Peter Lockhart is a law student at Queens
The traditional cleavage within politics here has never gone away, though it would be reasonable to assert its salience has steadily increased in the last six years since the Brexit referendum. It has been during these years that a debate over the constitutional future of Northern Ireland has developed genuine consideration, as the UK’s status in the so-called ‘premier league’ of nations appears to be under threat from its own sustained self-sabotage.
This situation creates a great democratic opportunity – for those on both sides of the constitutional debate to sharpen their arguments, identify their most able orators and prepare for true civil dialogue. A dialogue conducted through forums which promote mutual understanding, and which channel our most emotional, visceral opposition into something constructive. Most importantly, this opportunity is entirely apolitical. It is merely the opportunity to present each side of the constitutional question properly.
It is this opportunity for civil dialogue which reveals the ‘other’ divide in NI politics, that bisects the traditional one. The other divide separates those who are willing to commit to civilised debate and listen to the other side from those who are not. It separates those who capitalise on hatred and misunderstanding, from those who do not. It separates those who employ the dreaded whataboutery, so often the extinguisher of constructive debate, from those who do not.
Elements of unionism in particular have shown a distinct lack of willingness to engage in any debate on the constitutional future (somewhat understandably), but it seems strikingly obvious that this tactic will run out of road. The recent census results which displayed a marked decline in those who primarily identify as British can be construed as evidence that less people are fully committed to a national identity which elides any sense of Irishness, or at least Northern Irishness. Those pragmatic enough within unionism to recognise the trajectory of the constitutional debate must surely recognise the need for preparation.
However, the other divide is by no means localised to unionism – those who purport to favour a United Ireland must recognise the concessions required from both sides for it to succeed. Regardless of past atrocities and a strength of feeling about the injustice of partition, it is no recipe for stability if the aim of those driving the debate is towards reversal rather than evolution.
The other divide will become more entrenched as the constitutional debate gathers momentum. The temptation to demonise, to withdraw, and to antagonise the other side will always allure. The emotional response forms in the human brain before the rational one, with many arguments simply presenting a confabulation based on a deeper feeling of discomfort toward certain ideas. Those who favour civil dialogue will feel this temptation too, but its power can be dissipated through a shared commitment to providing appropriate forums within which to house the constitutional debate.
As we interact with others on the constitutional question, let us try and recognise the salience of this second divide. We must look not only for those who conform to our opinions, but for those who display what Oscar Wilde called “the ability to play gracefully with ideas”.
This is a guest slot to give a platform for new writers either as a one off, or a prelude to becoming part of the regular Slugger team.