Martina Devlin: ‘If Stormont is to have support, it must deliver’

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Martina Devlin: ‘If Stormont is to have support, it must deliver’


United but divided: DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: Reuters
United but divided: DUP leader Arlene Foster and Sinn Féin’s Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill at the funeral service for murdered journalist Lyra McKee. Photo: Reuters

‘Unfortunately I am afraid, as always, of going on. For to go on means going from here…” So says the narrator in Samuel Beckett’s novel ‘The Unnamable’.

Getting from here to there in the political landscape of the North is the goal – but it must mean progress. It’s meaningless if ‘there’ turns out to be a mirror image of that unsatisfactory state of affairs called ‘here’.

It’s generally agreed, by the Irish and British governments at least, that Stormont needs to be reactivated. But Northern nationalists have disengaged from the mansion on the hill – while they aren’t opposed to resumption, they won’t be fooled by window-dressing. A modified Stormont is urgently needed. And unless reform is a key part of the talks process announced yesterday, its days will be numbered.

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Politicians must be willing to act as agents for change rather than remain in their comfort zones. Instead, on both sides of the divide they have kept one foot in the past – and that pushes the future out of reach. Their electorates are the losers by it.

Why is there nationalist disenchantment? It doesn’t help that the Executive and Assembly have been out of operation for two years and nearly four months – Stormont fell on January 9, 2017. The region holds the world record for the longest period without a sitting government, leaving unelected civil servants in charge of dwindling resources.

But Stormont had lost credibility before it folded. It was a partnership in name only. And a return to business as usual will bring about another collapse sooner or later.

On the one hand, we have Lyra McKee’s death making it imperative that someone in a leadership role should take a political chance – that’s how deadlocks are broken. On the other hand, plugging Stormont back in will be insufficient to deliver on a fair society – a place where everyone has a chance of education, healthcare and a job that pays a living wage. A place, too, where rights are for everyone.

Brexit’s threat to the Good Friday Agreement, open Border and right to identity as Irish or British has left people in the North feeling exposed and vulnerable. But it has also left them determined. They are not prepared to forego their rights. If Stormont is to have their support, it must deliver on rights.

Irish language legislation remains a live issue. It is a symbol that cultural identity is recognised by the Northern state in the same way it is acknowledged in Wales and Scotland. But the DUP is resistant to Irish language legislation because the party sees it as diminishing the region’s so-called British identity.

Arlene Foster was a welcome sight alongside Mary Lou McDonald and Michelle O’Neill in St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast this week. But they need to work together, not just sit together. The unfortunate reality is no deaths in Northern Ireland have ever helped politicians to overcome their differences.

Can the current crop be any different? That’s the challenge they face. In the context of the North, it’s striking how many key players are women. However, their track record to date is as disappointing as the paralysis shown by the grey men they replaced. These women are not miracle workers. But they must find ways to deliver.

Optimism is hard to summon up. Yet faith and generosity of spirit must be found. The politicians need to show trust for those from other parties, which in turn will filter down to their electorates. Communities need to integrate, not be kept apart.

Seamus Mallon told Miriam O’Callaghan on RTÉ Radio that Karen Bradley was not the Secretary of State to drive progress. He has a point. Perhaps an outside mediator could lubricate progress – it worked in the 1990s when Senator George Mitchell gave exceptional service.

Father Martin Magill’s cri de coeur at Lyra McKee’s funeral referenced the poverty and deprivation which fuels dissidents – jobs are needed; a chance at life. Stormont should be working towards that end. He expressed the frustration many felt as stalemate dragged on without resolution. Too many excuses for inaction have been advanced over the past two years, primarily Brexit.

The current volatility demands a proactive response and we must hope the new round of talks will prove productive. This is no longer about what politicians want or don’t want – it’s about what the public urgently needs. Unless political movement happens, further violence and more innocent deaths are likely.

Realistically, we can expect little by way of progress this week, with the local elections happening on Friday. After the dust settles, that’s when talks will start in earnest.

By then, the parties will know how voters feel about political stasis, as well as their views on the DUP’s push at Westminster for a hard Border. But whatever the polls say, politicians have been let off the hook for too long.

Last year, the DUP walked away from a deal because it couldn’t sell an Irish Language Act to its grassroots. This year, its power in Westminster is past the peak and the party is readier to turn back to Stormont. It may reconsider the language issue in tandem with provisions for Ulster Scots. As for Sinn Féin, it knows it will lose support to dissidents unless it delivers on rights.

Clearly, the Petition of Concern needs to be reformed – a veto which allowed the DUP to block marriage equality legislation despite the Assembly as a whole favouring it.

Same-sex marriage is only a question of time in the North and I suspect the DUP knows that perfectly well. Other matters of dispute include abortion rights and how legacy issues are addressed.

Unionists and nationalists have to sit in government together in the Executive if Stormont is to function. And both parties need to recalibrate if that is to happen.

Attached to the binaries of nationalism and unionism, they have sold their people short and allowed opportunities to be snatched away.

Part of the problem is that cross-community reconciliation, envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement, has been swept into a corner for too long. It must be an interlocking element of any restoration of power-sharing.

None of this is impossible though it may be daunting. Let me take you back to that monologue in Beckett’s book: “You must go on. I can’t go on. You must go on. I’ll go on.” An enormous boulder was rolled uphill at the time of the Good Friday Agreement – the current impasse is not nearly so heavy. But it does require shoulders to the wheel.

Irish Independent

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