When ‘Sleepy Joe’ Biden is handed the keys of the famous Oval Office in about 48 hours time, he won’t have his sorrows to seek and like a former Democratic Party President, Jimmy ‘Peanuts’ Carter, Trump supporters will be hoping his Presidency will be a one-term wonder.
The Donald’s days as the Leader of the Western World may be officially numbered, but Trumpism as a radical political ideology is alive and well if the recent confrontations at Capitol Hill are taken as a benchmark.
For those readers of my vintage who lived through and reported on the Troubles in Northern Ireland, the Capitol Hill debacle was reminiscent of scenes during the 1974 Ulster Workers’ Council strike and the 1985 and 1986 Ulster Says No and Ulster Still Says No rallies at Belfast City Hall.
In the days after last November’s Presidential elections, the world held its breath as each vote was painstakingly counted to decide who would occupy the Oval Office as the 46th President of the United States.
Two results were eventually left in no doubt - Democrat Joe Biden won, and the United States is now a deeply divided nation with chasmic differences on political direction.
The ‘Sleepy Joe’ camp wants a programme of progressive liberalism more akin to the former Obama regime, while the radical Right in the form of Trumpism still grips the American Republican Party, making the former Right-wing Tea Party activists look like a Sunday school picnic.
This fundamental disagreement - perhaps a political running sore would be a more precise description - on the direction of the US as a nation is witnessed most vividly in terms of policing and the explosion of the Black Lives Matter campaign, not just across the States, but across the globe.
Now the American Republican Right and its supporters have adopted the same street confrontation tactics.
Last year’s and this year’s violent events in the United States have emphasised that a key objective of a ‘Sleepy Joe’ Presidency will be the need for policing reform as many Democrats see it. But will it be genuine reform, or a policy of appeasement to keep liberals and the Left in check?
In this, Northern Ireland can boast a policing history of reform. But was the replacement of the RUC by the PSNI simply an appeasement policy to get the republican movement into government?
A supposed major success of the Irish peace process has been the ability of mainstream Unionism and Republicanism to accept not just the need for policing reform, but to actually implement it.
Given the scenes on Capitol Hill, how the heck will ‘Sleepy Joe’ ever manage to control street Trumpism? Can it ever be achieved if rioting becomes a significant feature of political expression?
In practice in Northern Ireland, the Protestant-dominated Royal Ulster Constabulary has evolved into the Police Service of Northern Ireland which enjoys, generally speaking, the open support of Sinn Fein, but not the so-called dissident republican movement.
To set this ‘achievement’ of the Irish peace process in context, last year and 2021 saw and sees the 40th anniversary of the Republican hunger strikes of 1980 and 1981 which witnessed Northern Ireland at it most polarised.
An estimated 100,000 people attended the funeral of the first IRA hunger striker to die in 1981, the newly-elected Fermanagh and South Tyrone MP Bobby Sands.
If you had told that vast crowd that day that in several years’ time, Irish Republicans would publicly support the police, you would have been told to seek psychiatric help. But the peace process brought this about - again, with the exception of the fringe dissident republican movement.
Then again, if you are into conspiracy theories, perhaps the cry from the nationalist community for policing reform was more due to the case that the IRA’s 1956-62 Border Campaign was defeated because of the efficiency and intelligence gathering activities of the RUC’s part-time unit, known as the B Specials, or B Men.
The B Men were based in their local communities and knew the movements of local republicans virtually off by heart!
The IRA leadership of that late 1950s era simply could not mobilise its members to escalate the Border Campaign beyond the Irish border deep into Northern Ireland counties in the same way the Provisional IRA was able to manipulate during the Troubles - until the Provos became so heavily infiltrated by the intelligence community that it had to call ceasefires and ‘go political’.
If republicanism in Ireland was to have any chance of achieving Irish unity, it needed to have the B Men out of the way. This it achieved in 1970 when the B Specials were disbanded.
Northern Ireland, however, has demonstrated how a community - polarised under sectarian divisions for decades - can move, albeit very slowly, forward. That’s not to say that sectarianism and racism, or any other ‘isms’ have been totally eradicated; just to note that not as many people are being murdered because of religious or political tensions as, for example, in 1981 or 1991.
