Road numbering in NI is a mess

Any outsider trying to get from A to B in Northern Ireland would be best advised to invest in a satnav. People who regularly commute from Craigavon to Belfast are well accustomed to seeing cars with Dublin license plates barrelling westward on the M1 with panicked-looking drivers inside. This is because in the Republic, the powers that be have (sensibly) decided that a motorway should have the same number as the route that it replaces, which then reverts to a regional road with a different number. The concept of an M1 and an A1 going in completely different directions therefore takes people by complete surprise.

But that’s not all. Travelling from Belfast to Derry, one takes the M2, which is inexplicably renamed to the M22 shortly before downgrading to the A6*. One end of the M1 becomes the A4, but the other end becomes the A12. When driving from Derry to Coleraine one should not stay on the A2 for the full distance unless a scenic detour is desired. And nobody in their right mind would drive from Armagh to Newtownhamilton using the A29 via Keady. Then there are several routes that fork so that they have three or more ends (A2 in Derry, B2 in Lurgan, B3 in Gilford, B95 every half a mile…) and two that share the same number (A37 at Coleraine and also at Crossmaglen). It’s almost as if the person who was dishing out the numbers came in with a hangover one morning and forgot what he’d done the night before.

Several decades ago, the Republic completely renumbered all of its roads. The new system is consistent, logical and future proof. I would propose a limited renumbering of NI’s trunk routes on a similar basis, with the primary aim of making life easier for drivers of strategic traffic, who may not be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the current system.

  • The renumbering would initially apply only to motorways, primary strategic routes and a few other border-crossing roads that connect to the Republic’s N routes.
  • Where routes cross the border they would have the same number on both sides.
  • Routes would use the same number for their entire length, the only change being an M to indicate a motorway.
  • The ultimate destination of each route would be clearly signposted, even if it was on the other side of the border (with one exception).
  • Route numbers would not need to be unique across the island, but would be chosen to minimise confusion and represent the relative importance of the routes.

The last point is important – this is an NI-specific scheme, and would be defined independently of the Republic’s system (making it easier to implement both logistically and politically). It would however be coordinated on a best effort basis, in the same way that neighbouring counties in the U.S. often coordinate the numbers of their border-crossing county roads while freely duplicating others. Strategic routes in NI would use a novel prefix (S for “strategic”, say) to avoid any ambiguity.

This scheme would entail significant costs, so would probably only happen as part of a larger project, perhaps including bilingual signage and/or metrication.

The new routes would be:

Primary Strategic Routes

  • S1 – A1 Sprucefield to Dublin (=N1)
  • S2 – A5 Derry to Dublin (=N2)
  • S3 – A509, A46 Dublin to Ballyshannon (via Enniskillen) (=N3)
  • M10, S10 – M2, M22, A6, A514 Belfast to Derry
  • M11, S11 – A8(M), A8 Glengormley to Larne
  • M12, S12 – M12, A3 Craigavon to Monaghan (=N12)
  • M13, S13 – A26, M2, A26, A37(N), A2, A515, A2 Antrim to Letterkenny (via Coleraine and Derry) (=N13)
  • M16, S16 – A12, M1, A4 Belfast to Sligo (=N16)
  • M31, S31 – M5, A2 Belfast to Carrick
  • M32, S32 – M3, A2 Belfast to Bangor

Concession Routes

These short (<5km each) border-crossing sections are not considered strategic routes by NI but are by the Republic and should have consistent signage (and quality) within NI for driver convenience (and safety). It might be best if any signs on the NI side showed only the Republic’s N designations, to avoid unnecessary confusion.

  • S14 – A38 Strabane to Letterkenny (=N14)
  • S53 – A37(S) Dundalk to Castleblayney (=N53)
  • S54 – A3 Monaghan to Cavan (=N54)

S15 is reserved. The N15 joins the N14 immediately on the Republic side of the border, and so may also be signposted from within NI. 

All the numbers above match those used in the Republic apart from: 

  • N10 is a short route in Kilkenny that arguably doesn’t justify a low number now that the M9 exists.
  • N11 is used for the Dublin to Rosslare route, but both N11 and S11 are part of the greater Larne to Rosslare strategic route, so the numbers do not conflict.
  • N31 is a short route used for access to the port of Dun Laoghaire.
  • N32 was once used for a very short section of road near Malahide that has since been detrunked.

