FERGUS FINLAY: Problems in Northern Ireland are down to politics based on tribalism

The politicians are still stuck in the endless revolving door of “our tribe against your tribe”, writes Fergus Finlay

YEARS ago I was asked to help out on a training course for candidates who were running for election to one of the early Northern Ireland assemblies. It was a broad, cross-party group, most (though not all) young. The requirement was for the sort of basic skills that candidates need — how to stand up in front of an audience and make a speech, how to prepare and issue a press release, that sort of thing.

After I had done my presentation, I set them each the task of writing a five-minute speech on the subject of their choice — about 600 words each. When they were done, they had to read what they had written to their colleagues.

And they were brilliant. Each of them was concise, coherent, well argued. There was a good deal of passion and conviction about them.

The only problem was that they had each chosen the same subject, and each made essentially the same speech. They knew everything there was to know about what was called at the time “the national question” — the status of Northern Ireland, the role of violence, the principle of consent, the issue of power-sharing.

It was a big issue, no doubt, but I figured it was never going to be enough to sustain them into the future. So I set them a new task. Another 600-word speech, but this time I picked the subject and gave everyone a different one. I picked subjects like women’s rights, unemployment, agricultural prices, the environment, how to boost tourism.

They were completely lost. Not a single one of them was able to put together more than a few clichés. It was abundantly clear that these highly committed politicians were engaged in a politics I didn’t understand.

They understood one issue wholly and completely, but almost nothing else. How was it possible, I remember wondering, to sustain politics for generations on the basis of so narrow a view of what matters?

Somehow or other, they’ve done it. They’ve managed to construct a party politics that has brought peace, by and large, to Northern Ireland. They’ve shared power and have managed such devolved responsibility as they have. They’ve worked together, often it seems in a pretty icy atmosphere, to present Northern Ireland as a place that has surmounted its past.

But now they’re in crisis — and the ostensible reason for that is the apparent belief that the past hasn’t gone away at all. Specifically, the crisis appears to centre on the question of whether or not the Provisional IRA still exists.

And that question was raised in the first instance by a Detective Superintendent, Kevin Geddes, who is leading an investigation into two brutal murders — one, possibly, in revenge for the other.

Problems in Northern Ireland are down to politics based on tribalism

Detective Superintendent Kevin Geddes

In a statement, Geddes said (among a lot of other things): “One of our major lines of enquiry is that members of the Provisional IRA were involved in this murder. I have no information to say at this stage whether this was sanctioned at a command level or not and I am not prepared to speculate about that.”

It is that couple of sentences that sparked the crisis. And the crisis has built in intensity despite a subsequent statement by the Chief Constable of Northern Ireland, George Hamilton.

Although he didn’t disagree with his Detective Superintendent, he also said that he accepted the bona fides of the Sinn Féin leadership in their rejection of violence and pursuit of the peace process.

And he went on, “We assess that in the organisational sense the Provisional IRA does not exist for paramilitary purposes. Nevertheless, we assess that in common with the majority of Northern Ireland paramilitary groups from the period of the conflict, some of the PIRA structure from the 1990s remains broadly in place, although its purpose has radically changed since this period.

“Our assessment indicates that a primary focus of the Provisional IRA is now promoting a peaceful, political Republican agenda. It is our assessment that the Provisional IRA is committed to following a political path and is no longer engaged in terrorism … We have no information to suggest that violence, as seen in the murder of Kevin McGuigan, was sanctioned or directed at a senior level in the Republican movement.”

I have to say that I cannot, for the life of me, see anything surprising or controversial in this statement.

On the one hand, I have never believed that every single member of the IRA, after 30 years of involvement in a conflict where they had to be prepared to kill and be killed as a way of life, would suddenly wake up some morning and decide to get on with living the humdrum lives that the rest of us lead.

On the other, politics wouldn’t have got to where it is now unless everyone in Northern Ireland accepted that the gun and the bomb no longer had any place.

Problems in Northern Ireland are down to politics based on tribalism

And yet we have a crisis. People who have worked together for years, in the certain knowledge that some at least of their government colleagues had a violent paramilitary past, suddenly find that they are going to have to have weeks of soul-searching, resulting in some new emergence of some old structure to give them reassurance, before they can work together again.

We’ll have endless denials from Sinn Féin, and endless efforts by the DUP to rewrite the rules in some way. The two governments will see it as their role to paper over the cracks.

But surely what it all reveals is the hollowness of the politics. Despite a series of agreements, despite what seems like years of rolling negotiations, the politics of Northern Ireland is still essentially tribal. That’s why the original assertion by Superintendent Geddes that members of the IRA were involved in a murder caused a political bomb to go off.

“They haven’t gone away, you know” is still the statement most likely to undermine everything in Northern Ireland. Any reappearance, even of the shadow of the paramilitary past, brings every tribal instinct to the surface. That is a reflection of a politics that hasn’t moved on.

The DUP will always over-react to the shadow, Sinn Féin will always stick to their own mantras. Neither side will ever set out to provide the normal democratic assurances that both need.

In the end, Peter Robinson, Gerry Adams and the rest will always be more comfortable talking to their own— there will never be a desire to reach out to the other side.

The people of Northern Ireland have, by and large, gone back to living ordinary lives. A generation of young and not so young has grown up in a place that is no longer characterised by bouts of terror on the streets or in their homes. Mourning, when it happens now, is because of normal human tragedies.

But the politicians are still stuck in the endless revolving door of “our tribe against your tribe”. Still stuck in the mud of the past, still incapable of developing real politics about all the other issues that matter.

For as long as the hollow tribal response is the only one possible, they’re not serving their people as well as they deserve.

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