As the BIA conference approaches, there is great uncertainty both in Northern Ireland politics and in wider British Irish relations. The progress made in recent decades may now be seriously in doubt.
I suggest that this is a time when civil society, of which in this context the Association is a key element, may have a crucial part to play in securing and advancing progress. Indeed it must play it, in the absence of anyone else.
In Northern Ireland, there is an urgent need to get power-sharing government back. However imperfect it may have been, there is no alternative – anything else is worse. Some suggest we have to leave political progress until we are clear on the outcome of Brexit – whenever that may be. But there is no satisfactory way to ensure good government in its absence.
And as regards wider politics and society, there is no cold storage option. The longer functioning devolution is away, the more difficult it will be eventually to restore it. And the more division may then increase within society – we have seen signs of this in recent weeks; and the greater is the risk that shocks of various kinds, such as paramilitary violence or a hard Brexit, will do really grave and lasting damage to the social fabric.
There is now growing public pressure for restoring powersharing.
But the parties have been driven back to their laagers in recent times, despite some welcome gestures of outreach. They will find it hard to make the compromises necessary to re-establishing power-sharing government – certainly government of a stable and effective kind, which will require significant change.
In the past, the two governments working closely together, like Major and Reynolds, or Blair and Ahern, would have helped deliver such compromise. So also would civil society movements like the one that accompanied the 1998 Agreement. But the governments do not appear to be in a position to deliver this drive. They are preoccupied elsewhere, and they are seriously at odds. And civil society is largely silent.
Indeed looking beyond Northern Ireland’s circumstances, British-Irish relations, which have advanced so far in the last decades, now risk serious unwinding. The disagreements over Brexit are fundamental. There may in coming months be a resolution that permits rebuilding. But there is a risk in the unpredictable autumn we face of outcomes that would take us in the other direction entirely, set in concrete profoundly different outlooks, and make the context of British-Irish relations in the long term much more difficult.
Meanwhile the British media, and parts of its political class, have shown at best unconcern and at worst scorn towards both parts of the island of Ireland. This is greatly at odds with the understanding, application, responsibility and courage shown in the past by British politicians – of all parties – and informed opinion.
So what is to be done? Can civil society – people outside politics within these islands – help move matters the right way? The question is well worth pursuing, because it is not clear that anyone else in current circumstances can provide the necessary drive.
One of the BIA’s great strengths has always been in sustaining interpersonal relationships at times when official links were in abeyance, or under strain. Developing and enhancing fruitful relationships, beyond the official structures, both within Northern Ireland politics and between the two states, is more important than at any time in the last quarter century.
So as a first step it is worth reflecting what opportunities can be offered for facilitating such relations. Both within Northern Ireland, where there may now be little contact between the parties, outside formal negotiations – which are not at present going on; and at various levels between the two islands.
But we might also consider whether, more ambitiously, civil society can actively offer a lead in politics, exploring the basis of a possible settlement, thinking and articulating necessary ideas that politicians might find difficult, and working against the polarisation of public opinion we have seen in recent years. The increasing public feeling that ‘We Deserve Better’ may offer a helpful general dynamic, but direction and detail may also be required.
Getting to stable and effective devolved government requires substantial advance, as Peter Robinson has suggested – there is a broader agenda of items now needing to be tackled than has been the subject of political negotiations in the last 10 years. This needs something on the scale of a St Andrews Agreement, embodying significant new thinking. Even the most constructively minded in the political sphere may in present circumstances find it too difficult to advance such thinking.
The earliest possible return to devolved government would be welcome – on almost any basis, because that creates a more propitious starting point for deeper negotiation.
But such a negotiation is necessary because temporary fixes like the 2014 and 2015 political agreements (“Stormont House” and Fresh Start”) will not endure for long. This is not to challenge the 1998 settlement, rather to suggest it needs to be implemented on sounder foundations. That means addressing head on issues like the differences in approach to parity of esteem and equality, commitment to all the institutions signed up to in the Agreement, in Belfast, London and Dublin, ensuring good and ethical government, and seriously tackling the past, enduring paramilitarism and sectarianism.
In the past, the two governments might have led this thinking; at times there might have been support from a US envoy. But at present that outside encouragement is not available. And it is not clear that anyone outside the governments is actively reflecting on this in any systematic way.
What might be models for an approach outside government and politics that got to grips with these issues? In the past, we have had initiatives like the Peace People, the Opsahl Commission, and the Make It Work Campaign in 2014, all different in nature.
It might be possible to think of putting together groups, perhaps focused around conferences, to look at the issues outlined above; and of a commission to advise on the overall context, perhaps suggest the shape of a balanced approach to resumed devolution. Obviously this is work of great sensitivity – as recent controversy around We Deserve Better has shown. But it may also be a necessary contribution to political advance that will not come from anywhere else.
It would be important to work with the grain of constructive forces in politics, rather than appear to dictate from on high. But such an effort also needs to bring in as wide a circle of ideas and expertise as possible. The universities, which have provided a forum for much worthwhile political discussion in the last year, might take a significant role.
More generally, I suggest that in our current circumstances people from outside government and politics in Northern Ireland need to take a bigger role in shaping our political future. We are past the stage when we can command significant attention in London, certainly Washington. If we do not ourselves do this work it will not get done and we may gravely regress.
I am working on one civil society initiative, an economic and social policy think tank, which I was grateful to have an opportunity of speaking about at the last BIA conference. It has continued to gather support, albeit slowly, and with some funding now in place we hope to announce the initiative in the early autumn. This project aims to bring to Northern Ireland a contribution to good government widely made by similar institutions elsewhere.
But the suggestion here is a different one. For this we need something more immediate, that can begin to produce results quickly and impart political momentum in the later months of this year. If events go the right way, that may offer a supplement to constructive political activity in the wake of a successful Brexit compromise, and help make more stable and effective a restored devolved government. But in other circumstances it may offer a necessary voice of reason and compromise in the political disarray and further flight to the extremes following a failure to resolve Brexit issues satisfactorily, keeping the idea of an agreed way forward in the public mind.
It would be interesting to hear suggestions about the feasibility of these proposals, and concretely what models might be followed. And whether it is all achievable on the basis of voluntary effort.
Some may be sceptical that there is much chance of making a difference. But we need to shake the abiding fatalism that often pervades thinking about the future of Northern Ireland politics, that we can do nothing. We have often seen it in the past – but then the unimaginable breakthroughs have eventually been achieved. The “no hope” mentality has often felt more comfortable because of a belief that London, working with Dublin, offered an ultimate safety net. But that is increasingly in doubt. The work of sustaining constructive politics needs to be done, and the time is now.
Honorary Senior Research Associate, The Constitution Unit, University College London