Archive for January 13th, 2010

The Robinson Affair

How long have we thirsted for a good scandal here? The enthusiasm with which the public is lapping up the Robinson Affair seems to reflect a deep and abiding need for colour and distraction on our political culture.
The whole settlement might be going down the tubes but hey, what a gas!
And that excitement which Iris has generated has made politics interesting for thousands who had just got bored.
OK, those thousands are maybe not focused on the damage this scandal is doing, the jeopardy that faces the institutions. but try and tell them now that they shouldn’t be mocking? You can’t.
Iris has changed the way we think about politics, and this has come as a relief for people for whom it had all become too worthy and tedious.
We have had fifteen years of solemnly intoning the mantras of the peace process, earnestly hoping that dealdines might be met and that deals might be completed and that peace would descend upon us.
More recently people have come to think that an actual healing of political and communal divisions in Northern Ireland is not possible. They went from being bored and earnest to being merely contemptuous of a political system which is inherently acrimonious and self indulgent.
And to think that our quibblers and ninnies in the assembly benches imagine that they are an example to the world of how peace can be made in other tumultuous conflict zones!
We have heard enough of that.
Hope and history don’t rhyme and never will.
But suddenly there is the Robinson Affair and all politics is human again.
We don’t have to reverently think of our representatives as historic figures who have excelled themselves in political courage and crerativity. Nor do we feel we must adhere to inflexible communal allegiances which require us to speak well of them. The people are laughing, and their mirth is as much from relief as from amusement. It is as if an onus of sobriety and conscientious commitment has been lifted from us.
The whole damn shebang might be about to slide into the ditch like last week’s snow, but what a story!
The people of Northern Ireland are responding to that story not with foreboding but with hilarity and amazement.
And this tells us that some of the big sacred notions of the peace process no longer hold us in thrall.
Remember them?
The greatest of these was The Big Picture.
Whenever we had doubts about the behaviour of paramilitary organisations or political parties engaged in negotiations, we were always reminded that we had to keep The Big Picture in mind. The Big Picture was the overall political settlement that would restore order and good government to Northern Ireland.
For example, when the IRA or the UDA killed somebody during the interparty negotiations, some politicians and journalists might have been tempted to fly off in umbrage at the audacity of these hypocrites, talking peace up in Stormont and killing or maiming people on the streets.
Invariably, when challenged on these barbarous acts, the political spokespeople of the killers would say something like this: ‘Yes, it’s terrible, these things happen; but keep your eye on The Big Picture.’
In the past we would have turned a blind eye to murder for the sake of political stability; today we won’t turn a blind eye to adultery and the shocking spectacle of a First Minister demanding that funny money be, not shuffled into a Swiss bank account but paid back!
The next big concept governing the peace process which has taken a dent is: History.
History, it was said, rhymed with Hope. It had a hand and Tony Blair felt it on his shoulder one night in Hillsborough Castle, while struggling not to succumb to soundbites.
An incredible number of incidents in recent years have been described as ‘historic’. Speeches by visiting poltiicians routinely opened with: ‘Ten years ago, who would have believed that ….’ They didn’t seem to notice that the more they said it, the more people did believe and the less amazed they were.
We had historic agreements, historic presidential visits, historic statements, historic acts of decommissioning and then more historic agreements. We even had historic attendances of ministers at football matches.
What went unnoticed was that people were gasping for the other thing we had been promised: Normality.
They didn’t want to see politicians doing grand things for the history books; they’d have settled for them getting the hospitals and the education system in order.
History, we were encouraged to believe, was not just ‘one damn thing after another’. It had purpose and direction. It was destiny, really. And it was taking us to a glorious future.
Except that it, in reality, History was just the past and there was no guarantee that marking one event or another as Historic would make its memory of influence endure.
Then there was Hope, the Hope that rhymed with History, according to Seamus Heaney.
But all we had had a right to Hope for was normality and we only had to look at neighbouring countries to see what normal politics was.
Normality included corruption and sleeze, governmental penny pinching, spin and deceit and back stabbing inside political parties. Normality in Westminster, for instance, is that every few months a minister resigns for not declaring interests, for cutting corners for migrant servants, for fiddling expenses or just to ‘spend more time with the family’. That’s normality; nothing to get excited about.
There were times when people here said things like: Isn’t it great that we are arguing over education and hospitals in stead of shooting each other on the streets?
Well, actually it would have been better if we had had our health and education services sorted out too.
Hope promised a shared future, reconciliation and an end to bickering and more bickering. But it didn’t deliver.
Occasionally, however, Hope offered the prospect that politicians who are thought to be making too much money and not doing enough work might be humiliated. That Hope appears, for once, to have been richly fulfilled.

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