The Northern Irish - Programmed for Discord

04/06/2016 15:22 | Updated 04 June 2016


How do you form a programme for government when Northern Irish people are congenitally programmed for disagreement?

While society is outwardly normal, elections tell us that people in Northern Ireland look at the world through two distinct lens. Each lens is a formed by a mix of genetics, family learning and apartheid schooling.

It's like the Cuba-USA standoff.

Republicans see Britain as a brutal and malevolent imperialist force.

Unionists see Britain as a gallant and benevolent force for good.

There is no half-way. Each story is clear, immutable and inimical to the other. Each side is convinced and as inflexible as the other. People in Northern Ireland inherit these diametrically opposite and incompatible views like a family heirloom. As W.B. Yeats wrote:

'Out of Ireland have we come.
Great hatred, little room,
Maimed us at the start.
I carry from my mother's womb
A fanatic heart.'

We breed and educate two hyper-partisan blocs, radically incompatible, similar only in their mutual loathing and convincement of being right. Irish actor and Northern Protestant Jimmy Nesbitt said:

"The school I went to taught a very different history from the Catholic grammar schools."

Each worldview is united only by their narrowness and lack of historical awareness. That's why historicity should be as important as literacy and numeracy.

"The overriding public interest in such minimum political awareness on the part of citizens is surely at least as pressing as the individual labour-market demands of literacy and numeracy skills rendering other subjects compulsory."

Proper education could inoculate young people from the worst passions of tribalism.

Ian Paisley used the rhetoral tool, the diacope, "Never, never, never", to brutal effect.

His total resolve was matched on the other side. In 1986 Martin McGuinness said "never, never, never" to British presence in Northern Ireland.

And there you have the context for 30 years of violence, when Northern Ireland was locked in a deadly standoff.

And that was the option - live in the bog of reprisals forever, or the extremes would have to come together. Luckily the parties have left the bog.

Terence O'Neill of Ahoghill, my political lodestar, said in the House of Lords in June 1974:

"We all must be willing to believe that we are wrong, and I am willing to believe that I am wrong. It is just possible, when middle-class moderates have failed, that extremists could get together and settle their differences, and it could be that in certain circumstances this situation could pass over without there being a bloody civil war."

The former Prime Minister of Northern Ireland who was hounded from office in 1969 repeated it a month later in July 1974, "We must hope that the extremists can somehow come together and settle these problems."

O'Neill's words came true in end. The extreme party of Protestants now works with the extreme party of Catholics (held together by an independent politician), and in Opposition to them are the moderate parties of Protestants and Catholics, the UUP and SDLP.

The partisan parties of the DUP and Sinn Fein have alone worked in partnership to produce a Draft Programme For Government.

With the knowledge of recent history and the retrenched word views of the people, their partnership is quite remarkable, and that they can produce anything is something more remarkable again.

The PfG framework is now at public consultation until 22 July.

Thereafter detailed action plans will be developed, with a final PfG published with a budget by the end of 2016.

Newton Emerson is bullish, as he wrote in the Sunday Times:

"Stormont may no longer be as predictable as a mechanism, but the likeliest prospect is that government will start working and opposition will break down."

Deric Henderson, former Irish editor of the Press Association has said that, "the new NI Executive has massive potential to deliver. Higher than usual expectations."

Jim Fitzpatrick said, "Message is clear - a unified entity. That's new."

Even the humbug-merchant Alex Kane is "reasonably optimistic".

Optimism is a mark of how close to the precipice the institutions came. The 'Fresh Start' gives us prospect over precipice, an agreement negotiated to stabilise the Stormont administration. Dr Malcolm McKibbin, Permanent Secretary of the Executive Office and Secretary to the NI Executive (advisor to the first and deputy first ministers), said in a December 2015 interview:

"[2015] has probably been the most difficult since my appointment to this post [2011]."

Deviating from the outbreak of optimism, Ian James Parsley expects an "omnicrisis".

I believe Ulster is at the crossroads. As Steven McCaffery said:

"In the next few years we'll either get real government, or a real crisis."

The loose coalition of Opposition (UUP, the SDLP and Alliance) now have the chance to develop and sell an alternative power sharing government; and they can begin this with case by case collaboration. Their success depends on government failure. Yet precedent tells us that moderate unionists and nationalists don't work well together, as Newton Emerson wrote:

"Sinn Féin and the DUP may still be embarrassed to sit together but they have by far the best record on working co-operatively. The UUP and SDLP record is lamentable, squandering their early years at the helm then failing to create any kind of joint vision since."

The "Fresh Start" agreement has reduced the number of Assembly departments from 12 to nine.

The chairs of the committees are mainly either the main opposition leaders or senior members of the other Executive party to that of the minister. This gives us the prospect for detailed scrutiny and the prospect of increaed effectiveness in the Assembly.

The outcomes-based PfG breaks with the past, as previous programmes had been based around targets.

To measure outcomes there will be 42 broad indicators , allowing the public sector to be held to account. The 42 indicators will measure progress towards the 14 outcomes.

There are 14 preferred outcomes which "best describe the society we wish to have", focusing more on the non-tribal matters such as health and housing.

Once the consultation period for the framework is over, a set of action plans will be published giving more concrete deliverables. The action plans will aim to move the indicators in the right direction and ultimately bring about the desired societal outcomes.

The main refrain against the PfG is that it is light on detail. A UUP councillor said that if a voluntary group submitted something like the PfG as a funding application they'd be turned down. I agree.


What do you expect from a local Assembly whose very inception was built on ambiguity? The DUP want to make Northern Ireland great. Sinn Fein want Northern Ireland to disappear.

There can be no collective will or vision so long as the aspiration of the two parties and their voters is so inimical. And that's what Steven McCaffery is right to say that the "task of building reconciliation is still the biggest test facing the DUP and Sinn Féin."

How can you form a programme for governing a country when we programme our children for discord and disharmony? There needs to be reconciliation among adults and more harmony between the schools, as opposed to apartheid institution with apartheid curricula. Disparity of allegiance only gives discord; we need parity of education.

As an artist I know, vision without execution is hallucination. Talk is cheap, even the written word is nothing if it doesn't materialise. Value and respect and reward will only come from action. That's the challenge for the DUP-Sinn Fein coalition - to execute on vision.

Complete the consultation on the Draft Programme for Government Framework 2016-21 here.

If you're not happy with the PfG email #MArlene ( and tell them how it can be improved.

Draft Programme for Government Framework (2016-2021) by Brian John Spencer