The numbers have been chosen so that major strategic routes have satisfyingly low numbers (fortunately the Republic numbers roads from north to south so all border-crossing roads have low numbers already) and also so as not to use a number that the Republic might choose in the future for a road close to the border (it hasn’t yet reused a deallocated number).

The S1 does not extend the entire way to Belfast but terminates on the M16. The M12 also violates the rule of thumb that side branches should have higher numbers than the parent route. I consider this preferable to having motorways change number partway down their length. The S13 is not the preferred route between its end points (and so should not be signposted end to end), however it is the preferred route between any other two significant towns along its length.**

Future application to other trunk routes

This scheme could easily be extended to all other trunk routes in NI. If so, then they might be assigned numbers greater than 100, as south of the border these are reserved for minor roads. Currently trunk roads in NI are defined chronologically rather than geographically, and follow some bizarre routes which appear designed to use the fewest route numbers rather than define routes that a driver would find useful. Fortunately these trunk numbers are not used on signage, but it would be sensible to redefine trunk roads using the new numbering to minimise the number of different schemes in use. The 15 additional trunk routes would then be (roughly anti-clockwise around Belfast):

  • S100 – A55 Outer Ring
  • S101 – A44 Ballymena to Ballycastle
  • S102 – A36 Ballymena to Larne
  • S103 – A57 Larne to Aldergrove
  • S104 – A26 Antrim to Moira
  • S105 – A31, A29, A505, A32 Castledawson to Enniskillen
  • S106 – A29 Coleraine to Armagh
  • S107 – A28 Aughnacloy to Newry
  • S108 – A27 Portadown to Newry
  • S109 – A2 Newry to Warrenpoint
  • S110 – A24, A2 Belfast to Newcastle
  • S111 – A7 Belfast to Downpatrick
  • S112 – A22 Belfast to Comber
  • S113 – A20 Belfast to Newtownards
  • S114 – A21 Bangor to Comber

Trunk roads leading into Belfast (other than the three main motorways) would terminate on the Outer Ring. There are also several roads that use green signage (such as the A11 Belfast Inner Ring) but which are not legally defined as trunk roads. To minimise confusion, this practice should be discontinued.

Minor routes

The inconsistencies with minor routes could be individually addressed. There is little justification for a costly wholesale renumbering of non-trunk routes. The division into A, B and C classes is broadly sensible as it reflects the importance of a route and thereby implies the standard of road a driver should expect. Usually.

Some suggestions:

  • Renumber the B32 to A29 so that the A29 runs straight up the high street of Keady and out the Castleblayney road. The old A29 from Keady to Newtownhamilton could then be an extension of the B132, and the B31 would continue on the mainline from Armagh to Dundalk (no need for an A classification as the preferred route goes via Newry).
  • The Tandragee-Keady-Monaghan, Lurgan-Scarva and Loughbrickland-Rathfriland branches of the B3 should get separate numbers. The Scarva-Loughbrickland section is of such poor quality that it should probably be downgraded.
  • The B2 is a shattered mess. There are several identifiable sections: 1. a sensible section from Downpatrick to Lurgan. 2. a hairpin shaped section from Lurgan to Portadown via Charlestown. This should be renumbered. 3. A section from Lurgan to Tandragee which never matched the signposted route between the two towns and has anyway since been partially overbuilt. This should be both renumbered and rerouted so that it uses the Tandragee Road to go to Tandragee. 4. The Clare Road beyond Tandragee should be renumbered as an extension of the B131.
  • The B95 also has several distinct branches: 1. Antrim to Ballyclare 2. Antrim to M2 J6 3. Templepatrick to Glengormley. 4. Scullions Road, Mayfield Link, Upper Hightown Road 5. Hightown Road (due for demotion once Mayfield Link is complete?). Each of these should have a distinct number.

One would think numbers were a scarce resource, observing the absurdities that the Roads Service creates in trying to avoid assigning new ones. Bypass schemes have historically resulted in the bypassed sections being awkwardly renumbered as extensions of other, unrelated roads. There does seem to be an emerging standard whereby downgraded sections of road are given new codes by appending digits to the old ones but this is not consistently applied. It should be.

