Sometimes it feels like Northern Ireland is totally isolated from global events. We see change happening in other places, but accept that it’s not going to happen here. It’s tempting to rhyme off the same old excuses – our problems are too complex, our society is too resistant to change. This is rubbish. We aren’t alone in having problems – not at all. Yet we seem to be far less proactive in actually doing something about them.
Take a look back over the last year. Ireland became the first country to vote for Marriage Equality. Jez-We-Can Corbyn-mania swept across large swaths of the disillusioned British public standing on a platform of anti-austerity and social justice, scrapping nuclear weapon upgrades and protecting public services. Podemos and Syriza championed the politics of anti-austerity in Europe, with Syriza standing against the power of the undemocratic and austerity-obsessed European Union. The SNP failed in their independence campaign but claimed an astonishing electoral success, proving the appeal of their new and reconnected brand of politics. There has recently been huge outpourings of support across Europe and particularly in Germany for people caught in the biggest refugee crisis since the Second World War. Demonstration after demonstration has been staged.
The point is that things were happening, narratives shifting. It’s refreshing.
We should be encouraged by all these events. Of course some of these movements were successful, while others weren’t. But that’s not really the point. The point is that things were happening, narratives shifting. It’s refreshing. There has been excitement, hope, and passion, and a sense of new possibilities.
This isn’t to suggest negative things haven’t also been happening. Of course they have. Alongside the ‘Welcome Refugees’ movement there has been the usual counter-push. In all the political processes, established power bases have sought to undermine groups seeking change.
But things have been happening nonetheless. Often exciting things. And young people who are simultaneously fed-up and inspired by the possibility of doing things differently are at the centre of it all.
The question then turns to whether it’s Northern Ireland’s time to join in. The despair, frustration, and disengagement from Northern Irish politics is palpable. People are fed-up. I’m fed up. Last week, once again, our political parties totally abdicated their responsibilities to govern in favour of political opportunism and political maneuvering. Given that they haven’t been able to make, well, any decisions on major issues such as the budget, they are doing what they’ve done best for the last decade. They feign outrage (the IRA still exists in some vastly reduced form – no way!!) to distract from their own incompetence.
But extend it beyond our latest pathetic political debacle. Here’s Northern Ireland in 2015. Gay Marriage voted down – now the only place in the UK and Ireland where it is illegal. Women in Northern Ireland continue to find it virtually impossible to get an abortion. Continued high unemployment, poor educational outcomes in some communities, some of the most marginalized communities in the entire of Europe, poor mental health, services under threat. A shared future? Don’t make me laugh. A coherent approach and strategy to dealing with the past? Yeah right. The list goes on… and on… and on….
It was telling in Jeremy Corbyn’s first Prime Minister’s Questions that Nigel Dodds chose to focus his question on comments made by John McDonnell over a decade ago. This is all that our politicians offer – the past. Surrounded by all the optimism and sense of change, he and the DUP played to their traditional role.
Let me say something that most people won’t want to hear. We are not unique in having deep and difficult problems.
In Northern Ireland we seem ingrained in a cynicism that things can’t and won’t change here. “Yeah it’s Northern Ireland, and we’re different”. Let me say something that most people won’t want to hear. We are not unique in having deep and difficult problems. Sometimes I think we like to wallow in our own shit. At least some of us do, while others (the media) are merely happy to facilitate it. Then there are those (our politicians) who actually benefit from it.
So let me make another statement. There is no reason – No Reason – why Northern Ireland can’t change. People across Europe are showing the type of dynamic, passionate and hopeful politics that should be an inspiration to us. And I honestly think it’s only a matter of time before we follow suit. People are talking of new approaches (and I don’t mean NI21 new – I mean actually new) and politics based on social justice and people’s rights. People want to see Northern Ireland being a part of the world around us, not a strange little anomaly and outlier on the edge of Europe. People are actively and hopefully imagining what Northern Ireland could look like in the future.
We can do it here too. After all, we’ve done it before.
Our politicians have failed to provide the type of leadership that we demanded from the Good Friday Agreement. People are right to be fed-up. This isn’t about narrowly defining what that change should be, it’s just reminding us that it is possible. There are so many examples happening around the world of people challenging their political systems. We can do it here too. This may seem utopian, it may seem ridiculous, but it is possible. After all, we’ve done it before. Recognizing – remembering – that is the first step.