Building a Platform for Change: An Interview with Robin Wilson

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Robin Wilson is an independent policy analyst based in Belfast. He is co-leader of the Northern Ireland devolution monitoring team-part of a UK-wide project co-ordinated by the Constitution Unit in London-which provided the Northern Ireland input to the democratic assessment of the two jurisdictions in Ireland conducted by the think tank TASC. He was part of an HEA-funded research project on north-south co-operation since partition, looking at the architecture established by the Belfast agreement.

Robin helped to draft the Council of Europe’s White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, which was launched by the 47 member state foreign ministers in May 2008. He has recently been working on a strategy for Football Against Racism in Europe. He co-drafted the Football Association of Ireland’s Intercultural Plan, published in 2007, and has worked with the Irish Football Association on its Football for All campaign.

He has a PhD from Queen’s University Belfast on the travails of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, with a comparative look at Bosnia and Macedonia, to be published by Manchester University Press. He was formerly director of the think tank Democratic Dialogue and editor of Fortnight magazine. Robin’s latest initiative is Platform for Change: Renewing and realigning politics in Northern Ireland.

Tell us about your current project, Platform for Change.

While the official, government view of the north is that it is a ‘done deal’, and there is now broad public indifference in the south, in reality the deal which has bought a (now shaky) peace-the Belfast agreement of 1998, particularly as modified by the St Andrews agreement of 2006-is by international standards a conservative arrangement which has been premised on a fixed and stereotyped concept of communal identity and so has inadvertently institutionalised the very sectarian division which needs to be addressed. This has led to the remarkable phenomenon that, at the last independent count, there are 88 ‘peace walls’ in Belfast dividing working-class neighbourhoods. Meanwhile at Stormont, the system of ethnic vetoes which the agreements have entrenched has led to inertia, as evidenced by the five-month hiatus in 2008 when the power-sharing executive did not even meet.

Late last year, I convened a group of non-partisan activists to address this politically ‘stuck’ scenario. The Joseph Rowntree Reform Trust generously supported a project to explore the potential for a realignment of party politics in the north-away from deepening sectarian polarisation and towards a more ‘normal’ left-right system-and for a renewal of public engagement, reversing the disillusionment which has set in since the high hopes of 1998.

Interviews with politicians in the more centrist and progressive parties, discussion groups of voluntary and public sector and trade union figures, exploration of public attitudes revealed by the Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey and assessment of the evidence of power-sharing devolution to date suggested there was a need and an appetite for political change. This crystallised as the idea of a Platform for Change, which would provide a focus for public challenge to the status quo, in a context where all-in government at Stormont rules out opposition in the assembly and prevents citizens from ‘turfing the scoundrels out’.

A two-page version of the platform, indicating how a step change can take place in the politics of Northern Ireland has been drafted. It charts a path beyond sectarianism via commitment to universal norms all can embrace. A very well attended and enthusiastic meeting took place in late March in Belfast and the steering group for the project is now establishing Platform for Change as a membership organisation, which will be open to interested individuals anywhere in Ireland (and beyond) to join shortly.

A series of policy discussions will be taking place over the coming months to flesh out the platform. Drawing together civil society and party figures, these will focus on the big challenges facing Northern Ireland which have so far been flunked: the three Ss of a shared future, social inclusion and sustainable development. The goal is to ensure a viable alternative governing coalition presents itself at the 2011 assembly election. The implication is that there needs to be a move to more flexible power-sharing arrangements (as in Macedonia), to make political alternation possible.

In its 11 years’ existence, Democratic Dialogue made a tremendous contribution to political thought and social policy in Northern Ireland. What do you consider to have been its best achievements?

I wouldn’t overplay those achievements. In retrospect I can see that, in founding DD in 1995, I was too influenced by the Anglo-American model of think tanks, like Demos, where they tend to be free-floating-and so their value can be questioned. By contrast, in the European model, like the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung, they tend to feed directly into policy elaboration by the parties to which they are explicitly aligned. Think tanks can make a unique contribution by translating a set of political values into viable policies; otherwise they risk duplicating impartial research by academics.

