Sectarian Powersharing

Posted By: August 17, 2013


Patrick Murphy. Irish News ( Belfast). Saturday, August 17, 2013 The solution to our summer of violence, we are told, lies in a shared future and the development of shared space. The difficulty with both concepts, as Richard haass will find out, is that there does not appear to be agreement on what, if anything, these terms mean. That probably explains their popularity.
In understanding social issues, the challenge is often finding the right words to express complex ideas. In this country we have no problem with words – we are just not sure what they mean. Jargon has become an effective substitute for understanding. Our politicians cultivate an aspirational language of vagueness and ambiguity, which leaves them immune from political challenge or analysis.
So let us challenge them. What exactly is a shared space and how would we recognise a shared future if we achieved one? If the intended share-holders are Catholics and Protestants (a crude term but there it is) many of us find it insulting to be told that we do not currently share space. We already share the same space every working day, in offices, factories, building sites, shops and cattle sale-yards. We drive on the same roads, travel on the same buses and eat in the same restaurants – and we did it every day through 30 years of sectarian violence.
There are two significant exceptions to sharing space. The first is Stormont, where members must declare their religious allegiance, like medieval lords on a religious crusade. (Although the Crusaders, for all their faults, neither lived on subsidised food nor employed their relatives in cushy jobs.) The second example is parading which, with the exception of the recent anti-internment march, illustrates how Stormont and marching feed off each other.
The notion of sharing is rarely challenged but it contains a subtle message. It indicates that our politicians are not
planning for a united people. They advocate a divided people sharing the same space, thereby perpetuating managed sectarian division. Their political power is based on that division. Sectarianism is the glue which holds power-sharing in place.
The concept of shared space is influenced by a deeply ingrained Irish historical tradition, which regards Ireland largely in terms of territory rather than people.
It is a topic for another day but many have identified it as a recurring theme from Wolfe Tone (surprisingly) to modern republicanism. Its latest manifestation is the proposed reform of local government here, which is based on territorial carve-up, while ignoring human behavioural patterns of social and economic activity. (This and other ideas will be debated at next week’s Thomas D’Arcy Magee Summer School in Carlingford, Co Louth.)
While the notion of sharing space, however insulting, can be grasped, the concept of sharing time is more complex. In a shared future, who is meant to be sharing what with whom and for how long? It presumably refers to Stormont’s two sectarian camps dividing their political spoils so that they can eternally use a petition of concern to smother democracy. Why aspire to a shared future without first agreeing the past, or even the present? Gerry Kelly, for example, says that there are two narratives on the troubles here. he is right – and both are flawed. (Other countries have history. We have negotiation of reality.)
Not only can they not agree on what occurred in the past, they cannot agree on how long the past has lasted. Many in the DUP believe that the earth’s creation began on a Saturday evening in October 4004 BC. (God was obviously having a quiet night in and became bored.) Archaeological evidence proves that people were living near Coleraine around 7000 BC. There is a four and a half billion year gap between the two sides on the origins of the earth. how is that for different narratives?
In Stormont, sharing the present does not include sharing information with the public on a range of strategic and operational issues, including foreign trips. It does not include sharing information within the executive, nor sharing collective government responsibility for the policies of individual ministers. On the Maze regeneration, for example, they cannot even agree on what they previously agreed. They might like to join us in the real world, where sectarianism is now an unaffordable luxury.
So while our sectarian politicians continue to share power and privilege, the rest of us must share the results of their failures in the economy, education, housing and health. Our key areas of government are in an ever-growing mess. But why bother with governing when you can hide your failures through the use of shared jargon?