What Northern Ireland needs is a hand UP, not a handOUT…

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Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

by Áine McGrath

Here we are more than 15 years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was signed and I, like many others, am left with the feeling that what we were promised isn’t what we’ve ended up with.

The 1990s have proven to be a pivotal point in Northern Ireland’s story. First we had the ceasefires, then we had the Agreement and ultimately the establishment of devolved government. All the while these monumental political changes were buoyed by a combination of relief and hope amongst our people, and substantial support packages from the international community in the form of mediators and envoys from North America and generous cash injections from Europe. At that time, the British and Irish governments and the Clinton administration in Washington DC were fully committed to the “Northern Ireland Project” and some calculated risks were taken by people such as Mo Mowlam. It seemed that we couldn’t possibly fail.

But we have.

15 years on and it seems that we’ve been abandoned and left to fend for ourselves. The money’s still rolling in from Europe, but the commitment and the vision that was needed to see the Northern Ireland Project through to a successful conclusion just isn’t there now. Washington opted out when Bush was elected President of the US. Blair’s credibility crumbled in the aftermath of the Iraq war and Gordon Brown had no specific interest in Northern Ireland. Worse still, the current UK administration appears to have no understanding of this rather complicated part of the United Kingdom – and the Irish government has enough woes to deal with south of the border, let alone allocate resources to what goes on up here.

So, what exactly do we have? Some would argue that our devolved government has the power to make decisions based on the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland. That’s the theory, but we all know that in practice the brutal truth is that we have a “government” that’s paralysed by posturing and infighting and is almost entirely incapable of making decisions, never mind legislating. When difficult decisions need to be taken, the two default positions are: 1) table a Petition of Concern or 2) abstain/duck the issue by saying it’s “a matter of conscience”. Quality, analytical, fact-based discourse is absent from the heart of our government. God gets wheeled out as an excuse to dodge every difficult socio-ethical issue that emerges from Northern Ireland’s increasingly pluralistic society – and in the midst of all the religiosity, prayers and bibles kept close to hand, there’s dirty deals, lies and cronyism galore. It’s a bloody free-for-all – and the people of Northern Ireland have no control over it. And I’m quite certain that God is getting sick and tired of being used an excuse for much of this nonsense.

So here we are, 15 years after the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, decidedly worse off than anyone could have imagined we would be at this stage. Unresolved issues over parading, sporadic violence, enmeshment of God and governance, no framework for dealing with the past and no plan for mapping out our future. Those with an interest in politics blame the electorate for not going out and voting for better representation. The electorate blames politicians for the shambles of a government we have. Politicians blame each other for everything. I’m going to stick my neck out and say that we’re all responsible for the mess we’re in. However, I don’t believe that we can get out of this mess on our own. The talent and the vision that’s needed to turn things around already exists in Northern Ireland. It’s here – we have it – but it’s not getting a chance to be aired. Just as throughout that pivotal period in the 1990s, we need some outside intervention/mediation to help us rediscover our own potential and implement some sort of quality assurance measures for the sustained growth of our fledgling new society. I truly believe that such baby steps will prove to be huge strides in disguise.

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