Public confidence in politics and the institutions in the North of Ireland has always been one of the most basic foundation stones of any progress. Politicians from all sides have stretched that confidence to almost breaking point at many times over the years, but the Northern public has responded by continuing to stick with it.
When I first wrote for The Irish News as Fianna Fail Leader, I warned about growing public impatience and drew criticism from all sides of the political divide. But in the years that have followed, the truth is that that sense of drift has increased.
Last week, we took another step backwards. The decision of the leaders of Unionism to withdraw from important talks in protest at a Parades Commission determination was a sign of profound political failure. Raising the rhetoric on parading at this time does nothing for people trying to raise a family, or trying to make a living in Northern Ireland. It certainly does nothing to advance the basic requirement for building trust and a shared vision for the region.
But of course, for anyone who hasn’t wrapped themselves up in the issue of parading, these are statements of the obvious. Last week and the months before raise two less obvious problems that all of us who care about the future of Northern Ireland need to be thinking about.
The first is how NI adjudicates on parading. Unionist parties have pushed for many years for the disbandment of the Parades Commission and the development of a new architecture. In the Hillsborough Castle negotiation and again in the recent Haass process, the emerging ‘momentum’ had been to move parading into the political sphere, with an overarching role for the Office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister.
Recent developments would have to make people question whether such a move would really be good for political stability. An ironic development given the insistence of Unionist political leaders on the need for change.
The second, and more important issue that arises is the question of political recognition of the primacy of the rule of law in Northern Ireland.
I spent a lot of time while I was a Government Minister working on the devolution of policing and justice. And before that, huge energy and resources were poured into the positive transformation of policing. I and many others each played our part gladly and enthusiastically because we recognized that for the North to move on, shared ownership of the institutions and public trust in the rule and administration of the law was going to be the cornerstone of long term progress.
And huge progress has been achieved. The public have bought into it and the architecture around policing and accountability in Northern Ireland is now a case study around the world. Indeed, in Dublin, we will shortly be debating legislation to reform the oversight of An Garda Siochana which takes inspiration from what has happened in Belfast.
But confidence is a fragile thing. Political leaders have an obligation to respect it in the same way as everyone else. When the First Minister and the Leader of the UUP join hands to collapse a talks process because they are unhappy with the independent decision of a body with independent statutory authority, what does that tell the people watching about respect for the rule of law?
When dark mutterings are made about the future of the institutions in an effort to overturn the decision of an independent authority, what does that say about stability?
And in case any Irish News readers think that this is just a unionist issue, it’s not. The same sort of dark mutterings made international headlines just a few months ago when the Deputy First Minister was telling the world that Sinn Fein’s support for policing hung in the balance if his party colleague was not released from police custody. What did that say about stability?
What did accusations of ‘political policing’ and warnings about ‘the dark side’ in the PSNI do for public confidence in the institutions?
Readers may well have already come up with five reasons why the circumstances in each example are different. Fair enough. But that is not the point. The problem that needs to be confronted honestly is the common thread – the fact that political leaders still think that when they want to, they can suspend respect for the law temporarily and without consequence.
Those who enjoy the privilege of leading the Northern Executive hold a position of historic importance and opportunity. For their shared institution to succeed, they demand and need public respect and trust. Showing other important institutions the same respect and trust might be a good start towards getting it.