North’s society is as divided as Stormont

Susan McKay: Protest movement’s implosion highlights the issues splitting a nation

Dancer Dylan Quinn launched #wedeservebetter with a video on Facebook which shows him talking about his frustration with the ‘ridiculous’ situation in which the ungoverned North finds itself with Stormont closed. Photograph: Getty Images

Dancer Dylan Quinn launched #wedeservebetter with a video on Facebook which shows him talking about his frustration with the ‘ridiculous’ situation in which the ungoverned North finds itself with Stormont closed. Photograph: Getty Images

 

At midnight next Tuesday Northern Ireland will set a new world record – as the democracy which has run for the longest peacetime period without a government.

That ignominious title is currently held by Belgium, which went ungoverned for 589 days in 2010- 2011 when Flemish and Walloon factions got caught in a wrangle.

Protests under the banner #wedeservebetter will take place all around the North on Tuesday evening. However, the movement behind them has already become mired in a dispute which mirrors the hostilities that led to Sinn Féin and the DUP refusing to continue to govern together.

It was choreographer and dancer Dylan Quinn who launched #wedeservebetter with a video he posted on Facebook in early August which shows him walking through the green fields of his native Fermanagh, talking about his frustration with the “ridiculous” situation in which the ungoverned North finds itself, with a health sector in crisis, schools unable to function, the arts sector ravaged by cuts, potholes in the roads – and Brexit looming.

“Enough is enough and we deserve better,” he said, and called on 589 people to gather in Enniskillen to protest and demand that the politicians return to do the jobs for which they are still being paid. People were tired of political intransigence, he said. It was time to challenge the politicians.

Shared the video

Thousands shared the video, and soon protests were being set up in other towns and villages including Strabane, Omagh, Derry, Armagh, Belfast and Newry.

The movement was to be non-aligned politically, it was to be “community led” and elected politicians were told they could not speak at Tuesday’s events.

Apart from that, it was said, the running of each event was largely up to the local organisers, though Quinn and his small team of volunteers did put out “rough guidelines”.

These included the demand that the British and Irish governments should jointly appoint an independent facilitator “to reinvigorate discussions” between the political parties. If they failed to engage, their pay should be cut.

But while excitement built, and smiling photos of families and children and community groups all pledging support were shared, the trouble started.

Own set of demands

The Derry group put out its own set of demands, calling for Stormont to resume “normal business” on October 1st with no preconditions. There would then be “side talks” on any “unagreed issues.” If these things were not done, the pay for MLAs should be stopped immediately.

The problem with this is that it is remarkably like the DUP’s stated position. The DUP says it stands ready to go back to Stormont at any time, and accuses Sinn Féin of setting impossible preconditions on issues that could be discussed once the institutions are up and running.

There was opposition from some of those planning to take part in rallies over the scheduled speakers

Sinn Féin rejects this charge, counterclaiming that the DUP has already shown bad faith in relation to several of the outstanding issues and has already ruled out the prospect of compromise.

In Belfast, a full-scale row broke out after Progressive Politics NI (PPNI), which was co-hosting the city’s event along with a member of Quinn’s Fermanagh team, invited feminist campaigner Elaine Clory, and LGBT rights campaigner John O’Doherty to speak at the protest, and told them it also intended to invite an Irish language activist.

These are, in fact, among the issues at the heart of the stand-off between Sinn Féin and the DUP.

Too radical

There was opposition from some of those planning to take part in rallies, with claims that the politics the speakers represent were too radical, that their issues would be divisive, and that they would distract from the core message of the protest – getting a government back.

There was in particular opposition to the the inclusion of Clory, who is well known as a campaigner for abortion rights. Quinn contacted PPNI and asked it to “rethink” its platform. PPNI notified Clory and O’Doherty – and withdrew its support for #wedeservebetter.

Clory’s view is that the movement is at risk of being hijacked by conservatives. “Supporting the status quo is a political position,” she said. “It’s disappointing and also worrying. It sends a signal to the politicians that we want government back at any cost, without commitment to human rights. But we aren’t the outliers any more, and we are tired of getting sent to the back of the queue.”

Patrick Corrigan who heads Amnesty International’s Belfast office tweeted that “A government to block rather than deliver rights ain’t worth marching for.”

Clory said she had no acrimony towards Quinn. “He’s a lovely man who’s been taken advantage of,” she said. Quinn admits he feels burned by the controversy, but that he has learned from it.

“Politics here are just so complicated,” he said. As an artist he has demonstrated his own commitment to equality. One of his current dance shows highlights the injustice brought about by privilege through an exploration of his own life experience as a white male.

He said he’d walk away if he felt the movement was being hijacked. His belief in #wedeservebetter is undimmed. “We may as well fail trying rather than never having tried at all,” he said.

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