I have grown to love Northern Ireland and care about its future as much as my own constituency. Much has been achieved in a society which, it has to be remembered, is still emerging from conflict. However, after the initial hope and a promising period of power sharing we have to acknowledge that in recent years things have gone badly wrong. A culture of crisis leading to a cycle of despair has become ingrained.
This week, another crisis at Stormont threatens to collapse the institutions that are so important to its political stability. In this context, it is vital to look forward to address the day to day difficulties of the poorest in Northern Ireland, who still suffer disproportionately from the effects of the troubles.
A radical agenda is needed to prevent anyone being left behind in Northern Ireland, which remains a society emerging from conflict. In 2014, Labour sought to address these serious and damaging issues from opposition by establishing the independent Heenan-Anderson commission to examine inequality in Northern Ireland, which reported in Belfast yesterday.
The Heenan-Anderson report sets out a landmark agenda that will be useful for Westminster and the Executive in developing a future for Northern Ireland that tackles these underexposed issues. A new focus on inequality in the economic pact, devolution packages for cities in Northern Ireland, a concerted effort to promote the development of the infrastructure and the economy, and a worldclass universal mental health service could have a lasting impact on the life chances of the next generation in Northern Ireland. We hope that the Westminster government and Northern Ireland executive can work together to end intergenerational poverty, inequality and worklessness.
Many of Northern Ireland’s leading politicians are individually people of high calibre who want to do the right thing. All too often the political class collectively, and sometimes inadvertently, elevates disagreement and complexity to the status of crisis. This in turn drowns out any sense of hope and fuels the cynicism which either causes people to hang on to the life jacket of sectarianism, or to confine their grievances to the dinner parties of the leafy suburbs and shun the ballot box.
During the summer I read a thought-provoking book by Lord Jonathan Sachs the former Chief Rabbi. In The Home We Build Together, Lord Sachs attempts to define a new approach replacing both assimilation which seeks to make everyone the same and multiculturalism which celebrates difference and can fuel separation.
I believe there are three elements of this approach which could help to put Northern Ireland back on track.
Firstly, the concept of “common good” where people from different cultures and faiths make a commitment to work together in the interests of the greater good uninhibited by one’s own identity, individual preferences or political prejudices.
Secondly, a “social covenant” which is different to a social contract because it is not about the relationship between the state and citizen but relationships between people and the groups they establish through shared interests underpinned by shared values.
Thirdly, people working together to build change, not by engaging face to face, but working together side by side – and always thinking carefully about the differences between the two. Of course, I continue to call on Northern Ireland’s politicians to make the necessary compromises, to find a way forward.
But I also want to issue a different challenge to the businesses, civil society organisations, trade unions, churches, grassroots community leaders and individual citizens of Northern Ireland. It’s time for you to come together. To sit side by side, not face to face, and build a new public movement for change. To build that vision of a common good through a new social covenant which delivers change, demands a new kind of politics but also creates the space for those politicians irrespective of party who are ready to provide bold and visionary leadership.
Create your own, don’t wait for permission. But make sure it is neither a talking shop nor a vehicle for a narrow wish list, whether for nationalist or loyalist; left or right. From the beginning, it must ensure, through its membership, leadership, actions and objectives, that it is different, and determined not to become the latest symbol of cynicism, division and inertia.
Successive agreements which established and strengthened peace were negotiated by politicians and civil servants sitting face to face. The next era of transformational economic and social change needs people and groups sat side by side in a new public movement for change committed to the common good.