Denis Bradley: North's politics is a case study of resistance to change

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley

Denis Bradley is a columnist for The Irish News and former vice-chairman of the Northern Ireland Policing Board.

There is a resistance in politics to allowing issues around British or Irish unity to be even discussed
There is a resistance in politics to allowing issues around British or Irish unity to be even discussed

Why do people fight change? Why do they stand in the way against something that, in their heart of hearts, they know is inevitably going to happen?

I have never fully understood that aspect of human behaviour. Is it blindness, or stubbornness? Is it an inability to understand the human dynamics that underpin change?

It can’t be attributed to intelligence because it is often the most intelligent who are most resistant to the change that is pertinent in their lives.

Our politics is a case study of such resistance. Most people – no, not most people, everyone – knows there has been a fundamental change in the politics of the north. There is no longer any single political majority. That means that political change is inevitable.

Despite that knowledge, there is resistance to any mechanism or forum to discuss and then negotiate political input and influence for the immediate, the intermediate and the long-term future.

Read more:

  • Brian Feeney: North has never been integral part of UK
  • Chris Donnelly: What do we want Ireland to look like in 2053?
  • Alex Kane: The problem of the Stormont veto

Which means that for the near future, at least, whatever politics exists will be at the behest and the pleasure of the two governments. And it is senseless not to name the culprit, to call out unionism and its political leadership as the litigators and the resisters to that inevitable change.

Ironically, the first time I came across comparable resistance to change was amongst Catholic clerics.

I remember a discussion in the 1970s between a young priest friend and two elder parish priests. The young priest claimed that so many priests were hostile to changes happening in the Church but, he argued, when those clergy retired at night, no matter what they claimed in the daytime, they had to be aware of the change that was coming.

The two parish priests poured scorn on such a suggestion, claiming that the bulk of the clergy would sleep soundly without a thought or a worry for the future. Content that change, if it happened at all, would do so slowly and superficially.

At the time I was more persuaded by the parish priests but of recent years I am coming to the view expressed by my young friend.

There is something deliberate and wilful about resistance to inevitable change. There has to be some digestion and cultivation to stay so resistant to what is clearly going to happen.

In our political context, the wilfulness is not so much the debate and argument around British or Irish unity, it is the resistance to allowing those issues to even be discussed.

That depth of resistance is best broken and changed from within. Those who know in their heart of hearts the broad parameters of the change that is happening have a moral duty to speak publicly.

Former politicians, clergy, media personalities, sportspeople and those who are least likely to face negative consequences are the ones best placed to break down the resistance to the debate. It is that community of people who will have the safety, the influence and the authority to challenge and modify the resistance.

Many of them have already made moves in that direction. They now vote Alliance, when once they voted other parties. But that movement is, in itself, inadequate.

Firstly, it is private and thus less effective in its challenge than a public statement. Secondly, Alliance is in a dilemma. It is happy to take part in the debate but not initiate or define it. It is afraid that over identity with the debate could result in division and a fracturing of its membership. And its leadership has not yet decided which is the most important, the reality of change or the unity of its party.

My experience from the Church debate was that those who slept easy in their beds did few favours to the Church they professed to love and to the generations of people, lay and cleric, who have to pick up the pieces of the issues that were not addressed at the time.