The other evening as I watched the latest edition of the BBC Northern Ireland programme Spotlight, I was reminded of ills that continue to beset Northern Irish politics.
The show itself involves a number of politicians fielding questions from members of the public on issues of importance in the North. The esteemed panellists on the show included Jim Allister, representing the Traditional Unionist Voice, the Sinn Fein MLA Gerry Kelly, Sammy Wilson of the DUP and the Alliance Party’s David Forde. The first question to be parried regarded the highly contentious issue of devolution of policing and justice from Westminster to Stormont. A lively opening was guaranteed. First to respond was Mr Allister who fiercely rejected any such move while Sinn Fein remained in power. He then proceeded into a heated “diatribe” which amounted to nothing more than a scathing indictment of the republican movement for its role in The Troubles. This then led on to an attack on Gerry Kelly for his own personal involvement in the bombing of the Old Bailey and the Maze breakout in the 1980s openly referring to him as a “murderer”. Mr Kelly responded forcefully emphasising the role of the security forces in the Troubles referring pointedly to the events of Bloody Sunday as one such example of police brutality. The remainder of the programme continued in much the vein with most of the participants engaging in the well-trodden path of blame and rebuttal, without making a great deal of headway on the substantive issue at hand, policing and justice.
I fully understand that the past still bears an indelible mark on the political landscape of Northern Ireland and indeed it would be churlish to argue otherwise. I also understand that some our elected representatives have been involved with paramilitary groups and carried out unspeakable acts. However, I fail to grasp why politicians in 2009 are still engaging in sectarian slagging matches and allowing old resentment come to the fore. Maybe I am being naïve but have we not heard all of this before. When will Northern Ireland’s politicians be able to discuss “real” political topics such as housing and education without having draw attention to the seemingly immovable sectarian elephant in the room?
The only ray of hope amongst the tribal squabbling came from the Alliance Party leader David Forde. He was the only politician who possessed the maturity and foresight to acknowledge that although Northern Ireland has had a dark past, the only way forward is to forget such differences and work together in order to provide any sort of authentic governance for Northern Ireland. Look at the progress that has already been achieved, namely the Good Friday Agreement, when politicians come together and with the aim of seeking a compromise.
One could argue that it may be unfair to judge the political class on the basis of a few benighted politicians but I would submit that what was on show was a microcosm of the political system as a whole in Northern Ireland. The problem is that many of these politicians carry much of the emotional and psychological baggage from what they witnessed and endured throughout the Troubles. They are too deeply enmeshed in these dark days where bitterness and hatred was the norm. This is especially true for those such as Gerry Kelly, who played an active part in violence. Even though he may have turned away from these acts, he is unlikely to be regarded with anything other than contempt by some within Unionist politics. I fear that it will take an entire new generation of politicians in order for there to be significant progress, a generation not so deeply scarred by the horrors of the relatively recent past.