Granted, given the three-year suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly which lasted from 2017-20, our lack of ‘moving on’ abilities have not shown the world our peace process in a very good light and there are still many glitches in the system.
But those who believe passionately in the Irish peace process need to tell post-Trump America and indeed ram it home to the ‘Sleepy Joe’ administration - here’s what we learned and you need to avoid the opportunities we’ve missed, otherwise the political healing process in the United States will take much longer than any four-year Presidential term.
The twin pillars of the Irish peace process have been compromise and concession. It has even been generally demonstrated among the five main parties which comprise the Northern Ireland Executive at Stormont when it comes to tackling the coronavirus pandemic.
However, compromise and concession as political terms, and if the Capitol Hill scenes are taken as a benchmark, seem to have been eradicated from the 2021 American political vocabulary.
This is a tragic situation we in Northern Ireland can relate to, particularly in the late Sixties during which Northern Ireland descended into what became the Troubles - and around 3,000 deaths over 30 years.
Could this be the violent fate which awaits America if it does not grasp the need for ‘compromise’ and ‘concession’? Given America’s gun laws, the nation is no stranger to armed militias roaming streets.
In spite of the extensive Irish American community and lobby in the United States, there are many, and differing aspects, to the Northern Ireland and US situations.
But in Northern Ireland, we have learned three key lessons which could form, not just the basis of a wannabe stable ‘Sleepy Joe’ Presidency, but also form a crucial practical bedrock to assist America in healing itself in time to have a Republican President back in the White House by 2024.
These lessons are - by approaching our political discourse with respect for difference, ensuring that our governing institutions are reflective of the communities they serve, and everyone wanting to move on from conflict, we can build a better society.
In politics, we will always have disagreements on the direction of the nation and the way in which the world should be governed. That difference, especially in the areas of a free Press and freedom of expression, are the cornerstones of democracy. Without these twin pillars, a society is veering off the democratic path and taking a side road to totalitarianism.
As former wartime British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill once noted - ‘it is better to jaw, jaw than war, war.’ The key, therefore, to ensuring a society remains on the democratic route is the ability to maintain face-to-face talking.
That can never be replaced with so-called megaphone diplomacy where the various sides yell at each other either in the mainstream media, through the vitriol of social media, or even in cantankerous debates in elected chambers. Unfortunately, for many years, Northern Ireland was - and still remains to a certain extent - a prime example of such confrontation politics.
Indeed, even now in the United States, we are witnessing political discourse plummet to the point where certain leading activists are calling into question the legitimacy of institutions. This situation is unsustainable.
In Northern Ireland in 1972, street confrontations and terrorist violence caused the original Stormont Parliament to be prorogued to be replaced with decades of Direct Rule from Westminster by politicians whom the voters in Northern Ireland could not elect.
Then again, one could say that once a working institution was established - namely the power-sharing Sunningdale Executive - the Unionist Right-wing with the help of loyalist paramilitary muscle caused its collapse.
The problem in 1974 was that Unionism lacked a workable alternative to Sunningdale. Unionism relied on sheer weight of numbers and voters to maintain its ‘Not An Inch’ and ‘No Surrender’ strategies. By not thinking ‘outside the box’ ideologically, Unionism now finds itself electorally as a minority ideology in Northern Ireland.
In the United States, Trumpism - given the November Presidential election - has some 70 million plus voters at its disposal. If only a fraction of that support can be mobilised into street action, that’s one heck of an internal security migraine for ‘Sleepy Joe.’
The success of the Irish peace process in 1998 (often dubbed Sunningdale for slow learners!) was a realisation of the need to talk about issues; about introducing the practical realities of concession and compromise into the Irish political vocabulary - Unionism had to work politically with republicanism, and nationalism had to recognise Northern Ireland’s right to exist.
Whatever the solution to current or past issues in Northern Ireland and the United States, one thing that is certain is that we need to share our public arena. Once you introduce a street dynamic to political discourse, then you open the door to your political views being hijacked by extremism.