    • there is a good historical reason for this, which will never be relevant again

    ** A good general principle for route numbering would be to adopt the notion of a geodesic from geometry, thereby ensuring that a numbered route will travel in a broadly consistent direction along its entire length (which is obviously not always the case at the moment). We could define a “geodesic condition” so that a numbered route should describe a best path across the landscape that cannot be improved by incremental detours along roads of similar quality. For example, the B3 between Gilford and Loughbrickland is not a geodesic, as it does not follow the the signposted “best” route between those towns. A geodesic road may not always be the preferred route between its end points, as the existence of a high quality road does not negate the need for a parallel minor road. A ring road may be a geodesic, if it beats driving through the centre of town.

    We assumed the EU’s enemies were all internal. We were wrong.

    There seem to be two main narratives of the Ukrainian conflict doing the rounds in the Western media. On one extreme is the thesis that Putin is determined on expanding Russian territory. On the other, his actions are a logical and understandable response to the reckless expansion of NATO. Neither of these is quite true.

    Crimea aside, Putin has resisted officially expanding the territory of the Russian Federation. The separatist statelets of Abkhazia, South Ossetia and Transdnistria have each asked to be admitted to the federation only to be politely ignored. The military logic of this is impeccable: the cost of incorporating and defending territory is unnecessary if the same aims can be achieved by sowing chaos. Better to keep one’s neighbours worried enough that they don’t want to provoke you, but not worried enough that they act decisively against you. The ideal outcome from Russia’s point of view is a near-abroad of buffer states that know their place in the pecking order, and for nearly two decades that’s more or less what it had.

    We instinctively understand that military alliances are threatening, and it’s tempting therefore to point the finger at NATO. But to blame NATO for upsetting the balance is disingenuous. The Yushchenko government suggested in 2008 that it might join NATO, and was rebuffed after Russia (understandably) objected. The post-Maidan government initially made clear that it had no intention of repeating that mistake. NATO membership was overwhelmingly unpopular in Ukraine before the Crimean crisis, polling consistently under 20%. The threat to Russia came not from NATO, but from the EU.

    Unlike NATO, the EU is consistently popular in Ukraine. The catalyst for the Maidan protests was the choice of the government to abandon a long-promised free trade agreement with the EU in favour of a Russian counterproposal. Russia, Belarus and Kazakhstan, three of the five largest post-Soviet economies, had recently agreed to create the Eurasian Economic Union (EEU), a rival economic bloc to the EU with two distinct advantages for Putin: Russian hegemony and fewer restrictions on the exercise of state power.

    Ukraine, Moldova, Georgia and Armenia were all close to signing free trade agreements with the EU when the EEU counter-offers started coming in. Armenia was persuaded to switch, but as the second largest economy after Russia itself, Ukraine was the real objective. When the Ukrainian people chose the EU over Russia, it not only stunted the viability of the EEU project, but also spurned what most Russians assumed was still a uniquely special friendship, even despite a decade of increasing political distance between the two countries. (The English and the Scots would surely understand.)

    Ukraine is uniquely important to Russia economically. Since Soviet times, the industrial supply chain has straddled the border. Ukraine’s Donbass region relies heavily on Russian customers, and the military is one of the largest. With their relationship now probably damaged beyond repair, Ukraine and Russia have been working furiously to disentangle their economies – the most likely explanation for the mysteriously half-empty aid convoys is that they had enough capacity to asset strip entire factories and transport key machinery back to Russia. If this is true, then it demonstrates Russia has understood that it has lost Ukraine to the EU economically. But this has only increased its determination to salvage what it can and keep NATO out. The differing levels of outside commitment in Ukraine prove that Russia still claims a military sphere of influence, and NATO has little intention of challenging it.

