Mention just about anything these days in NI and there will opposing viewpoints expressed – education, healthcare, policing, prisons, victims, flags, parades, reconciliation, housing, deprivation, and so it goes on. The push towards a more shared and reconciled future is floundering on the rock of a past which is no more negotiated, agreed or dealt with than it was fifteen, twenty or even thirty years ago.
Opposing views are to be expected in healthy politics so that in itself is not the difficulty. The difficulty arises when the politics of the day is constructed and articulated almost entirely around opposition causing a way forward to stall and stutter. The challenge should not, of course, be underestimated. Each time political leaders take a stand they are not only playing oppositional politics they are also looking over their shoulder at their traditional constituency. Votes matter, but sometimes they matter too much. Maybe there was an inevitability about all of this. The devolution of powers meant that each party would have to be responsible for itself but so long as each continues to play to their own constituency the potential for reconstruction is held back. Political leaders are caught between maintaining their own political base and developing a new society which requires reaching out a hand to those ‘on the other side’.
On the ground there are things that would have made it more possible for leaders to lead – if more people had decided to cross over the territorial boundaries and live alongside their neighbours from ‘the other side’; if the education sector and those interested parties with loud opinions could have reached some agreement on how to construct an education system effective for all; if there were more evidence of movement out of traditional voting patterns – but there hasn’t been that shift on the ground to a critical enough level to move up through society and enable leaders to stop looking over their shoulder, at least so often. The parallel and conforming territorial arrangements that we prefer are hard to break free from and yet across society there is an expectation that political leaders will break free and lead us to a better place. In 1987 Frank Wright recognised the difficulties of breaking down territorialism. He is unlikely to have foreseen how it would persist.
Once degeneration into territorial breakdown has occurred, it is exceedingly difficult to restore any kind of peaceful co-existence between territorial fragments.
One of the realities is that for breakdown to happen there has to be a stable sense of security. People have to feel that when they risk stepping over the line they will survive it – survive it among their own and survive it among the strangers on the other side. It would seem that on the Maze/Long Kesh Project, for example, a stable sense of security does not exist for all. But it does exist for some – a surprising group within the DUP who are committed to the project. For some that stable sense of security doesn’t exist when it comes to accepting that other narratives of the past and experiences of the past exist beyond their own while for others there is an attempt to hear the other narratives but in a manner that flattens history into a leveling of the field which insults some and enlivens others.
At the same time there is good news, not least about the success of the Titanic Centre. The hope of the coming Police & Fire Games and the G8 remain as activities to draw us into the future, a future far more dynamic and imaginative that the destruction of the past. On the ground communities are working across ‘territorial fragments’ in astounding and dynamic ways. But it is not enough. I am not always one to defend political leaders but I can see the dilemmas they face. The difficulties persist, though, when each plays to their own in a way which appears to be all about keeping their own politic alive whether or not it has implications for the longer-term shared and peaceful future of NI or not. As the First & Deputy First Minister begin to stitch together a new public profile and relationship what freedoms can we give them to be the leaders we have elected them to be?
We sit at a critical time. It is the beginning of another summer which holds the vision of G8 and The Games alongside the weighty worry about parades and how they will be policed. In that axis sits the metaphor for where we are balancing. A push simultaneously in both directions, on the one hand to the future and on the other to the past, and we will crack open in the middle and it will be raw. Somehow political and civic leaders together with all of society have to find a way to sit in the balance and wrestle forward to a new axis. Either we go back or go forward, We can no longer hold on to both, switching from one foot to the other in the hope that something will work out.
Somehow the narratives that inform us in our decisions and actions have to be at least acknowledged in their difference. The grave danger is that we cannot see beyond the end-goals on either side – end-goals that pull in utterly different directions. Sinn Fein’s call for a border poll made the reality of pulling in opposite directions all to evident. If we continue to raise up issues that not only permit but demand that others pull in the other direction where will it all end? More importantly, how do we find a way out of it? If we cannot find something common to us all in terms of the ultimate destination of our political ambitions then we have to find it somewhere else. The fracture can be avoided so that the shared society imagined after Good Friday 2008 can be purposefully developed for all the people of NI. If we are to avoid the terrors and dangers of the past then we have no choice but to face the dangers of isolating our own narratives and justifying ourselves while denigrating others. The outcome will be moral calamity played out in disappointment, danger to life and a stunted future.
The common place on which to stand can only be found in commitments made to exert every possible energy to the building of a new, a better and more reconciled future. If we are to do that then exclusive and excluding narratives of the past have to be resisted as the sole decider in political decision-making. It becomes incumbent on political leaders to open up secure and safe places where the dangers of isolation and self-justifying narratives can be resisted and to develop whatever coalitions are necessary for a future that does not carry into it the dehumanizing experiences of the past. In other words, relationships matter. They particularly matter with those who have been traditionally different socially, politically and culturally. To state it at its most stark, if we cannot develop relationships with those whom we have traditionally abhorred then we allow them to define us into exclusive narratives which self-justify at the expense of everyone. When politicians begin to articulate, at least in explanation, how the other side sees it then we will be getting somewhere because at that point real listening will have begun.
We need to tell our stories to each other and listen intently to what we are told – which involves reaching beyond the words – feeling the pain of the other as transmitted through the ‘memory’ of their community. Thus, we begin to see from the perspective of the other.
Without such an ethic of risk where are we headed?