02 January 2006

Maybe this year Peadar will be proved wrong


(Patrick Murphy, Irish News)

"Between yez all, yez have made a mess of it," the late Peadar O'Donnell said, life-long republican, socialist and general political agitator.

The Donegal man was sitting in his Dublin home in 1970, as the civil rights movement tried to hold the line against the emerging violence of the newly-formed Provisional IRA. The situation in the north was a mess and he could see no way forward.

As we face into a new year of political stalemate, economic uncertainty and administrative confusion, should such curt pessimism still hold? Is there something to look forward to – or have our politicians made an irreversible mess of it all?

In politics, the short-term future is bleak. The soap opera-style scandals, inherent in the elaborate courtship between the British government and the Provisional IRA, seem set to rumble on.

Meanwhile the other parties remain in the role of bit-players.

Nothing will be settled without new assembly elections – and they will not be held until the British government is reasonably confident of a result it can work with.

(It is democracy but not as we know it).

The longer-term prospects are no better because our political system is inherently flawed.

Devised by the British, Irish and US governments, it is based on the belief that the problem here was one of political violence. But violence was not the problem – it was merely the symptom.

The underlying problem was generations of state-sponsored sectarianism that prevented the development of normal politics. Violence did not cause our political instability – it was instability that caused the violence.

Attracted by the prospect of power, our politicians – who had never known normal politics – bought into a new form of state-sponsored sectarianism in the Good Friday Agreement. Ministerial posts were to be allocated on electoral strength.

This led to rivalry, not between the two sectarian blocks but within them to see who could become the more unionist/nationalist. That meant becoming more sectarian – no matter how much that aim ran counter to any party's intentions. More sectarian votes meant more ministerial power.

With the greatest optimism in the world it is difficult to see how a sectarian system can produce normal politics.

So the question for the new year is not will the system work but can it work?

The three governments may argue that they were not trying to create a non-sectarian system: they were aiming for a state of perfect sectarian equilibrium, a form of inter-dependent religious balance, which

no-one would upset for fear of losing political power.

Nice theory, shame about the reality: they forgot that politicians in Northern Ireland love power but abhor responsibility.

For half-pay, they will forego both.

As a counter-balance to the new system of institutionalised division, the three governments fostered high-profile, non-sectarian events.

Just as they tried to bring Morecambe and Wise in 1975 to hide the sectarian violence, this time they brought new ideas to hide the sectarian peace – concerts, ice hockey, a 'national' northern stadium and pressure on the GAA to open Croke Park to other sports. Even poor George Best became an event.

Thus we are destined to live in a society of contradiction – sectarianism as the basis for government inside Stormont, integration on the lawns outside it. It is a contradiction supported by the mantra that things now are so much better than they were.

Compared to the Troubles life has improved. But are we better off than we were before the Troubles?

Then Catholics were effectively excluded from joining the police by the nationalist tradition of abstinence and the police tradition of bias. Today many Protestants are excluded from the police, this time by force of law – and equality law at that.

Pre-Troubles we had Gerrymandering of local government boundaries. Today we face the biggest sectarian carve-up in the history of local government boundaries.

This is not progress – it is mere change based on the re-distribution of sectarianism. Thus we are well on our way towards creating a society in which the solution may be worse than the problem.

Our new system is just the other side of the same sectarian coin. What we needed was not just a new coin, we needed a new currency.

It seems a bit late for all that now, which is why on this new year's eve, it is difficult not to remember Peadar O'Donnell's blunt and grumpy analysis.

He has been right every year for 35 years. Maybe this year he will be proved wrong. Happy new year anyone?

January 2, 2006
This article appeared first in the December 31, 2005 edition of the Irish News.

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