“I just want Northern Ireland to be as British as Finchley“. It seems such a reasonable request. And yet, well, it isn’t. It’s actually just unreal.
It was no head banger who said that to me, but rather a successful businessperson.
I had a debate about six weeks ago on Twitter when I stated my contention that unfortunately, in the end, most people in NI don’t really want to share power (and, implicitly, are still unwilling to do so).
For all my criticism of him, UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt is an intelligent, professional man – so much so that in an article recently he accepted that NI isn’t as British as Finchley! Yet in the very same article he demanded that Irish Nationalists accept the Union Flag is their flag. And yet, well, it isn’t. Again, that’s just unreal.
The majority of people in NI still believe, essentially and often quite innocently, that “outright victory” is possible. Unionists, in the broadest terms, still go from the starting point that there are two sets of people in Northern Ireland; Catholics already have their country (the Republic of Ireland), so Protestants should have theirs (Northern Ireland). Nationalists, in the broadest terms, still go from the starting point that there is Britain and there is Ireland and “British” people have their homeland in Britain and “Irish” people have their homeland in Ireland (all of it). Each side believes that, one day, some reasonable arbiter will see the obvious truth of their case (because they do both actually sound pretty reasonable), and all will be solved. Both of those positions, however, are unreal.
That is why the Belfast Telegraph’s call for a “statesman” to represent the “90%” will go unanswered. Firstly, it isn’t 90% or anything like it – in fact I would contend most people fall on one or other side of the cases made in the last paragraph (even if they are perfectly well intentioned towards individuals from the “other side”). Secondly, that statesman cannot be Unionist or Nationalist – because, purely by dint of so being, they would be expected to do their side’s bidding as per the paragraph above… bidding based on an unreal premise aimed at an unreal solution.
The 1998 Agreement has its faults, but one of its clever elements is the way in the Institutions represent NI as it is, in reality. In a fundamentally divided society, compulsory power-sharing is the only way to have laws made with the great bulk of the population will respect. In a society where the narrow majority has a broadly British world view, maintenance of the union with Britain is sensible; where a narrow minority has a broadly all-Ireland world view, cross-border bodies with legal powers are also sensible. It is a wild and complex tapestry and it doesn’t always work perfectly. In other words, it’s real.
We need to get used to the real Northern Ireland. It’s actually quite a fun place with great potential. But for as long as we vote for politicians from sectarian parties whose entire premise is unreal, we will not find proper statesmen among them.