After visiting Northern Ireland over the bank holiday, I have been thinking about the art of compromise a lot. Learning more about the troubles in there, a tribal time with unthinkable violence, brought to home how violence was the end result when people were not able to work together and compromise. Then I think about politics today, on both sides of the pond, and see another set of tribes forming. Have we lost the art of compromise? Has everything become so tribal again?
What do I mean by The Troubles? We use this name to refer to the sectarian violence that subsumed Northern Ireland for the latter half of the twentieth century. The country was divided by those that wanted to be part of Britain, the Protestant Unionists, and those that wanted to be part of Ireland, the Catholic Republicans.
Tribalism was the rule, and the country descended into paramilitary violence. Photos showing men in balaclavas with guns became normal, as was seeing troops and tanks on the streets trying to keep the peace. The threat of violence was extreme, with tit for tat murders for revenge and kneecapping for those that informed.
As well as the violence in Northern Ireland itself, there were also terrorist attacks on the UK, with the IRA known for their bomb threats and terrorist activities as opposed to their cause. Finally, on Good Friday in 1998, an agreement was made to stop the violence, and to share power and govern peacefully.
For more historical details on the troubles:
People who had grown up hearing of the troubles, asked if we really should be going there on holiday, was it safe? And the answer is yes, Belfast is safe and the paramilitary violence itself is long gone. The Good Friday agreement has been in place for 20 years now and is holding off the violence. That is not to say that there are not strong divides remaining, and feelings and sentiments on the issue still run very high.
As we wandered as tourists down some streets that were famous – Falls Road and Shankill Road – for being the centre of the violence, it felt strange. I wondered if we were disaster tourists and if it was acceptable to be here? And I’m not going to lie, some of the murals and signs that we saw in 2018 shocked me. And the most shocking of the signs to me was the PSNI: People should not inform MI5. I couldn’t work out if this echoed people’s current thoughts and belief systems, or if it was a historical reminder of the old days? Moreover, this doesn’t like it’s survived 20 years of wet and windy weather, does it?
And then the murals. These were amazing and street art like, and someone is clearly keeping them refreshed and looking up to date. We noticed a fair few other tourists snapping pictures of them as we walked along. Nonetheless, what stood out here was the rhetoric alongside the murals. There was strong language accompanying the murals on each side, and the relevant flag was flown proudly.
Falls Road and Shankill Road are still to this day divided by a wall, although these days the crossing point is freely open and people pass without any threat of violence. I know in Berlin the wall has come down in similar timescales, and you struggle to catch sight of much of it. But in Belfast it is different, the wall is still here, and I get the feeling people still live in very segregated communities. That I struggled to reconcile in 2018.
Northern Ireland Assembly at Stormont
Furthermore, the Northen Ireland Assembly is going through a very difficult time in Stormont. As mentioned earlier, the Good Friday agreement was a fabulous demonstration of the art of compromise. A power-sharing agreement that held for decades, and allowed the violence to stop. Bomb threats were no more and it all seemed to be going so well. But then it fell apart a few years ago, and the political process is at a standstill. Although it feels far away from descending into violence again, nonetheless it feels very tribal and not at all cooperative. There is a fear of a return to darker times, and a massive cloud of uncertainty, especially with Brexit and the border issue.
UK Tribalism from Brexit
And the mention of Brexit brings us back to the leave or remain tribalism. Brexit is the big political issue of the decade, and people are divided according to their feelings on this issue. From our political class, where the UK cabinet is labelled leave/remain to where you live – you see signs of this division everywhere. People seem to be aligning themselves and dividing over what they disagree on, rather than the many areas they do agree on. Our society is segregation rather than coming together, and the pace and intensity of disagreements is intense.
Impacts on Society
What is the impact of all this division? I can see these divisions creating encouraging discontent in society. As a nation, we are getting angrier and more segmented. We can already see the economic impacts of Brexit and the uncertainty trickling into the economy, helping to fuel these fires. Can we channel the anger and energy into productive discussion and change, and divert it away from aggression? The troubles started with a similar amount of division, but the flames of anger were stocked and turned into violence. Many lives were unnecessarily lost thus through the troubles.
Art of Compromise
Something people seem to be lacking lately is the ability to agree to disagree. Being able to make concessions, and accept something that is not perfect, but is better than no agreement. Therefore I am proposing we need to promote the art of compromise. We all need to think about how we act, and if we are creating divisions. Is there a way we can be more cooperative, and bring in the art of compromise? Because after my visit to Belfast, I am really aware of how bad things can get when people are encouraged to divide, and when violence and revenge attacks become the everyday. So can we compromise more? Concentrate on what we agree on rather than where we diverge?
Over to you
- Do you also feel politics is turning tribal?
- Do we need to cooperate more with those we disagree with?
- Have we lost the art of compromise?
- Have you been to Belfast?
Looking forward to your thoughts and ideas – all are welcome.