Developing respect in our politics: Leaders’ debate
by Allan LEONARD
8 August 2018
The high level of respect displayed by the audience and speakers at St Mary’s University College for a leaders’ debate organised by Féile Belfast belied that of the current political situation in Northern Ireland.
Representing seven parties on the island of Ireland were: Colum Eastwood MLA (Leader, SDLP), Simon Harris TD (Fine Gael; Irish Government Minister), Simon Hamilton MLA (DUP). Mary Lou McDonald TD (President, Sinn Fein), Robin Swann MLA (Leader, UUP), Lisa Chambers TD (Fianna Fáil), and Stephen Farry MLA (Deputy Leader, Alliance).
The session was chaired by BBC journalist, Mark Carruthers, who raised a wide range of topics, including a potential border poll, Brexit, mutual identities, restoring the Northern Ireland government, same-sex marriage, and Irish language rights.
Each speaker was allowed a minute’s introduction of what they saw as current challenges.
Colum Eastwood spoke about how unionists and nationalists are “a restless people” and are having conversations about “the constitutional future of this country”. Furthermore, for him, any united Ireland or new Ireland will have to be one in which nationalists, unionists, and others will be comfortable in: “It will not be created by bullying or breeding anyone into it.”
In reference to Brexit, Simon Harris said that the Irish government will “never allow a situation where any part of the Good Friday Agreement can be in any way undermined”. He added: “We will continue work to protect Northern Ireland’s interests and the interests of all the people on the island of Ireland.”
Simon Hamilton said that the debate on whether to remain in the United Kingdom or join a united Ireland “is an important debate, a debate that we should be happy to have”. He also called for a debate “on the sort of Northern Ireland that we want to have”, citing the health service, education system, housing, and the economy.
Mary Lou McDonald said that the rights agenda is “looming large” — on the 50th anniversary of the civil rights movement, “when people spilt onto the streets”. With reference to Irish unification, she said that “change is in the air”, which can’t be denied or delayed, but can be managed in a respectful and inclusive process.
Robin Swann spoke of his desire to challenge what it means to be a unionist in Northern Ireland, “because I’m confident enough to come here tonight … and try to convince you that the best place for Northern Ireland to be is as part of the United Kingdom”. He added, “But I want to see Northern Ireland that has a strong future, where everyone can feel at home about it.”
“My unionism is about building a future that is built on knowledge, trust, and evidence in fact, rather than one that is built on fear, intolerance, or prejudice,” said Swann.
Lisa Chambers said that Brexit poses the biggest single challenge to society across the entire island. For her, Brexit threatens to make worse the socio-economic issues, particularly in border areas; Brexit could cause “[us] to regress the progress that we’ve made”.
Stephen Farry said that Northern Ireland is going through an existential crisis: “This society is being pulled apart by Brexit, by the lack of an Assembly and local government, where we can coalesce as a people here.” In reference to Brexit, Farry said: “Northern Ireland only works based on sharing and interdependence. That was at the heart of the Good Friday Agreement — to recognise that whole range of different relationships across these islands. Brexit, no matter how it falls, involves some form of new barriers or new divisions. And that simply doesn’t work in a complex place like this.”
Border poll-Brexit conflagration?
McDonald argued that a referendum for Irish unity is not “a Sinn Féin enterprise”, naming the critical role of the Irish Government “to clear the space to have the discussions” in wider society.
Swann said that a border poll was unnecessary, citing opinion surveys showing 22-44% support for a united Ireland: “Why we don’t need discussion at this time is because of the distraction and deflection it causes us in Northern Ireland, where we’re trying to reconstitute the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Northern Ireland Executive.”
Hamilton highlighted Swann’s point that a border poll would have a destabilising effect in the here and now: “Look at the media last week: we had attacks on Catholic church property, we had attacks on Orange halls. This is still a bitterly and deeply divided society. To throw into that mix a maelstorm of a border poll, which can only serve to divide our community further, is not going to help to repair the wounds of the past, or to help us move towards a society that is genuinely shared.”
