The more I think about it the more I develop a theory – though ’tis only that – that Northern Ireland’s “pillars” (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist and Catholic-Nationalist-Republican) are not breaking down, so much as a third pillar is emerging (to amend slightly my titling, I’ll call it Secular-Progressive-Moderate).
This third pillar is not predominantly “British” or “Irish”, but “Northern Irish”. Unlike the other two, it recognises the constitutional question to be essentially settled but, in line with its identity, instinctively seeks more devolved powers and perhaps even a “Statute of Autonomy”. Predominantly (all these things are general) it is made up of suburban professionals, typically well educated, who vary on economic views but knee-jerk social-liberal on social policy. It is mainly made up of people who did not experience the brunt of the Troubles (if they even experienced them at all), either because of youth or geography. It would be well represented in the arts sector, in finance, in academia and in the third sector, but scarcely at all in politics. Members of it support both integrated education and grammar schools. Sports-wise they tend towards rugby and culture-wise towards film/theatre, having no time for parades and often little for local football (though they would endorse the NI team).
To be clear also what Progressives are not: they are not the Middle Ground. They are on ground of their own. This means they have their own, distinct policy objectives. They are not “Unionist” even if they are instinctively pro-Union, because they are fundamentally supportive of progress and reform rather than suspicious of it; they are not “Nationalist” even if their instinctive world view is an all-island one, because they seek to deal with past “misdeeds” not by seeking some dewy-eyed revenge but rather by trying to ensure they are never repeated in future.
It also means, by the way, they are just as capable of intolerance towards other “pillars” as the other two are! Like members of the other two, Progressives struggle to believe other people don’t see the world the way they do. Like the other two, they struggle to grasp their minority status. Like the other two, they believe that one day everyone will just magically “see sense” and come to their position. When election results fail to endorse their instincts, they seek solace by pretending not to be interested in politics at all (or focusing on the dramatic change allegedly coming at the next election rather than the clear endorsement of the status quo that was the outcome of the last eight).
The near indisputable presence of a third “pillar” post-Agreement – increasingly identifiable politically, socially and economically – is not a comfortable realisation for “Reconciliationist Liberals” who have sought to break down such barriers altogether. If anything, a third “pillar” means the creation of a further barrier – and thus moves them further from their goal and means more time and money will be needed for investment in broad good relations, a million miles from the promise of 15 years ago. Many true Liberals will confront this initially by denying the existence of this third “pillar”, suggesting that political, social and economic interests are individual not communal – yet in 1998 they themselves backed an Agreement which was fundamentally communal. Indeed, albeit with the benefit of hindsight, it was inevitable that one practical outworking of that Agreement would be the development of a third “pillar” of those not represented by the other two.
Me? I am a Progressive Liberal. I identify strongly with this third “Progressive pillar”, yet I also identify with the “Liberals”. I recognise that “pillars” hold us back from developing the type of decision maker who can think and feel for all of Northern Ireland, not just a particular part of it. However, I cannot deny what I see before my eyes. And, if this “third pillar” comes to hold the balance of power politically, it may push us more towards reasoned debate and compromise rather than a straight confrontational ding-dong. This may not be the worst thing for Liberals, or for Progressives, or for anyone else.
But it’s only a theory – over to you…