    Crimea was taken because it was easy, because it was strategic, because the Ukrainians know (even if they won’t admit) that they’ll never get it back, and because that’s what happens when you cross the wrong people. Unlike the other post-Soviet frozen conflicts, Crimea had to be annexed – Sevastopol is far too precious to be left in the hands of amateurs. The Donbass rebellion was facilitated to keep the Ukrainians tied down fighting a second insurrection while Russia quietly consolidated the first one. Now that a frozen conflict has been successfully engineered in the east, nobody is going to suggest an armed liberation of Crimea in the face of a hostile populace.

    This leaves Ukraine in a nasty position – economically and politically committed to the EU, but militarily overshadowed by old-school Russian hard power. It also reminds us that the EU is not expanding into a vacuum. We have always thought about European integration as if it were a contract, where the only countries that matter are the contracting parties, and any agreement between them would naturally have the blessing of the world. The only enemies of European integration in this scenario are internal factions who disagree with their own government’s policy. The worst reaction we ever received from a third country was jealousy.

    We now know that this was complacent. There is an external enemy of European integration, and he sits in the Kremlin. Some countries have decided for themselves that they don’t want to be involved in the EU project. Putin has decided that he doesn’t want other people’s countries being involved in the EU project. He has his own alternative, and clear ideas about who should be a member of which one. Talk of a new Iron Curtain is overblown, but there is an increasingly clear demarcation between the EU and Russian spheres of influence.

    Dictionary definitions

    Sir,

    Darach MacDonald (June 12th) makes a spirited defence of the dictionary definition of “unionism”, and rightly points out that purity of blood is a fiction in the modern world. But culture is not transmitted through the genes, and anyone observing an Orange parade should be left in no doubt of the existence of “unionist” culture.

    The constitutional question is far from the “single common identifying policy” that unites Unionist political parties. Support for monarchism, the Orange Order and Scottish cultural heritage, together with disdain for the Irish language, Gaelic sports and (historically) the Catholic church have long been commonly held positions. None of these follow automatically from the dictionary definition, so the dictionary definition must be incomplete.

    It is unfortunate that a political term has come to have a non-political meaning. “Protestant” is equally inaccurate, and “Hun” is potentially offensive. But whatever name we decide to use, most people understand it to mean more than just a single policy position. It also identifies a distinct, shared worldview that can be difficult to fully appreciate from the outside, leading to a gulf in understanding that perpetuates conflict.

    It has never been just about the Border.

    Yours,

    Andrew Gallagher

    The ethnic basis of “Unionism” and “Nationalism”

    Seems I’m on a roll. I wrote another letter to the Irish Times…

    Sir,

    Cian Carlin (June 10th) repeats one of the cardinal errors of Irish politics when he reduces “Unionism” to a mere political preference. The divisions in Northern Ireland span not only politics but also culture, religion, history and ancestry. “Unionist” and “Nationalist” have become shorthand names for Ulster-British and Gaelic-Irish ethnic groups, each with their distinct mythology and cultural norms. Pretending that a word when uttered by someone else means only that which you would prefer it to mean is dishonest and serves only to derail the argument.

    To believe that one ceases to become “Unionist” if one votes for a United Ireland is to reduce the entirety of a culture to a single issue. If changing your mind about a particular policy also implies wholesale abandonment of your culture and history, then it is no wonder that Northern Ireland politics is so dysfunctional. For too long we have pretended that a struggle for ethnic supremacy is a mere political disagreement, perhaps because we fear the implications of admitting that our problems are not amenable to quick fix solutions.

    More thoughtful politicians and commentators prefer to use “pro-union” for the political viewpoint in order to clearly distinguish it from cultural “Unionism”. It is quite possible to mix and match political and cultural labels – there is a distinct body of “Unionist” opinion that would prefer an independent Northern Ireland state, and many “Nationalists” are content to be part of the UK.

    So many fruitless arguments hinge on the misinterpretation of ambiguous terms. Just as “Ireland” can mean either the 32-county island or the 26-county republic, so can “Unionism” and “Nationalism” have multiple, distinct meanings depending on context. Debates devolve into slanging matches where opponents aim their rage past each other, each using the same words but meaning different things by them.

    Perhaps it’s time we stopped using the words “Unionism” and “Nationalism” altogether, as they seem to create more confusion than enlightenment.

    Yours,

    Andrew Gallagher

    In praise of secular education

    I wrote a letter to the Irish Times today.