We need to listen to each other, and to respect difference. The United States has its ‘checks and balance’ systems in the House of Representatives, the Senate and respecting the Constitution - or so we thought until the public explosion at Capitol Hill.
In Northern Ireland, we have the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, which encourages power-sharing. America needs a Good Friday Agreement between the 70 million plus voters for ‘Sleepy Joe’ and the 70 million plus voters for Trumpism.
Watching last year’s policing and racial injustice events in the United States as well as the Capitol Hill showdown unfold in the global media were reminiscent of the problems we faced in Northern Ireland in the lead-up to and during the Troubles.
The scenes surrounding the death of George Floyd and rioting aftermath in Minneapolis, Minnesota in May 2020 and the January 2021 confrontation on Capitol Hill were reflections of the rioting in Northern Ireland in the late Sixties.
In both scenarios - Northern Ireland in 1969 and America in 2020 and 2021 - the make-up, actions of, and attacks on the police and other institutions reflected the divisions in society.
Policing is a pivotal issue to healing. In Northern Ireland, we had the reform of policing which has worked incredibly well, albeit its forced on the pro-Union community.
In the United States, we’ve seen calls to defund policing. What they really need is investment in community policing.
This has been the key to successful policing policy in Northern Ireland. The community needed a police force it can trust to be impartial.
Education is also at the core to the healing process, too. For decades, the way children have been educated has reflected and reinforced division of communities in Northern Ireland. Mind you, the Catholic and state grammar sectors have consistently turned out an impressive array of talented students over the decades, sparking the maxim - if it ain’t broken, why fix it?
In recent decades, the integrated education sector has begun to change things, or is it merely re-inventing the wheel? There is also the tremendous work being done in terms of integration in Northern Ireland’s further and higher education sectors.
While the United States does not have Democrat of Republican schools, across the country there are instances where people have stopped talking to each other; people are afraid of each other.
As ‘Sleepy Joe’ is quoted as saying, there are ‘no blue or red states; we have the United States of America’. Maybe the recent events on Capitol Hill may cause him to rethink that observation.
Just as we’ve learned in Northern Ireland, there can be no quick fix to bringing people together, whatever their age and background, but with persistence, it is possible.
In this respect, it’s not just politicians who need to talk - communities need to engage with each other through workable initiatives. Beyond the institutions, on the ground, community-oriented organisations, such as Corrymeela in north Antrim, Hope For Youth NI, and interface groups where Catholic and Protestant families are living side by side, have played an invaluable role in laying the foundations for bringing groups of different religious and other backgrounds together.
The International Fund for Ireland has been crucial in financing highly successful cross-community projects. Supported through the Fund’s Personal Youth Development Programme, these projects have provided opportunities to build resilience and self-confidence and improve education and employment prospects. Past funding package included:
- £157,588 to Border Arts 2000, Castlederg for ‘Level Up for Work’, a two-year cross-community project that engaged 18 young people from the Castlederg, Newtownstewart and Victoria Bridge areas of West Tyrone in personal development and training activities.
- £100,273 to The Carson Project, Ballymena for a one-year youth project that assisted people who face a range of negative issues and pressures that have left them disengaged from society, marginalised and excluded from education, employment and training.
- £131,662 to Black Mountain Shared Space Project to deliver a 24-month community transformation project within the interface areas of Upper Springfield and Highfield in West Belfast. This project built on two previous projects and continued to engage with residents that have not been involved in peace building and community activism before, with a particular focus on the inclusion of women.
- £97,481 to Shankill Women’s Centre for a 12-month extension of community engagement work with both individual women and women’s groups in the Greater Shankill area and to develop cross-community links with women’s groups in the nearby areas of Clonard and Lower Falls.
- £184,290 to Ards Development Bureau & Community Network to extend and expand a project that has, in the previous years, engaged more than 2,000 people in a range of peace building activities, helped establish two new women’s groups and boosted employment and training opportunities. The two-year extension consolidated work in existing project areas (The Brae, Ballygowan; Killyleagh, High Street; Scrabo Estate and Ards Town) and expand into Clandeboye, Bowtown Estate, Ards Central and Rural Peninsula Wards.
