Who can forget the night Martin McGuinness gave media interviews to announce his resignation as Deputy First Minister? When we realised how ill he was, and we heard his words of resignation with sadness but also in no small relief. The DUP’s RHI, anti-Irish pantomime leading up to the collapse of the Executive was over.
Martin spoke of how he was bringing an end to DUP arrogance in power and that there would be no return to the status quo. Two and a half years later we have a new status quo. One of reeling from the latest threats to our economic and constitutional security as a result of England’s Brexit to the last financial scandal involving the DUP. It feels like a sea of powerlessness where only the conversation of a United Ireland provides a psychological life raft. It is a status quo of being at the mercy of external events.
How any of us define the status quo Martin McGuinness spoke about is a bit subjective. We all use the term, but do we mean the same thing? Those who walked away from shared government after the Fresh Start Agreement and formed an opposition, outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, will probably define it differently to those who stayed in and tried to find a compromise approach following this renewed attempt at governance.
The Stormont Executive as it operated meant different things to different people. At its heart though it was almost miraculous. That all elected parties would, despite our conflict and history, share power for the benefit of all, and from that all other political progress locally would flow. But we know it was no panacea. The implementation of rights became subjective rather than primary. The constructive ambiguity of agreements became arenas of destructive contest.
The good news stories were lost as those denied rights became constituencies left behind, despite law and political agreement being on their side.
For me the Fresh Start Agreement was a profound disappointment with British Government failure to progress the Stormont House Agreement legacy mechanisms. Anything else was entirely lost on me as a result.
But there were good news stories. We cannot tell the story of the Executive without also mentioning the importance of having locally accountable ministers and representatives. Responsiveness to the Foot and Mouth crisis, the development of the campus at Strule, once a British army base now home to 6 schools on a shared site, the commissioning of the Bengoa Report, beautiful new gaelscoileanna. It is easy to say “but”, highlighting what was not done, but it is stupid to pretend that it was useless, or a waste of time.
Strand One of the Good Friday Agreement is as precious as any of the other strands. Confidence in its ability to deliver has been critically damaged. But that doesn’t mean we can or should close our minds to the potential of its resurrection on the right terms with a re-invigorated Strand Two, all island dimension. If we say we are post-Stormont then that means we are post Peace Agreement. We are not.
I’ve no idea if current talks can deliver, we live in hope. But if there is a deal to be made it should be made. We need a new politics, where we take our power and use it, responding to our political and legal obligations in full, for the good of all society. Is that too much to hope for?