    Sir,

    Patrick Davey (May 30th) claims the right to have his children educated in a religious school. This is as unattainable a “right” as the right to live in a religious town, or to work in a religious factory. A “right” that can only be realised if others are denied their own rights is no right at all. The idea that the majority have more “rights” than minorities do is tyranny, and the removal of a right through effective unavailability is as much a violation as if it were explicitly denied in law.

    Secular education is compulsory, and religious education cannot be. By conflating the roles of state school and church school we have created inequality between those of the majority faith and those of other faiths or none. The only way to respect everyone’s rights equally is to separate the roles of Church and State, leaving schools to teach a full secular curriculum to all regardless of faith, and allowing each church to supplement this with its own particular teachings outside school hours as parents wish and free from state interference.

    Separation of Church and State is not an attack on religion. It releases everyone, religious and irreligious alike, from the shackles of pretence and hypocrisy. People of faith should follow the example of their brethren other countries and embrace a secular state as the means of their own liberation.

    Russian special forces caught red handed on camera

    Russia continues to deny that it has armed forces in Crimea, but it was only a matter of time before someone slipped up. Not only do the mysterious “self-defence forces” use Russian guns, uniforms and vehicles (complete with Russian military number plates) but at least one of them has forgotten to take all the identifying labels off his army uniform (Russian language original), leading to a social media profile naming his special forces unit.

    Of course Putin doesn’t expect us to believe him. His plausible deniability is entirely for domestic consumption. His own polls show disapproval of his current actions running at an unprecedented 73%. Russians have no appetite for a shooting war with Ukraine, with whose citizens many have close personal and family ties. With chinks starting to show in his story, how long can Putin keep domestic opposition at bay?

    (With thanks to @captsolo for the tip)

    Anthem anathema

    My letter in the Irish Times today. Spelling mistakes all mine, unfortunately.

    Sir, – John B Reid seems to be labouring under the mistaken impression that the Irish rugby team is the national team of the Republic of Ireland. If this were the case, then it would be only proper for Amhrán na bFiann to be played at all matches, irrespective of location. But it is not.
    As with many other sports, rugby is organised on an all-Ireland basis and the Irish team is not just the team of the Republic, nor even of Irish nationalists, but of the island of Ireland as a whole. Ambiguity between the island and the State is a constant cause of controversy, but the IRFU has correctly recognised that Irish rugby draws support from all traditions on the island.
    The current policy that Ireland’s Call be played at away matches is entirely proper, as it reflects the cross-jurisdictional nature of the sport and does not favour one jurisdiction over another. To play the anthem of the Republic in addition at away games would reintroduce politics into a sport that has made a virtue of remaining above the constitutional question.
    Amhrán na bFiann is played at home games in the Republic in honour of the State. The only inconsistency in this policy is that no State anthem is played in Belfast, which implies that games in Ravenhill are not “home” games. The honourable solution to this inequity is to play Danny Boy at Ravenhill in the same capacity that Amhrán na bFiann is played in Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium.
    Whether or not one finds Ireland’s Call sufficiently rousing, it performs a vital function in keeping divisive politics out of Irish sport. – Yours, etc,
    ANDREW GALLAGHER,
    Trimbleston,
    Dublin 14

    Bad Samaritans

    When I was a university student, a friend and I came home on the train one weekend. The train station in Portadown is situated at the infamous “tunnel”, a pair of low road and railway bridges forming one of the town’s main interface areas. This particular evening was quiet, so there was nobody else around when we came out the pedestrian entrance and turned to walk under the road.

    Under the bridge, we saw one man probably in his late twenties beating up another, who was sitting on the ground and making little effort to defend himself. The victim saw us and made eye contact, and pleaded for help.

    We walked past and ignored the scene.

    Immediately we left the tunnel, we turned to one another and started questioning our actions. We should have helped him. Yes, we should. But we kept walking. When we reached the main street, we flagged down a police car and sent them to the scene. I have no idea what happened next – whether we were quick enough, whether the perpetrator got away. I don’t remember the incident appearing in the local news.

    We have never since discussed the incident. I can’t speak for my friend, but I know why I haven’t.

    I am ashamed.