What DD did achieve however was two things. First, it showed that it was possible to have round-table discussions about constitutional and policy issues in Northern Ireland, bringing together officials and NGOs, international experts and local practitioners-and the smattering of intellectually curious politicians-which did not have to fall out along the conventional communalist fault lines. Secondly, and relatedly, the output of papers and reports from its staff and research associates, building on these exchanges, fed the appetite of those stifled by provincial conservatism who really wanted a post-‘troubles’ Northern Ireland to rejoin the wider world.

Since DD closed, Northern Ireland hasn’t had an independent, wide-ranging think tank. Do you think we need one, or it is a job being done adequately by other organisations?

Technically, DD went into suspended animation after I stepped down as director, with the option remaining that the board could revive it. But it is evident that ideas, even good ideas, will not in themselves change the terms of political trade in Northern Ireland. That requires a mobilisation of democratic opinion, and that’s what Platform for Change is seeking to do.

Working on the devolution monitoring reports has given you an in-depth knowledge of the nuts and bolts of the NI Assembly. Tell us about its strengths and weaknesses – and is it sustainable?

It is sustainable in the sense that with the marked reduction in the security threat to the British state, manifested at its height by the IRA bombs in the City, and the huge pressures of the economic crisis, there is no appetite in London, or for that matter in Dublin, for further intervention. But there is no reason why the citizens of Northern Ireland should continue to accept a dysfunctional political system on the grounds that they should be grateful that large-scale murder and mayhem may be a thing of the past-which is why change will now have to come from within.

The problem is that the ‘peace process’ placed so much emphasis on private discussions between the political wing of the IRA and the British state that the ‘nuts and bolts’ of devolution were treated in a remarkably cavalier fashion. The arrangements were hammered out in just one night of haggling at Stormont in the run-up to Good Friday 1998. As a result, a crass compromise was agreed between the Ulster Unionists’ goal of an assembly where power would not be shared with Catholics but committee chairs would be distributed by the d’Hondt proportionality rule and the SDLP’s demand for executive power-sharing and nationalist-unionist ‘parity of esteem’. The outcome was an executive appointed by d’Hondt and an assembly divided along the lines of communal ‘designation’.

It is now clear, after a decade of monitoring these institutions, that the unintended effects have been severe. With ministries distributed by d’Hondt, rather than by inter-party agreement, ‘joined-up government’ has become impossible, the Programme for Government has become increasingly minimal and the bulk of legislation, perversely, has been to maintain parity with England and Wales. With all parties securing above 10 per cent of the vote likely to be represented in government, all committees have had a government majority, opposition is confined to the Alliance Party and the assembly has failed to call the executive to account. And the designation system has perpetuated communalist mindsets when the crying need is to develop new alignments if Northern Ireland is ever to leave its sectarian division behind and become a ‘normal’, civic society.

Most citizens of Northern Ireland had a ‘let them get on with it’ attitude, abjuring interest in what seemed largely irrelevant political squabbles as they got on with their private lives. But the failure of the system to deliver-fully 72 per cent of respondents told a Belfast Telegraph poll a year after devolution was renewed in May 2007 that it had made no difference to them-is now having real effects on the ground. In particular, parents of primary schoolchildren approaching their final year are becoming apoplectic about the failure of the DUP and SF to agree on a system for transfer to secondary schools, now descending into unregulated chaos.

Constitutional engineering can seem a pretty desiccated issue, of interest only to political scientists. But this episode highlights how bad engineering can have serious human consequences.

You have studied conflict resolution in other parts of the world. What has this contributed to your work in NI and to your perspective on conflict generally?

One of the conceits of the Northern Ireland political class has been to see itself as the centre of the universe. And governments in London and Dublin have tended similarly to assume that there is now an ‘Irish model’ for global export to other troublespots. Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s grandiloquent former ‘chief of staff’, has paraded this case in his recent book and associated interviews, and a unit has been established in government in Dublin to promote ‘conflict resolution’ worldwide.

