Life in Northern Ireland will not improve if its citizens, especially those outside the political process, don’t step up to the responsibilities of democracy. I could say the same thing about my own native country, but I will leave that to someone else for now, because I live here. The United States is at its own political impasse, and if resolution isn’t reached on the budget and debt ceiling, we’ll certainly be feeling it soon enough.
I am an immigrant citizen who has a vested interest in a peaceful, prosperous, and reconciled Northern Ireland. Jim Wallis, an evangelical pastor and liberal political commentator, says, “Take the place you live seriously. Make the context of your life and work the parish that you take responsibility for.” That’s the crux of my desire to be politically active here in Northern Ireland. I not only care about my neighbours, I have a responsibility to them.
I want to see the growth and development of our local economy, help build up our tourism industry, work to lift people out of poverty, and do so much more. But this work will continue to be undermined until we move politics off the street and into the Assembly. If differences aren’t resolved through dialogue, debate, and compromise, violence and anarchy will continue to stain our local political life.
It doesn’t really matter how perfect the structures of government are; if there is an absence of democratic culture—trusting relationships, voter participation, civic engagement, etc.—democracy will flounder and fail. I’ll be making my own suggestions in the near future, but for now, I’ll simply raise the question: what can we do here in Northern Ireland to bring people—and that includes the non-voting middle class as much as it does disenfranchised Republicans and Loyalists—into the fold of the political process?
Below is a passage from International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance’s brilliant publication, Reconciliation AfterViolent Conflict: A Handbook.
“A functioning democracy, then, is built on a dual foundation: a set of fair procedures for peacefully handling the issues that divide a society (the political and social structures of governance) and a set of working relationships between the groups involved. A society will not develop those working relationships if the structures are not fair and, conversely, the structures will not function properly, however fair and just they are, if there is not the minimum degree of cooperation in the interrelationships of those involved.
“This realization has in recent years been absorbed and assimilated by the international community. Thus, for example, the United Nations (UN) now speaks of democracy as being not only the holding of regular elections but the development of a “democratic culture” within a society, so that the patterns of democratic discourse, of conflict management, filter through to all levels of political and civil society and manifest themselves in constructive relationships between society’s differing constituencies and opinion groupings. There is still considerable debate on exactly what a democratic culture means and how to promote it, but clearly it suggests the need for cooperative relationships to implement the structures of democracy.
“The conclusion to all this is that relationships matter. And that is where reconciliation comes in.”