This article is based on a piece I have in the current (12th) edition of Ulster Folk, available across Northern Ireland and the border counties.
In response to this piece on the need to come to terms with the past, several correspondents argued that no, we don’t need to come to terms with the past and/or that, in particular, we need to do away with cultural myths. At the end of the brainstorm, while we had to agree to disagree on some of the detail, we could all agree that one thing which would definitely help is a functioning economy.
It is clear to me personally, however, that the two are linked. A recent Ulster Unionist press statement spend several paragraphs on the need for a parade to go past Ardoyne shops, and then tossed in a line at the very end on the need to bring jobs to the area. That shows the emphasis being put on things – parading (an irrelevance, when looked at purely rationally) takes up several paragraphs; the economy and jobs (the key issue of our times in reality) take up a line or two. Given that our politicians are, almost entirely, more interested in dealing with things through a sectarian prism, parading becomes a key political issue while the economy is relegated to the sidelines. I would argue this rather demonstrates my point in the original article – we do have to come to terms with the past, and with the fact a lot of our “culture” (in political terms) is derived from it. Without coming to terms with our past, we will simply prioritise cultural activity to justify our slant on the past, to the detriment of (objectively) real issues. Politicians will continue to prioritise the sectarian stuff, the media will continue to cover it, and the electorate will continue to vote on it – anyone coming up with serious proposals on (objectively) real issues like jobs and investment, health reform or education will be left talking to the wall, with no hope of election even to a Board of Governors never mind anything else!
When it became apparent that politicians could not solve the issue of flags, parades and the past – largely because they did not want to be seen to be responsible for the inevitable compromise – an American diplomat was called in. Success, bluntly, was never likely because, if these things are resolved, politicians whose entire mandate is based on seeing everything through a sectarian prism will have to take on real issues which require them not to see them that way – and they can’t have that, can they?!
Nevertheless, the simple fact is the old line is true – it’s the economy, stupid. If we had a functioning economy, in which a significant amount of our time was spent creating wealth for export and then sharing the proceeds of that wealth, “flags”, “parades” and “the past” would be relegated to the sidelines – and all the better for it, because they would then be dealt with by people motivated to deal with them and with the expertise to do so, rather than politicians simply seeking to trade populist sectarian insults to the lowest common denominator to get elected.
Even in civic society and the third sector, a ludicrous amount of time is spent discussing the “living wage”, water charges, public sector pay and so on – yet none at all is spent discussing the obvious point that we in Northern Ireland can’t afford any of this because we don’t create the wealth to pay for them. Our best people, if they are still here at all, have their time taken up spending somebody else’s money or lobbying about how to spend somebody else’s money. Almost no one is left working on creating our own wealth so we can spend our own money!
The 1998 Agreement effectively does not mention the economy at all. In 1999, an Economy Development Strategy report entitled “Strategy 2010” was published, yet we have not even moved closer to the targets it set, far less hit them. I myself argued before the 2006 Agreement, all the way to Downing Street, that there was no point in a further political agreement (no matter how comprehensive) without an economic agreement. Now we enter 2014, having had another round of all-party talks, where yet again the economy was completely omitted. Are we seriously going to have to wait until 2022 for another go?
We continue – in politics, in civic society and so on – to expend an incredible amount of time arguing about things vehemently, while failing entirely to focus on the thing which matters most of all. Without a functioning economy, nothing else can be expected to function! Let us make fixing that our resolution for 2014.