Notwithstanding the worldwide support for the Good Friday Agreement and the peace it facilitated, it looks as if the stalemate in the politics of Northern Ireland will continue.  This leaves an empty space. It deprives people of a forum to discuss their problems. It makes it harder for politicians even to meet one another.

If a political vacuum like this is not filled by elected politicians, it leaves the door wide open for those with undemocratic agendas, for people who are willing to use  murder to make themselves heard.

The immediate problem is the DUP boycott of the institutions, intended as a lever to change the Windsor Framework. But there are deeper problems. Unless these are addressed, this sort of thing could happen again in the future.  The Windsor Framework will not be amended.  That has been made clear. The UK and the EU have a lot of other business to do together, in face of grave global threats.

Perhaps there are other things that could be done that might reassure DUP voters. But, so far, the DUP has offered no concrete ideas in writing.

The DUP itself might itself also acknowledge that it is the exacting consumer and animal health protection requirements of the EU Single market that necessitate borders somewhere. The DUP  could usefully sketch out practical proposals , using the local knowledge its members have, for improving the operation of such borders, rather than  wait for others to do so.

 More generally, the impasse raises questions about the meaning of Ulster Unionism in the 21st century. It also demands creative thinking on the nationalist side.

Unionists self identify around their loyalty to the UK and to UK institutions.  But this “unionism” is conditional. Perhaps it could be said that its loyalty is to an idealised version of the UK, the sort of UK that existed in the 1950’s, rather than to the diverse and hyper globalised UK, that actually exists in the 2023.

Of course, unionists must focus on Westminster and on constitutional issues. The concerns they expressed about the protocol were genuine.

But they must also focus their thinking on younger voters in Northern Ireland , who self identify as neither unionist nor nationalist.

These are the swing voters who will determine the future direction of Northern Ireland. These swing voters may look for an entirely new dispensation for Northern Ireland, one that is neither nationalist nor unionist, in the binary and irreconcilable way in which that choice is unfortunately presented in the Good Friday Agreement.

Unionist leaders would best serve the interests of voters by working out ways to persuade non unionists to  contentedly accept arrangements within which all will feel secure and respected. That is a huge task, and a challenge to the unionist imagination. But realistic unionists know in their hearts that it the only way.

Rather than focussing all their energies on EU goods standards being applied in Northern Ireland, the DUP should be putting forward much broader intellectual, political and economic arguments. They should be working for arrangements in which unionists, nationalists   and voter who are neither can all feel secure.

  To achieve this, Unionism would have to present itself in a completely different way, emphasising symbols that the entire community can embrace , rather than symbols that repel some.

This would require a huge infusion of self confidence in unionism.  It would be uncomfortable for the “base” of the party, but the base will never deliver a majority

  At its core, the conflict is about Identity. Identity is not a simple idea. It is about far more than politics, territory or sovereignties.

Can we not build a shared identity to which all the people of Northern Ireland could subscribe?

Identity is, of course,  includes history and aspects of it of which we  feel proud.

But, every day, we write some new history.

 I believe identity can be cultivated in two radically different ways.

 It can be built on the basis

  •         of rivalry with the “other” community, or
  •         on the basis of shared achievement.

Some good work can be done at community level, but it is difficult to have shared achievements,  at least at  political level, if the institutions  of governance are not  up and working.

 “Shared Achievement” is the best way to build a shared identity.

 The forced choice, in the Belfast Agreement ,between the two fundamentally contradictory aspirations ,union with Dublin or union with Westminster, works against the building of a shared identity. We must move on from this.

The parallel consent rules in the Assembly should be changed. Giving extra weight to the votes of MLAs, who have chosen one or other of  the two contradictory aspirations, is not the best way to protect minorities. In fact, it oppresses the middle ground minority.

As I have said, unionism has a lot of difficult thinking to do.

Nationalism may also going down a corridor that leads to frustration.

By putting all its energy into looking for a border poll, nationalism is setting up a conflict which it may not win. There are signs that Sinn Fein is beginning to see this.

Gerry Adams told a reporter from the Currency magazine recently, that

“Irish unity is not a 50% +1 equation. Unionists will need to buy in too”

This is a welcome and important statement.  Unfortunately. it is not the way the Good Friday Agreement is framed.

The Agreement provides for irrevocable Irish unity to be voted through on a 50%+1 basis. It will be interesting to see what the current Sinn Fein leadership, and the SDLP, say about the outworking of Gerry Adams idea and the rewording of the Good Friday  Agreement that it would require.

Finally, we should remind ourselves of the unrealized goal of the Belfast/ Good Friday Agreement…..reconciliation and trust.

Here we should remember the importance of symbolic gestures.

 When I was Taoiseach in 1995 I organised a Commemoration at the War Memorial in Islandbridge to commemorate the end of the second World War, and the Irish who had died in that war in British uniform. Sinn Fein sent a representative, Tom Hartley.  That was an important gesture.

 So also was Arlene Foster attending the Ulster  Gaelic Football  final in Clones.  We need more gestures like that from all sides.

Perhaps when the Local Elections are over, the two governments  and the parties should think about events and activities  , independent of politics, that could promote reconciliation and thus create emotional space for political compromise.

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