Eastwood said that there should be a border poll: “It’s why we (SDLP) were very keen in writing it into the Good Friday Agreement.” He added that the poll should be held after the matter of Brexit is settled, “because otherwise people won’t know what they’re voting for”. For him, a future referendum on a united Ireland will be about rejoining the EU: “It’ll be a choice between a closed world and an open world.”
Harris referenced Peter Robinson’s (previous Leader, DUP) point of learning from the EU referendum experience, in that presenting a yes/no question “without doing our homework, you can have confusing and unforeseen consequences”.
Farry reminded the audience that Alliance is a cross-community party: “Our basis is about bringing people together here, building reconciliation, integration — essentially making Northern Ireland work.” But he added that “we need to be realistic that the constitutional question is back on the table, in a way it hasn’t been in the previous 20 years”. Farry argued that the pursuit, by some unionists, of a hard-Brexit result is at odds with how one runs a cohesive Northern Ireland (with its complexities of multiple identities), and will ultimately undermine their own position. Likewise, he argued that especially younger people are viewing a united Ireland as a more reliable route, in terms of social rights being realised.
Chambers thought that Sinn Féin’s conflating of Brexit with a united Ireland was “a strategic error, because the two do not equal each other”. But for her, even when the Brexit process finishes, “we’re not ready for that poll yet”.
“I want to see a united Ireland. My party, Fianna Fáil, wants to see a united Ireland. But what we don’t want is to entrench both sides further … create divisions … to undermine the Good Friday Agreement or the peace process. Those things which we must all protect because we have a responsibility to do so … It’s so important that we don’t entrench any further, and that we work together as a collective community, for a shared island and a shared future together,” Chambers concluded.
Mutually respecting identities
Harris also thought that there is a lot more work needed in relation to understanding people’s different traditions, and remarked on his visit to the Orange Museum earlier in the day: “I think all of us, whether we live in the North or the South, have to make that effort, to understand each other’s culture and to continue reconciliation.”
McDonald spoke of the Orange Order’s refusal to meet her: “I really hope they’ll change their mind, not because I’m going to convince them [on a united Ireland] … I think it is so important — the simple act of acknowledging the other. Agree to disagree, by all means — that’s how adult politics works.”
In regards to respecting the British identity, she said that she accepts that there are people who are British today, “were British yesterday, will be British tomorrow. They’re British in a partitioned Ireland, and they will be British in a united Ireland.”
In response, Hamilton acknowledged that in his asking for respect for the British identity, it begged the question of respect for the Irish identity: “That is something that I am up for, my party is up for … but you have to demonstrate that you respect the British identity.”
Rights vs issues in restoring Northern Ireland government
On the matter of progressing politics, McDonald and Hamilton, representing the two largest elected parties in Northern Ireland, retained deep disagreements on how to restore devolved government. Hamilton emphasised socio-economic issues, such as health and education, and he regarded Sinn Féin demands for legislation on the Irish language and same-sex marriage as mattering less. McDonald replied that the Irish language and same-sex marriage were issues of rights, and that Sinn Féin would not return to a Northern Ireland Executive unless they were sufficiently addressed.
Carruthers pointed out that although there was a majority vote in the Northern Ireland Assembly in favour of same-sex marriage, it was defeated by the Petition of Concern procedural mechanism, which enables a majority of MLAs with a communal designation of “Unionist” or “Nationalist” to force a weighted majority vote (50/50/50 or 60/40/40 all/Unionist/Nationalist). This mechanism is part of the Good Friday Agreement, as a communal identity safeguard. Hamilton acknowledged that the Petition of Concern has been used on all sides on a whole series of issues not related to the constitutional question, and that it was for no one besides the petitioning political representatives to decide what issue could be used for protecting communal interests. Harris countered by saying that there are both unionists and nationalists who want marriage equality: “Marriage equality is not an issue of dividing whether you’re a unionist or nationalist.”
Here there is no agreement on what issue debated in the Northern Ireland Assembly is a legitimate threat to one’s communal identity (and worthy of invoking the Petition of Concern). The absence of trust between the two largest parties makes reform of the Petition of Concern less likely, surely. So the question remains — how to develop trust in our politics for peacebuilding in Northern Ireland that respects our interdependent relationships, near and far?
Image source: Féile Belfast