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Alex Kane: Tough to avoid conclusion that NI peace process drawing to a close

David Trimble’s ‘constructive ambiguity’ on North has morphed into destructive clarity

It's now 20 years since David Trimble - and two minor unionist parties - entered the talks process that led to the Belfast Agreement. Everyone was prepared for the agreement to take a few years to bed down; indeed, Trimble highlighted the "constructive ambiguity" required to keep all sides on board.

And even though they knew there would be difficulties along the way, there was still a general optimism that time would result in the building of trust, followed by broader co-operation.

In May 2007, when the DUP and Sinn Féin cut their own deal, they both sold it as an improvement on the original agreement, arguing that they would square the circles which had eluded the UUP and SDLP.

Today, almost nine months after the collapse of the Northern Irish Executive , it’s becoming increasingly difficult to avoid the conclusion that this peace or political process is drawing to a close.


There are a number of factors. To begin with, we still don't agree on the name of the place. Is it Northern Ireland, Ulster, the North, the Six Counties, the Occupied Territory, "our wee country", the Province, or "this part of Ireland"?

We have ongoing conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution, and how could it be otherwise when we don't agree on the constitutional future?

I hear all of those names used almost every day, yet there isn’t one name which is common to us all. That’s a problem if a government - in our case, the Executive - is trying to forge a common purpose and agenda.

No agreement

There’s no agreement, either, on how we see ourselves. Irish, British, Northern Irish, Ulster, Ulster-Scots, UK citizen, unionist, republican, nationalist, loyalist - they’re all in play on a daily basis. And they all mean slightly different things.

Again, that’s a problem for the Executive, because when there is no consensus on the name of the place you govern and no consensus on the identity of the governed, then it’s extraordinarily difficult to reach consensus on anything else. All of which explains the serial crises since 1998.

It also explains why we remain knee-deep in unfinished business. Trimble’s “constructive ambiguity” has morphed into destructive clarity, at the heart of which is the fact that consensus is not possible. We have ongoing conflict stalemate rather than conflict resolution, and how could it be otherwise when we don’t agree on the constitutional future?

Some people say we have lessons to learn from South Africa and other former conflict areas. That's nonsense.

Much easier

South Africa never had a problem over its geographical boundaries or constitutional identity - which made it much easier to establish a truth commission, deal with the past and create a government built on consensus. We don’t agree on the constitution. We don’t agree on the geographical boundaries. So we won’t agree on the purpose and function of the Executive.

The one thing we have learned since 1998 is that consensus isn’t possible. That’s why politicians are still reduced to sound bites like, “Oh, it’s better than it used to be”; “we don’t want to be dragged back to the bad old days”; “people are alive now because we put a lid on the terror”. All of which may be true, but none of which makes a button of difference when it comes to the DUP and Sinn Féin reaching a permanent, stable mechanism for governing together.

The best they have come up with is two governments in the same Executive, with mutually contradictory agendas and visions and a veto to stop each other. The UUP and SDLP didn’t even get that far!

So, inevitably, this has become a never-ending us-and-them numbers game. Smaller vehicles have been squeezed by the reduction in MLAs from 108 to 90 and new voices are finding it harder to make themselves heard.

The last Assembly election (when unionists lost their overall majority for the first time since 1921), and the general election in June (with “unionists” not clearing the 50 per cent threshold), has put both power blocs on alert.

This has emboldened Sinn Féin to keep pushing for a border poll, a stand-alone Irish Language Act and an “equality agenda”, while unionists are clearly circling the electoral and political wagons around the DUP.

Against that sort of background, it’s difficult to see where the compromises emerge between the parties. It’s worth bearing in mind, too, that both the UUP and SDLP have hardened their own stance on Irish language and border polls in the past few months.

We have no new credible post-conflict parties and voices. All of the political, electoral and opinion poll evidence suggests we're polarising rather than broadening

The only way to move from conflict stalemate to conflict resolution is through a process whereby individual problems are addressed and resolved. That has not been the case in Northern Ireland.

Remaining unresolved

All of the big-ticket issues from 1998 (legacy, truth, culture, integration, consensus and institutional stability) remain unresolved. Worse, a whole new list of problems has been added to the mix.

We have no new credible post-conflict parties and voices. All of the political, electoral and opinion poll evidence suggests we’re polarising rather than broadening. Of those who could be bothered to vote, the self-styled middle ground accounts for barely 10 per cent. There is a level of anger about and between the parties that I’ve never seen before.

The only conclusion I can draw - and, as someone who supported the Belfast Agreement, it gives me no pleasure in drawing it - is that the present institutions and process cannot survive for much longer.

The issues and agendas that divide unionism and nationalism are now so wide they have become unbridgeable. The tipping point is inevitable and inescapable.

It’s now all about identity and numbers. Nothing else matters to the opposing sides. And no amount of fudge or sticking plaster will disguise that reality.

Alex Kane is a commentator based in Belfast. He was formerly director of communications for the Ulster Unionist Party