    Neither of us were ever particularly physical or sporty. We were nice middle-class boys who rarely got involved in fights. Either one of us would have stood little chance against an angry skinhead. Neither of us wanted to get the other one in trouble.

    But if we’d had the guts and the attitude, together we probably could have bluffed him. If we’d walked straight up and asked him what the fuck he was doing, the likelihood is that it would have ended in a stalemate and all four people would have walked away.

    That’s what I tell myself anyway. I tell myself that all the time.

    This week, we are all bad samaritans. The local skinhead is beating up his neighbour for some reason or another. The history is too complicated for most to understand, and it’s easy to find excuses for inaction. But the principle is exactly the same.

    I am of course talking about Vladimir Putin. He has form (Georgia 2008) and an often-stated nostalgia for the glory days of the Soviet Union. He knows he will never get it back, but that just makes it worse – all bullies are born from insecurity and a phobia of weakness.

    While the West prevaricates, Putin merrily does whatever he pleases. We are weary of war, and cynical of the motives of our own leaders. Putin survives on his reputation as a strong man who will return his people to greatness. He sees us all as cowards. But all that is required is for the neighbourhood to gang up on the local bully and put him in his place. Putin would not risk open war; it would be the end of his career. Russia hasn’t been a great power for many years and Russia would lose. Yes, he has nukes but Putin is a rational man. He is not Kim Jong Un.

    The longer we leave it, the worse he will get. This is our Sudetenland.

    The Charter of Statehood

    States tend to operate on the assumption that they are eternal – so they don’t normally have exit clauses – and can be neurotic about their territorial integrity. The debate over Scottish independence, and its future relations with the EU, has demonstrated once again that an agreed mechanism is required to gently manage the death of states. The attitude of Spanish politicians in particular towards a potentially independent Scotland is motivated not by concern for Scots welfare, but by fear of setting a Caledonian-Catalonian precedent. No matter what one’s views on Scottish independence, the idea that Scotland should be held hostage to a dispute between third parties should be abhorrent.

    There follows a modest proposal for a Charter of Statehood, which should be adopted by the member states of the EU. It provides an orderly process for regional secession, combined with a promise by existing powers to act generously in their relations with newly-independent states. In particular, it commits regional bodies to keeping a secessionist state within the fold – for example an independent Scotland (or Catalonia) would be entitled to near-automatic membership of the EU.

    It is intentionally limited, and provides for unilateral secession as only one of several options – the intent being that the existence of such a safety valve will normally be sufficient to dissuade brinksmanship. It deliberately does not cover redrawing boundaries to arbitrary levels of precision – unilateral secession can only take place on the basis of existing local government units and only after the formation of a functioning autonomous state on the seceding territory. The final clause commits states to refrain from abolishing local government units for the sole purpose of thwarting secession. The language is also drafted to be portable – it applies equally to the breakup of an autonomous region within a federal state as it does to secession within the EU.

    The Charter

    1. For the purposes of this charter, a “state” is a jurisdiction with a body of constitutional law, and both legislative and executive competence over its internal affairs. It need not be sovereign under international law, and may be part of a larger containing state, e.g. a federation.
    2. A state may dissolve itself into multiple states through its own processes. Each new state shall have the right to retain membership of overarching bodies, and these bodies shall provide an equitable mechanism for integrating each new state into their structures as a member of equal standing without undue hindrance or delay.
    3. Two or more states may merge into a combined state by mutual consent, as expressed through their internal processes. The combined state shall have the right to retain membership of any mutually overarching bodies, and these bodies shall update their structures to take account of the union in an equitable manner without undue delay.
    4. A state of more than two years’ standing may unilaterally declare independence from a containing state through its own processes. The containing state shall facilitate such a declaration, however it may impose a reasonable and proportionate transition procedure. The leaving state shall have the right to retain membership of overarching bodies, and these bodies shall provide an equitable mechanism for integrating the state into their structures as a member of equal standing without undue hindrance or delay.
    5. One or more local government areas may individually or collectively declare themselves a state by adopting a constitution through simple ballot of their electorates. Such a constitution must be consistent with both the ECHR and this charter. The containing state shall provide a mechanism to hold such a ballot if a significant fraction of public opinion is shown to be in favour, but may impose reasonable and proportional restrictions on the frequency, timing and conditions of the ballot. Those local government units whose electorates pass a common constitution shall have the right to form a new state on their collective territory subject to that constitution. The containing state shall provide a mechanism for integrating the new state into its structures as an autonomous jurisdiction without undue hindrance or delay.
    6. States shall provide a system of local government with boundaries and functions based on objective economic, social and geographic criteria, while taking due account of the views of the electorate. Local government boundaries must not be altered for the purposes of thwarting the declaration of a state.

