Posted By: June 14, 2014

Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, June 12, 2014


POLITICS here are not working because we have the wrong peace process. How does that grab you as an explanation for stormont turning out to be something of a political hoax? (the sound of you choking on your cornflakes suggests that it is unlikely to be a universally popular theory.)


Most analysis tries to explain Stormont’s dysfunctional nature by examining issues individually (parades, the past, welfare). But the answer may lie in a more over-arching explanation: the peace process designed systems and structures which are so vulnerable to political self-interest that we cannot progress from peace, through politics, to effective government. Your cereal coughing presumably indicates three points of disagreement: politics here are working; we have peace and there is only one possible peace process. So let us examine the evidence.


Based on the evidence of the quantity and quality of legislative and policy outputs from Stormont, you have lost the first point. (Unless you believe that politics mean five different parties going in different directions, pausing only to reportedly shout abuse at each other at occasional executive meetings.)


However, you win on the second point.


We have peace and a safer society but the downside is the inference that because we have peace, nothing else matters. (That is not peace, it is just an extended ceasefire.)


Which brings us to the third point: the peace process adopted here was the only model available. It was not. It was the only model which the parties examined, because it guaranteed most of them permanent political power. The model had three significant risks, all of which have materialised and which must be addressed to allow political progress. By having almost everyone in government and no one in opposition, there is no accountability. Failure is always an option. (Like King Midas, the parties wished that everything they touched would turn to power. It did and now the price of that power is political paralysis.) Secondly, since the agreement was based on managing, rather than tackling sectarianism, intransigence has electoral rewards. (That is why they argue over flags and parades.)


Finally, by labeling it a process with no concept of product, we have been conditioned not to expect an end to it. (Nothing lasts forever in this world – except the peace process.) In addition, we are subject to a form of grammatical totalitarianism, which does not permit the separation of the words “peace” and “process”.


We are not allowed to be for peace but critical of the process. So any adverse political comment of Stormont, its parties and personalities can be labelled anti-peace, even though it is merely anti-process. This encourages our society to deviate from normal standards of morals and ethics.


Peter Robinson, for example, should have resigned over his recent comments on Islam, but his colleagues in government remained silent. The unspoken explanation was that his resignation “would jeopardise the peace process”. In this context, Stormont’s failure as a form of government is largely unchallenged, because closing, or even reforming it, would “collapse the peace process”. No, it would not collapse the peace, it would just collapse the process – and the flaws in that process lie at the heart of our current political impasse. (If it collapsed the peace, who exactly would return to war?) So we endure political intransigence and failure because peace, we are told, has only one process. Meanwhile, we live in a UK society in which the richest 100 people now own the same as the poorest 19 million – and we are among the poorest UK regions.


But our peace does not allow the minority in poverty to bring a petition of concern to block legislation or policy, which may explain the recent electoral breakthrough of People Before Profit.


Like the aftermath of World War I our peace failed to offer a vision on economy and society. To move from peace to normal politics, we needed welfare development and state investment similar to what happened in Britain after World War II. We did not get them because no one around the table asked for them. Instead, our leaders portrayed themselves as prophets before the people. So our theory for the lack of political progress is that our agreement was not designed to progress from peace to normal politics – indeed it appears designed not to do so. That means that we are not really at peace, we are just prisoners of war. But the good news is that they still allow us cornflakes for breakfast.