By John O’Connell
Power-sharing was an honourable path for the North of Ireland when it was first conceived in the late 1960s. It would have really moved things on in the early 1970s and consequently it had the potential to create a more just and less sectarian society at that time.
Yet “at that time” is the most important part of that statement. It would have been good for the 1970s when the idealism of the 1960s was still fresh in the minds of most of our people.
However, it was brought down then by a combination of the DUP and misguided republicans in the IRA – perhaps even misguided by people who were deeply suspicious of any plan by a socialist political party that would involve social democratic leaders becoming more popular than Catholic clergy.
The DUP and loyalists, urged on by the IRA campaign, also fought hard to destroy the Sunningdale power-sharing arrangements. So power-sharing fell then, for the simple reason that the DUP and the Republican Movement of that time wanted to bring it down.
So it was only after everything had been mooted and thought about that the political world came back to power-sharing in the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. It was now thought about as the only “solution” to the divisions and sectarianism in Northern Ireland because nothing else could be seen as a potential solution to the problems that so wrecked this society.
Yet with the coming of the Good Friday Agreement, which was a serious attempt to tackle sectarianism and division, came ever greater sectarian division in this society.
The healing process was prevented from happening by the extremes and their obsession with their deeply flawed power-pursuing policies.
The idealism of the 1960s that so fuelled the Sunningdale agreement just wasn’t there anymore. The opportunity had been lost in the 1970s and, instead, the problem became more inflamed, with a twenty year gap until power-sharing was tried again in 1998.
What happened in 1998 was that the most supportive supporters of power-sharing were continually undermined by the DUP and the Republican Movement, who raised every objection possible to wrestle control from the two largest parties.
These more extreme parties never had any idealism and were simply taking advantage of weaknesses in the new political arrangements. All they cared about was wrestling control from the SDLP and the UUP – that was the strategy and nothing else mattered. They didn’t care that it was going to go to the wall.
Nonetheless, the future was destined to go in their favour. The SDLP should have known this before going down this path at the end of what was a mostly bloody and depraved century. In the North of Ireland, after 2,500 deaths, the idealism was lost and gone forever.
In 1998, I sat down and wrote out a little diagram of what I thought would happen when everything, including the power, was to be carved up between green and orange, as the agreement implied.
It was pretty obvious to me that both Sinn Fein and the DUP would come to the fore in an attempt to maximise the power of their own particular section of our divided community.
There was no escaping that. That was the result of the agreement. The reality was that neither Sinn Fein nor the DUP had any of the idealism needed to actually work the agreement. Their hearts were dead after two decades of wrecking things for the SDLP, done primarily because they distrusted their true idealism.
Power-sharing is dead. It is dead because large sections of our society don’t really understand why they should have to tolerate waiting for one moment to end the tyranny of the other section of society. What is in effect a projection of themselves unto their opponents is now the primary force for the destruction of this society.
The polarisation of this society that has occurred over recent years, not just over the decades of the Troubles and before, are the reason why the SDLP and UUP have failed to hold their Westminster seats.
It will only get worse for them under the 1998 agreement.
This society will simply continue to divide along green and orange lines, and this determines their thinking which will mean that they will increasingly grow to dislike each other.
While it was followed sincerely in the interests of everyone in this society, the path we have followed has proven to be flawed by the DUP and Sinn Fein, who have no real interest in power-sharing but who have an interest in proving that it was flawed. Power-sharing has been replaced by a carve-up avoiding the need for any sense of common cause that might reduce division and sectarianism.
In the short-term, it seems that the DUP will be pulling strokes at Westminster, bolstering up a government that will not last long. That will be a pretty difficult time for us and it means that we should begin now and start a process for real and meaningful change.
The line on the map that will divide us has already been drawn with the result of the Westminster poll. All that is needed is a bit of “outside-the-box” thinking. Let us not just let our party die.
John O’Connell is an SDLP-supporting political commentator
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