    Northern Ireland needs a final settlement

    It is now fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, and seven years since the St Andrews Agreement. Time has moved on, but Northern Ireland is in a rut. Political institutions are bedded in, complete with safeguards against communal domination, but politics has not kept up. Elections are still fought on the basis of Keeping Themmuns in Their Place. Political protests are limited to turf wars over ownership of public space.

    What happened to our brave new future?

    The mood in NI, beyond the headline-grabbing onanism of dissident republicans and flag protesters, is one of resigned apathy. The deadly combination of fatalism and fear, knowing we can’t go back but unable to see the way forward, keeps NI trapped in a perpetual twilight of political cowardice. The dawn will come, surely? Some say it will come in the east and some say in the west. Best wait, and when we are proven right the doubters will fall silent.

    But political dawns do not come from waiting. They come from political will, and Northern Ireland has precious little of that. The temporary twilight becomes a permanent gloom.

    Richard Haass is the latest in a long line of the great and good to try his hand at dragging our political donkeys out of the tribal midden. But it is not his job – it is ours. It is the electorate who should be driving change; it is the people who should be demanding better of our political masters. Haass is merely filling in because the electorate have not stepped up. Why else does Northern Ireland see an endless procession of outsiders attempting to save it from itself?

    Northern Ireland has not yet grown up. Northern Ireland has not yet taken responsibility for its own future. We cry to Dublin and London to fly in and save us from Themmuns, when the real problem is not Themmuns, but ourselves. It is our lack of belief in ourselves and our own ability to make common cause that leaves us trapped in the trenches of a war now decades in the past. The Agreements gave us political institutions that were safe, non-threatening, almost comfortable. They allowed government to return to Belfast without requiring politicians to change their minds or their behaviour. They ended the war, but they cannot build peace.

    The Agreements have fulfilled their function. It is now time to take the next step, and build a final settlement on which a new politics can grow. The old tribal divisions must be cast off; old political parties must be destroyed and new ones allowed to take their place. We, the people must assert ownership of the state and impose upon all our politicians the duty to be servants of all the people, without tribal favour.

    The Basic Law of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland is an outline of just such a final settlement. It is a document of the people, where political institutions are subordinate to the popular will. It is a statement of both rights and duties, of limited government and the separation of church, nation and state. And it is a vehicle in which both unionist and nationalist are free to aspire, without threatening the foundations of our still fragile peace.

    In return, each and every political party is required to be broadly representative of the ethnic (and gender) composition of Northern Ireland. Without this requirement, nothing changes and politics remains trapped in the endless twilight. With it, fundamental change is imposed upon politics at the lowest level, and a new future opens up before us.

    We must reject Catholic political parties and Protestant political parties, just as we rejected Catholic workplaces and Protestant workplaces. The Agreements reward the victors of the tribal bearpit, silencing those who willingly co-operate and empowering those who must be dragged to the table; the Commonwealth makes tribal co-operation at grassroots level a condition of entry. The Agreements guarantee that all politics is defined along orange-green lines; the Commonwealth encourages politics to realign.

    The Commonwealth is an idealistic enterprise, but with a realistic pathway to implementation. All it requires is a majority vote in the Assembly and a referendum; Northern Ireland has done this before and can do it again. It provides a modern, liberal basis for government that both unionists and nationalists can find much to admire in. It copper-fastens the principle that the future of Northern Ireland is in the hands of the people, and protects them from the abuses of power that have been all too common in our long, troubled history.

    But most importantly, the Commonwealth gives the people of Northern Ireland a future worth believing in, a goal worth striving for, and the hope that tomorow will finally bring dawn in the North.