Liverpool View: Same old rhetoric helps neither nationalist nor unionist cause

Professor Peter Shirlow

is director of the Institute of Irish Studies at the University of Liverpool

The investigations of the Institute of Irish Studies/The Irish News have, if it is not arrogant to say it, sought to invoke a reflection around the past, the present and the future.

Whether they are reached or not, they have confirmed certainty around a larger-than-expected intercommunity agreement. People, regardless of who they are, want this place to work. Sometimes Sinn Féin voters agree with UK government policy and trade unionists strongly support those they vote for by practicing parity of esteem.

Voters respect all communities that have been harmed by conflict, acknowledging the need to overcome complexities and wanting to mainstream reconciliation is the new normal. Divided opinions emerge from the mood of free-thinking individuals. The same state of mind is not appropriate within the political elite accustomed to listening.

Almost every aspect of what is observed is the desire to drive the search for solutions. People are even bold enough to say that they want a reformed assembly, with this reform, primarily driven not by governments or MPs, but by citizen voice and civic expertise. They know that within their ranks lies the skill, the understanding and the ability to achieve better results.

Trust in the political elite is low, but voting remains high. In reality, and on many issues, Unionist and Republican voters agree on many things, but this similarity of belief and opinion does not alter political practice, but rather fosters fear that the agreement will distract from the capacity for narrative control. Unsurprisingly, at no time in these polls have any politicians or the weary commentators who create division as their business card declared the levels of agreement among the people.

The intercommunity agreement is not new. Even in the depths of wicked conflict, shared emotions of grief were on display majestically. An acquaintance, whose son was killed by loyalists, opened her door one morning to be greeted by elders from a nearby Presbyterian church. They gave him a Bible in which everyone had signed their name under the phrase ‘not, in my name’. Or my wonderful neighbor who attends mass and is thrilled that her family is like “Dolly Mixtures” given the diversity inside. She speaks clearly about how ordinary people need better leadership. But she and the others are far from ordinary despite being told what to think and encouraged to think negatively to maintain their passivity. These narratives are so controlling that we find low levels of trust in factual and positive changes within society.

A significant number of respondents had no knowledge of Northern Ireland’s performance relative to the rest of the world or significantly underestimated its contribution. Only 11% estimated that in 2022 agribusiness in Northern Ireland was feeding 10 million people in the UK. Less than 6% could put Belfast 7th out of 179 regions in terms of contribution to the UK economy. Almost half thought he did not rank above 37th or as badly as last. Measuring changes since 1998, less than 10% could accurately identify that reported sectarian crimes had decreased significantly (i.e. by 60%) and less than 10% knew that conflict-related convictions decreased by 90%. Despite a landscape dotted with wind farms, less than 5% knew that 40% of our electricity is produced by renewables, twice the EU average. Yet in a land of negativity, respondents were closer when it came to estimating poverty levels.

A transformed society in which knowledge of this transition is unknown. So how do you plan, change and make the right decisions for the future? What has paralyzed our political system to such an extent that the light of progress is dim and unnoticed? If you want a united Ireland, then these positives may persuade the southern electorate that the north is worth having. For trade unionists, faced with demographic change and an increasingly socially liberal electorate, the way to prevent unification is to engage and promote these improvements. It is the process of registered change that facilitates the shift to policy-making based on evidence and not on guesswork and the same old rhetoric.

Politicians will not describe or report on an enhanced present because it distorts the ability to turn the past into belief. Similar to not admitting the end of religious discrimination as it admits reform or forces admission. A political class that has created a new economy and reduced bigotry, but which furiously denies its role in this action. The certainty of negativity combined with the absence of hope and even more so with the overwhelming lack of imagination for a politics that should turn into the 21st century.

They are the free thinkers who challenge the need for assembly reform, who oppose bigotry and who have taken risks for a new economy. Those who shed their habits and beliefs by embracing the enduring Edwardian politics in which partition was framed. Tolstoy argued that free thought “is not common, but it is essential for right thought.” Political passivity around progress will at some point be exposed as more assertive understandings of the present and the future emerge. It is the direction of travel and not what we are told ‘ordinary’ people require or even envision.

/Public release. This material from the original organization/authors may be ad hoc in nature, edited for clarity, style and length. The views and opinions expressed are those of the author or authors. See in full here.

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