Jarlath Kearney: Democracy demands courageous leadership

Jarlath Kearney
Jarlath Kearney Jarlath Kearney

Six weeks before the ill-conceived Brexit referendum, the 2016 assembly elections took place.

A decade of public reform here should have followed.

Politics should have replicated the hard slog of weary public servants across social, educational, health, environmental, economic and criminal justice issues. A functioning local executive should have delivered stabilised, forward, resourced planning - particularly around the 2021 census.

It didn’t happen. Instead, we’ve been recycled backwards into the comfort-blanket of old constitutional hostilities.

Blame others all you want, but that’s a reflection of our society’s political choices – how we vote, when we speak out, what we tolerate.

The insular perspective of our politics is problematic. While Syria burned and Yemen bled, the peace process was supposedly in ‘crisis’ over basic public policy disagreements. Brexit is no different. And while equality in political office is today equivocated by some, support for policing is still stymied with qualifications by others. Not good enough.

This coming assembly election is not ground-breaking. It’s not once in a generation. It’s not anyone’s battle for survival. It’s routine democracy: an election to a small devolved power-sharing legislature after a period of conflict. It happens across the democratic world. Symbolic outcomes, at best, mean swapping the nameplates on office doors.

Remember, nationalists, republicans and unionists have jointly been first minister of the Northern Ireland Executive since it was formed after the Good Friday Agreement. That’s when this society changed forever, when the Rubicon was crossed.

Growing evidence today shows modern trend-lines of complex, multi-layered opinions, identities and attitudes that are positively nurtured under the agreement. It’s an inconvenient truth for tired old narratives.

The ugliness of binary sectarianism still muddies our democratic discourse. It’s not all one-way. It insists oxymoronically that a shared future can be won only after beating the other side. It’s in the words and deeds that outrageously attacked Simon Coveney’s attendance at the Hume Foundation event in Holy Cross.

This feeds into another possible period of multi-party negotiations that’s bubbling out beyond the assembly elections. We’re staring into another needless political mess.

Might unionists look to undermine the agreement by reopening the issue of ‘consent’? Might republicans seek to supersede the agreement by resurrecting 1970s rhetoric on ‘national self-determination’? Either agenda would be strategically stupid.

The Good Friday Agreement referendum was self-determination in practice. The UK Law Lords (now Supreme Court) endorsed the agreement and related primary statute as a “constitution for Northern Ireland”.

Like it or not, this quasi-constitutional settlement to our conflict embodies mechanisms for future sovereignty change (albeit poorly negotiated). But that’s not a silo. It relies today on delivering the rest of the agreement – reconciliation, rights, respect and relationships.

Article 3 of the Irish Constitution, ratified by simultaneous referendum, states: “It is the firm will of the Irish Nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions, recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of a majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island.”

The ‘firm will’ of the ‘Irish Nation’ is uniting people. Politics must deliver that outcome. It’s not just about policies. It’s about personal character, integrity and values.

Previous first ministers – Mallon, Trimble, Durkan, McGuinness, Paisley, Robinson – all came to recognise that borders aren’t redrawn in assembly elections. They each understood in different ways that constitutional evolution slides glacially into history; and that, while change can’t be fossilised, it can be collectively faced.

They ultimately realised, to varying degrees, that uniting people takes patience and courage. That helps explain their relative popularity as first ministers in the latest Irish News/Liverpool University survey results. It’s called leadership.

Ireland’s constitutional imperative - mirroring the UK’s commitment in the Belfast agreement - is to ‘unite all the people’ in reconciliation. Democracy demands courageous leadership from each of us in that regard – especially those canvassing for May 5. And before then, London urgently needs to start rediscovering its agreement-era partnership with Dublin.