Photocalls do not reflect street-level reality

By Eamonn McCann (for the Sunday Business Post)

In sitting down for a photocall with Gerry Adams and then gripping Bertie Ahern in a hearty handshake, Ian Paisley wasn’t so much making history as making history history.

The utterances that had defined his unionism at least until the end of the 1990s have not been ameliorated or amended but abandoned.

In his speech to the first Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) annual conference after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in November 1998, Paisley excoriated David Trimble for entering into an arrangement not significantly different from his own partnership deal with Sinn Féin.

In reneging on his promises and capitulating to ‘‘the sellout of our province’’, Paisley declared, Trimble had proven himself ‘‘the Judas, the Iscariot’’.

There were ‘‘no words in any language’’ to describe Trimble’s ‘‘treachery’’, he averred, before going on to offer a selection of words anyway.

‘‘He is a liar, a cheat, a hypocrite, a knave, a thief, a loathsome reptile which needs to be scotched,” said Paisley.

Talking to Stephen Nolan on BBC Northern Ireland, Paisley recently explained that he eschewed such language and had accepted the pact only in order to save the Union.

This is exactly the justification offered by Trimble.

One reason within unionism to Paisley’s seemingly dramatic break with his own past is that the basis of the change had already been laid. In the 2003 Assembly election, the DUP argued that any system for the internal governance of the North would have to command the support of ‘‘both communities’’.

The argument advanced against the 1998 Agreement, most explicitly by the DUP’s Peter Robinson, was that, while it evidently had the support of nationalists, it did not have the consent of unionists.

The significance of the formulation lay in its implicit acceptance that nationalist as well as unionist consent was necessary for the creation of enduring institutions. This was the decisive break with longstanding policy that made the developments of the past few weeks possible.

The equivalent shift by Sinn Féin had come earlier. In endorsing the ‘principle of consent ‘ contained in the Agreement, accepting that Northern Ireland will, as of right, remain part of the United Kingdom until such time as a majority within the six counties decides otherwise, Sinn Féin had ditched the idea that lay at the heart of its own tradition and that had provided the justification in political morality for the campaign, indeed the existence, of the IRA.

This makes an abstraction, if not a nonsense, of the ringing words that will be read out by Sinn Féin representatives at Easter Rising commemorations North and South this afternoon: ‘‘We declare the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland, and to the unfettered control of Irish destinies, to be sovereign and indefeasible.”

The Paisley-Adams deal represents not a compromise or accommodation between the ideologies that had defined the two men’s parties but the willing negation of each. To this extent, the government now in the process of formation need not be characterised by ‘a battle a day’ between fundamentally irreconcilable parties, but will be ideology-free, driven not by grand historical narratives but by the day-to-day requirement to take care of business.

This is not to suggest that the legacy of the past can be wished away. The shift in the positions of the parties reflects the unwillingness of their electorates to battle one another into the future. The main pressure on each of them came from below. Nevertheless, the happy pictures of old enemies glad-handing one another in spring sunshine doesn’t reflect any already-established, street-level reality.

The North remains sharply divided. More than half the population lives in areas that are at least 90 per cent Protestant or Catholic.

Those at the top who have set their faces towards a bright new future may bask in the approbation of governments and a media consensus. But at the bottom, many still live in fearful shadows.

Whether a government of which New Paisleyism will be the largest component can dispel this legacy is far from certain. An investigation of the level of fear in North Belfast in 2003, based on data from more than 4,500 individuals, found that only one in 12 worked in areas where there was a majority from the ‘other’ religion, that just under half (48 per cent) were afraid to travel for work or leisure through an area dominated by ‘the other side’, even in daytime. It also found that between a third and two thirds believed that their job opportunities were limited by fear.

There is persuasive evidence, too, from academic research and daily anecdote, that many in the most affected communities who had shown themselves remarkably resilient through the Troubles, now display symptoms of deep psychological distress.

‘‘They say the country is coming together,” said one community activist in Derry last week, ‘‘but this place is in bits.”

The conflict as expressed in belligerence between Paisleyism and the Provos has, perhaps, gone away.

But many who will have voted for the two parties still live with the dark legacy bequeathed them as the parties moved on.

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