the Giro d’Italia. They’re like a married couple who stay together for the sake of the children. In this case we’re the children.

For now we want them to stay together. We want them agree but there could come a time when we’ve had enough. If it becomes clear that they just can’t rub along then we may have to face up to reality. Divorce may be the only option.

Some time ago, Peter Robinson talked about ending “them and us” politics. That turned out to be an empty rhetorical flourish.

People are so divided on national identity that the system is built on “them and us” politics. Both unionists and nationalists have self servingly encouraged this division. Sooner or later we’ll have to face the fact that it won’t be going away.

There’s no point in talking about strategies for a “shared future”. It isn’t going to happen. The North remains a “failed political entity” to coin one of Charles Haughey’s more memorable phrases.

The only solution remains as it has always been. It’s for “us” to persuade “them” to throw in their lot with “us” and then we can have more normal political divisions.

The unionist slogan about Home Rule was that it would be “Rome Rule”.

There was more than a grain of truth in that but nobody now objects to Dublin Rule on religious grounds. Economics is the new religion. The big myth that, “The South can’t afford us” has taken hold. This column has in the past addressed that issue and will do so again.

We’ve a political mountain to climb but it’s better to keep climbing than to remain trapped in our “them and us” gully.