Usually, the underlying assumption is that persistent dialogue, including with paramilitary organisations, can solve the most apparently intractable conflicts. Yet we now know, from the accounts by Ed Moloney and Rogelio Alonso, that the IRA was running out of steam in any event by the late 1980s. The coup de grâce was arguably delivered to paramilitary campaigns, not by the actions of government, but by the huge trade-union sponsored peace demonstrations which stabilised Northern Ireland after the ‘Hume-Adams initiative’ launching the ‘peace process’ had ushered in a dramatic polarisation in which the Shankill and Greysteel massacres took place. The death toll markedly fell thereafter-I recall the Northern Ireland officer of the ICTU, the late Terry Carlin, telephoning me to get the data and I was able to confirm the impact-and the ceasefires emerged in less than a year.

The ‘export drive’ has thus been remarkably ill-starred. The visits to Iraq by Northern Ireland politicians have had no effect whatever on the Shia-dominated government, installed by the Americans and the British, which has no intention of genuinely accommodating members of the formerly dominant Sunni community, nor on the tensions between Arabs and Kurds over the status of Kirkuk. Martin McGuinness’ visit to Sri Lanka did nothing to deter the government there from an all-out military offensive against the Tamil Tigers, with a great humanitarian crisis now risked in the north-east of the island. And Blair’s role in Israel/Palestine on behalf of the ‘contact group’-and the associated debate about whether Hamas should be treated like the IRA-has been rendered utterly irrelevant by the brutal Israeli invasion of the Gaza strip. There is a real risk in grossing up a psychologically based notion of conflict in human relationships regardless of social and political context, as if there were generic rules of ‘conflict resolution’ which Northern Ireland, as a ‘success story’, could teach the world.

The best way to understand how to deal with violent conflicts is not to look at other pathological situations but to look at the case that stares one in the face-almost all of western Europe after the second world war. The establishment of the Council of Europe in 1949 symbolised that its member states-now 47 and stretching across the continent-were saying ‘never again’ to particularistic nationalism and violent intolerance by committing themselves to the universal norms of democracy, human rights and the rule of law. These provide the cement of civic societies, guaranteeing as they do basic principles of equal citizenship. If Northern Ireland had not been ‘a Protestant state for a Protestant people’, its ‘troubles’ would never have happened. By the same token, the only long-term future for the middle east is for Israel to be redefined as an impartial, rather than Jewish, state living in harmony with its neighbours.

When it comes to the detail of designing new constitutions for divided societies, there is one key principle to learn. It is what divides the relative success story of Macedonia, which has enjoyed continuous power-sharing government since the Ohrid agreement of 2001, from the basket-case that is Bosnia, where government at state level has been rendered almost null and void by entrenched ethnic vetoes. The key, as the Venice Commission (rule of law arm of the Council of Europe) has recognised, is that the constitution must treat the (diverse) individual, not the collectivised ‘community’, as the unit of government. As the late, respected political scientist Norberto Bobbio recognised, all democratic constitutions are based on this individualist conception of society. Rather than arrogantly believing we have a model to export, we would do well to learn that lesson from elsewhere.

How do you think the economic crisis will impact on NI?

The irony of the economic crisis is that it has happily brought to an end the orthodox neo-liberal claim that Northern Ireland’s public sector was too big. No evidence was ever adduced as to how this was meant to have crowded out either capital (given the large capital grants available from the public purse) or labour (given low wages) in the private sector. Now the public sector, largely funded through the Westminster subvention to the region, is providing an automatic stabiliser, so that unemployment is rising more slowly north than south.

Nevertheless, there has been a wave of job losses in manufacturing and construction. And in a further irony, having bought into the conventional wisdom, the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin agreed a flimsy, laisser faire Programme for Government in 2007. This has since been blown away, along with the associated ideology, by the global financial tsunami. But the two parties have refused to rewrite the programme-as actually they were required to do annually by the Belfast agreement-because they do not have any economic ideas beyond lobbying for more public funds from a strapped UK exchequer or more private investment from a Wall Street in turmoil. Any basic grasp of how successful European regions, like Emilia-Romagna or Baden-Württemberg or Catalonia, function through devolved governments acting as animateurs of regional agglomerations-and the sort of agglomerations we would want to develop now would particularly be in environmental goods and services-is beyond them.

Northern Ireland has been described as ‘a place apart’ but under the Good Friday Agreement it’s locked into structural relationships with Britain and the Irish Republic. How do you see these relationships developing in future?

