We need progress based on equality and respect

Posted By: March 01, 2017

Jim Gibney.Irish News. Belfast. Wednesday, March 1, 2017

For political parties, all elections are important. For the electorate, all elections are not important. The electorate dip in and out of elections depending on their mood.

Tomorrow’s election is one of those rare occasions when the mood of the people and the parties could well chime.

That is understandable given the political crisis that precipitated the election: the RHI heating scandal and the DUP’s handling of it; its support for the British government’s austerity plans, including welfare cuts; its support for attempts to block the truth about the deaths of almost 1,000 people through state and loyalist violence; the denial of an Irish language act; its opposition to opening the H-Blocks at Long Kesh and its refusal to accept the status of former political prisoners; the blocking of marriage equality and civil rights for the LGBT community; opposition to a bill of rights; support for Brexit and the ignoring of the majority opinion in the North – 56 per cent – which voted to remain in the EU.

There is no doubt that the electorate is showing signs of heightened interest because of the impact of these issues on their aspirations – whether broadly Nationalist or broadly Unionist.

In terms of divining the mood of the voters other related facts must be considered: the widespread sympathy for Martin McGuinness in his handling of the situation; his engagement with the Unionist community (which went unreciprocated); the fear that the collapsed institutions will not be restored; the opposition of the SDLP-UUP-Alliance axis and whether their message to the electorate will bear some fruit; the impact on the support for People Before Profit in their pro-Brexit stance alongside the DUP, the Tories and Ukip.

Twenty years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with all the challenges and changes, largely positive, that it entailed, for Unionists and Nationalists it is surprising that the DUP, under the supposedly more modern leadership of Arlene Foster, chose to reject Martin McGuinness’s advice to temporarily stand aside.

His resignation and collapse of the Executive and Assembly became inevitable.

The question to the front of the minds of Nationalists and Republicans is whether the power-sharing experiment has run its course, foundered on the rocks of Unionist bigotry and British government indifference and whether it is time to chart another course.

The decision on which road to go down will be determined by what the Unionist and the British government’s attitude is during the negotiations.

Preferably, a new Executive and Assembly based on equality and respect and a plan to implement the issues which led to the collapse of the institutions is successfully negotiated.

With respect to one of the most important issues yet to be resolved – truth and the legacy of the conflict – the signs as recent as last week are not good.

The appeal court in Belfast turned down what most people view as a reasonable request from the family of the murdered human rights lawyer Pat Finucane for a Public Inquiry into his killing as promised by a former British prime minister.

Several hundred people took part in two events: the annual memorial lecture for Pat Finucane; and a conference of relatives of those who lost loved ones at the hands of the British crown forces and through British collusion with loyalists.

Relatives for Justice organization was involved in both events – the latter was designed for relatives to ask the leadership of all the main parties in the election their stance on truth and how it was to be achieved after decades of waiting for many families.

The leaders of Sinn Féin and the SDLP, Michelle O’Neill and Colum Eastwood attended as did former executive Alliance Minister Stephen Farry.

The DUP and UUP boycotted the event: their absence a disrespectful message in and of itself.

In a timely, welcome and highly significant lecture, the Irish government’s Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan spoke at the Pat Finucane event.

He unequivocally supported a public inquiry into Pat’s killing and said the “Time is Now” for the legacy of the past to be finally resolved.

The time is also now for The North to become a society based on respect and tolerance.

Tomorrow’s election result will impact on the prospects of achieving just that.