Pivotal

Author

Dr John Kyle

Dr John Kyle

Published

The American humourist Robert Benchley famously said: ‘There are two kinds of people in the world, those who divide the world into two kinds of people and those who don’t’.

In Northern Ireland we have made an art form of dividing people into them and us, but as the country has changed it has become clear that we no longer have just two communities. We have at least four: nationalist, unionist, the so–called middle ground who would not designate as either, and the growing diverse community of people who were not born on the island of Ireland and who did not grow up steeped in the history and culture of orange and green.

An emphasis on difference accentuates division, fosters insecurity and can paralyse political progress. After months of deadlock the resumption of the Northern Ireland Assembly was greeted with cautious optimism; hope reappeared tentatively. Could politicians find a way to set aside their differences, straddle the divisions and begin to tackle the problems their constituents were wrestling with, problems such as growing economic hardship, the deteriorating fabric of school buildings or the lack of access to medical care?

Northern Ireland has a distinguished history of peace building in the face of profound division and violence. The years of patient, persistent dialogue preceding the 1998 Agreement, often against apparently insurmountable odds, changed attitudes and created sufficient levels of trust to enable difficult compromises to be made. There was a momentum pushing all sides towards ‘reconciliation and rapprochement’ and a clear goal of creating democratic institutions, supported by all, through which political differences could be resolved.

A number of subsequent setbacks frustrated progress, but none proved terminal. In recent years however we seem to have lost both momentum and a clear goal. Furthermore, the sizable community of what might be called reconciliation practitioners has shrunk. The science and art of bridgebuilding, while much studied, is today less often practiced. The important skill of listening, appreciating another’s point of view and building empathy and consensus has been relegated to useful, but optional.

Does this matter? Our political system is adversarial, combative and competitive, surely division is inevitable given our diversity? Well, yes it does matter. As former Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written: ‘The social fabric (of western liberal democracies) is fraying. Forces are driving people apart and all too little binds us together, society is being disaggregated into individuals and groups with no overarching sense of the common good.’ Evidence from many places indicates that divided societies, lacking an awareness of the common good, struggle. The lack of social cohesion and a common vision militates against human flourishing and economic prosperity. Distrust and insecurity undermine collaborative relationships. In Northern Ireland we know that all too well; we have neglected the common good in the cause of the constitutional debate and at great cost. We think we can exploit division, accentuate fear of others, and maximise difference with no implications for the health of society or for human flourishing.

If we are serious about seeking the welfare of the people, we need to reorientate our politics to identify the common good and work together to achieve it. This will not violate anyone’s constitutional aspirations but will prioritise what is causing people hardship or suffering and focus energy and resources on the means to address it. While there are sections and sectors of Northern Ireland that are flourishing everyone is aware of major problems; the lack of an antipoverty strategy or an effective early learning and childcare strategy; our levels of economic inactivity, the highest in the UK; the shocking numbers of young people struggling with their mental health; these are some of the chronic and complex difficulties we face. Society works best when everyone is benefiting, and if some are benefiting while others aren’t, as is clearly the case in Northern Ireland, then the fabric of society is damaged, and ultimately everyone suffers.

Solving these problems requires a politics of cooperation. For politicians this is possible but does not come naturally. It is nearly always predicated on relationship, i.e. personal connection and rapport. Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness were criticised for beginning each week with a prolonged conversation about the weekend sport, but it created a friendship that withstood considerable political tensions and delivered significant progress.

In a country so damaged by conflict and division, political activity is most effective when exercised in partnership. That requires time spent reaching agreement and building trust, time in which human connection occurs and good will is demonstrated by being true to one’s word. There comes a time when Party interests should be set aside for the serious business of building the economy and rebuilding our public services.

Jonathan Sacks has written: ‘We exercise power to resolve conflict, ensure fairness, create justice and address need.’ In recent years our politics seem to have increased conflict and ignored need, and indeed this may have reflected attitudes and behaviour prevalent in the broader population. Achieving these four objectives will require not only the combined efforts of our political classes but also the engagement of civil society.  

There are things which politicians can do but there are also things which only we, civil society can do, working in concert with others. We all have a part to play in resolving conflict, understanding difference and creating community – a community which is cohesive, welcoming and gives people a sense of belonging. The unique history and nature of Northern Ireland gives added importance to these tasks; a healthy society is one that draws people together rather than pushing them apart. 

The future of Northern Ireland, indeed of the island of Ireland, depends on us rediscovering the importance of connecting, the importance of what Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam called bonding and bridging capital. Bonding capital is the friendships that exist within a social group, the connections that turn a neighbourhood into a community, that imbue a sense of wellbeing and help people find meaning. Bridging capital is the acts of friendship that stretch across social and political boundaries, the interactions that bridge divisions bringing people together, discovering our differences and similarities, allowing trust to grow and solidarity to develop. In a divided society bridging capital is essential and something to which we can all contribute.

So, it will require both politicians and civil society acting collaboratively to create a society in which individuals thrive, the economy grows and communities reconcile. In both the political sphere and civil society we need peace makers and bridge builders. Our capacity to listen and understand one another has been compromised by the rancorous noise of social media and adversarial politics amplified by a media which feels obliged to entertain. It is time to reclaim the common good as a guiding compass point and to require our politicians to work together, prioritising those initiatives which strengthen our common life.

Dr John Kyle, former GP, Belfast City Councillor and High Sheriff. Member of the Northern Ireland Development Group

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