There is now no doubt-and it is a great pity that Northern Ireland’s political and paramilitary elite did not get this message thousands of deaths earlier-that power-sharing devolution is the best form of governance for the region, and that in that context the old shibboleths of unionism and nationalism, presupposing as they do a world of ‘nation states’ with absolute sovereignty whose day has gone, have become zombie political categories. The Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey now finds more support for devolution than for a united Ireland and direct rule put together.

Within that context, public authorities in Northern Ireland should be impartial between the claims of Irish and British citizens in the region, rather than giving ‘parity of esteem’ to mutually antagonistic nationalist and unionist ideologies, in a spirit of what Ulrich Beck has more widely called ‘constitutional tolerance’. This is why the Police Service of Northern Ireland has been able to secure widespread acceptance, its symbolism eschewing British or Irish emblems, as the Patten report rightly recommended. The then first minister designate, David Trimble, was apoplectic that Patten did not recommend a cap badge which would affirm British state sovereignty, but this was old thinking and the world, including Northern Ireland, has moved on.

Once that new reality is recognised, rather than Northern Ireland being viewed through outdated ideological lenses, the issue of its relationships with the rest of the UK, the rest of the island of Ireland and, indeed, the rest of Europe becomes quite straightforward-and, indeed, the Belfast poet, the late John Hewitt thought all this out decades ago in his regionalist reconception of Northern Ireland. A devolved jurisdiction can look to benefit from policy exchanges with other UK jurisdictions-in this regard, the British-Irish Council is a these-islands talking shop, whereas the real concern is to get the four UK jurisdictions together so that they no longer operate effectively as if they were de facto independent states.

Equally, it can aim to maximise collaboration with the institutions of the Oireachtas, as if the border were not there. That would require amendment of the arrangements arising from the Belfast agreement to place no limits on north-south co-operation, which it should be made clear by all concerned-precisely to maximise the result-has nothing to do with nationalist irredentism but is about co-operation for mutual benefit and a wider goal of reconciliation between Irish men and women. Further, the assembly should be networked with other powerful European regions (including Scotland and Catalonia) in the RegLeg network, not wasting energy on the old Commonwealth Parliamentary Association which unionists insisted it join.

You have a long history of involvement in what might be termed Northern Ireland’s ‘political class’, but you’re not a member of a political party. Why is this?

Howard Dean used to say he represented the democratic wing of the Democratic Party. My natural political home would be the Social Democratic and Labour Party-if it was unproblematically a social democratic and labour party. European social democrats have always sought to ease ethnic tensions by developing overlapping social solidarities-not contributing to nationalistic division by lining up with one side or the other. I don’t rule out this more progressive scenario for the SDLP and certainly the realignment sought by Platform for Change would imply moving in that direction, allowing the party to regain the initiative from SF in the Catholic community while reaching out to the liberal-left of the Protestant community.

Do you ever get discouraged with Northern Ireland politics? What drives you to keep going with initiatives such as Platform for Change?

I’ve more often been accused of being an incurable pessimist. Actually, I’ve always supported Gramsci’s two-sided slogan of ‘pessimism of the intelligence, optimism of the will’. That keeps one ruthlessly facing objective realities, while nevertheless recognising that change is possible through collective democratic action.

Do you have time for any interests and activities outside politics?

Increasingly my work in recent years has been in what has come to be known in European shorthand as ‘intercultural dialogue’, and I’ve found it helpful to look practically at football as a way to translate that often ethereal-sounding idea into activity on the ground. And, naturally, I therefore have to play as much football as I can-three times a week sometimes-and watch as much as I can on television, not because I enjoy it but purely because I can then claim to speak from knowledge and experience …

I also love cooking-though in an interesting demonstration of the case for socialist altruism, can never be bothered doing it just for myself. I’m more than happy to spend hours putting together an elaborate dish (mostly Italian) if it brings a smile and a contented ‘Mmm’ from my regular (and quite demanding) dining companion.

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Jenny Muir is a lecturer who lives and works in Belfast. You can also contact Jenny through e-mail: s.belfastATyahooDOTcoDOTuk