- £254,365 to Galbally Youth & Community Association, Co Tyrone to extend and expand the Game Changer project for two-years. In the past, this project has given 19 young people access to a range of development opportunities that have helped turn their lives around. This extension enabled existing and 10 new participants to access support for personal development, good relations and skills development. A new element focused on connecting young people with further education and employment.
- £200,180 to Fermanagh Rural Community Initiative, Enniskillen for Fermanagh Youth Development , a 24-month cross-community project that provided a range of training opportunities for 24 young people across Enniskillen, Ballinamallard, Kesh, Irvinestown and Lisnaskea. The project helped young people in the target areas to build and develop life skills, resilience and confidence as well as gain accredited qualifications.
- £206,322 to Lettershandoney & District Development Group, Co Derry for Tús Nua – New Start a 24-month cross-community that engaged and empowered 20 young people aged 16-25 with the skills, knowledge and confidence to overcome barriers that have prevented them taking part in employment, training and social opportunities.
- £285,509 to Roe Valley Residents Association, Co Derry to extend and expand the Building Brighter Futures project for two-years. In the first year of this project, 34 young people took part in personalised activities aimed at improving social skills, personal development and employment opportunities. This extension enabled current participants to take part in further education and employment opportunities and enable 20 new participants to start the programme.
- £118,319 to Workforce Training Services, Belfast for The Pathway Programme: Empowering Young People. This 18-month cross-community initiative engaged 20 young people aged 14-16 years from West Belfast and Greater Shankill in a range of training and learning designed to build confidence, raise self-esteem and develop skills. The project supported participants to form realistic and achievable goals for their future careers and to encourage them to play an active role in their local community.
In the United States, there have been similar Cross-Center Initiatives by the Urban Institute to help various communities gain a better understanding of the challenges they face.
While recognising that the causes of the United States and Northern Ireland conflicts are very different, we can only look to the future, not the past.
Legacy issues will be important, but both nations can only move forward if reconciliation is taken seriously rather than reduced to mere well-meaning speeches; there has to be a willingness by all partners in a conflict to work together.
Paying lip service to reconciliation will only result in the conflict boiling over again in later years. ‘Sleepy Joe’ needs to recognise that Trumpism will not disappear on Wednesday, just as the American Republican Right-wing needs to remember there will shortly be a Democratic President in the White House.
My late father, Rev Dr Robert Coulter MBE, was an Ulster Unionist MLA for North Antrim between 1998 and 2011. He attended a trip to South Africa during the early years of the fledgling Northern Ireland Assembly and met President Nelson Mandela for tea in his home.
Chatting to dad upon his return, it was clear from his conversation with President Mandela that the ability of all the sides in any debate to talk reconciliation is the key to any peace process. It is no use simply saying there is a need for healing; the various sides have to want healing.
In spite of the historical links between Northern Ireland and the United States, the reconciliation and healing situations in both nations are different, of course. But both to reconcile differences and to move on from the past, we can all heed this message, policy-makers in NI and the US alike - reconciliation must involve personal pro-active dialogue, not passive speech writing. If we want a better future, we’re going to have to want it. And work for it.
Democracy is always a work in progress. The foundation of this work is progress is blatantly simple - We need to work at respecting one another.
In Evan Osnos’s recent book on Joe Biden, American Dreamer, he quotes Biden as saying:
I thought you could defeat hate. You can’t. It only hides … It crawls under the rocks, and, when given oxygen by any person in authority, it comes roaring back out.
This is just as relevant to United States as it is for Northern Ireland 20 plus years after the Good Friday Agreement. When it comes to how we conduct political discourse, run governing institutions, and moving on from conflict, we all have a responsibility to respect difference.
We have to want to heal. We have to want to build a better, shared future. We have to want to promote better, more respectful political discourse.
I rest my case!
|Follow Dr John Coulter on Twitter @JohnAHCoulter|
Listen to Dr John Coulter’s religious show, Call In Coulter, every Saturday morning around 9.30 am on Belfast’s Christian radio station, Sunshine 1049 FM, or listen online at www.thisissunshine.com