There can be little doubt as to the public mood about politics in Northern Ireland. It ranges from apathy through annoyance to anger.
Anti-politics can be cheap and cynical. But there are genuine concerns behind this sour disposition.
We know from data on public opinion that there is big shortfall between expectations and what devolution to the region has delivered since 2007. And we know from falling voter registration and turnout that citizens feel increasingly disengaged.
What captured this disconnection was the revelation during the recent protracted private negotiations between the Protestant-fundamentalist Democratic Unionist Party and the Irish-nationalist Sinn Féin—when the very existence of democratic institutions at Stormont had once more been put in the balance—that two manufacturing firms in the greater Belfast area were planning to close. While skilled jobs were in jeopardy on the street, the agenda at Hillsborough Castle was whether members of Protestant communal parading orders would walk on certain streets or not.
Everyone in Northern Ireland old enough to remember the horrors of the 1970s and 80s—though of course that excludes more and more cohorts of young people—is relieved the embers of violence have gradually faded. But this week reminded us just how far away normality remains—with a car bomb in Newry, a paramilitary ‘punishment’ shooting in Derry, the relived horror at trial of the sectarian slaying of a young man in north Belfast, and a communalist row over who should receive farm modernisation payments in the poorer west of the region.
Normality, which is undoubtedly what most Northern Ireland citizens yearn for, is hardly an unrealistic ambition. But it will remain a receding horizon until politics there conforms to the same, simple universal norms—of democracy, human rights and the rule of law—which have kept intolerance and violence at bay across Europe for decades.
No end of private, elite ‘negotiations’ among the sectarian and paramilitary political elite will bring that about. That’s why every day in Northern Ireland seems like Groundhog Day.
But over recent months, hundreds of frustrated citizens—not Catholics, not Protestants, but citizens—from across the region have come together to chart, on the basis of principles everyone can accept, a new politics for a new Northern Ireland.
This new campaign, launched today in Belfast, is called Platform for Change. It is backed by well-known personalities but it is mainly supported by unsung heroes and heroines, who have shown their commitment in their daily lives to the public interest and the common good—and by young people who want a politics that is relevant to them.
And that is what the platform is about. It calls for a collective approach to government in Northern Ireland, with ministers all singing from the same hymn sheet rather than blocking each other’s aspirations. It demands a stream of legislation from the executive, so that the assembly delivers real results. It calls for avenues to allow business, the trade unions and the voluntary sector—and individual citizens—to have a real say in government.
Nor have those involved in this campaign avoided the difficult policy challenges Northern Ireland faces:
The platform includes concrete proposals to reset an otherwise intractable debate over academic selection at 11, which has led to chaos in the schools.
It itemises how a ‘Green New Deal’, supported by the social partners, can give the economic priority of the devolved government real substance.
And it shows how, in a Europe where the Wall of political ideology collapsed 20 years ago, a European approach to intercultural dialogue can heal a society scarred by its proliferating ‘peace walls’ (88 at the last independent count).
A big milestone is the next election to the Northern Ireland Assembly, due in 2011. As things stand, this could again prove to be two entirely separate elections—one Catholic, one Protestant—with the agenda dominated by the question of who will or will not be first minister and the dread possibility that no government is subsequently formed. Intra-Protestant divisions over sharing power with SF could lead to the latter emerging as the largest party—by which all shades of Protestant opinion would be appalled, given its history as political wing of the Irish Republican Army.
Platform for Change wants instead to see those parties that are willing to do so lining up behind the platform, and ensuring as a result that the electoral agenda is dominated by policy issues—and by how a coherent and unified administration can emerge.
If a government can be elected in which power is genuinely shared—rather than merely shared out as now—the campaign wants to see a debate about a more flexible power-sharing arrangement, founded on equality and mutuality. The current rigid system, so complex most citizens find it hard to grasp, has repeatedly proved vulnerable to political shocks.
Over the coming months, Platform for Change will be going on the road across Northern Ireland to stimulate wider debate and participation—and so attempt to make change a real possibility.
Robin Wilson is chair of Platform for Change, www.platformforchange.net.