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.