Yesterday, DUP leader Peter Robinson finally commented on the death of Catholic Cardinal Cahal Daly. Robinson’s silence had become deafening, and pundits had begun to debate whether he was demonstrating the leadership skills of a First Minister for all of Northern Ireland.
Speaking yesterday on the BBC Radio programme Sunday Sequence, Lord Robin Eames, the former Anglican Primate of All Ireland, expressed his regret that Robinson had not yet spoken about Cardinal Daly and said he hoped that he would do so soon. Eames’ words were replayed throughout the day on BBC television broadcasts, and then followed by summaries of Robinson’s statement.
In Northern Ireland, the politics of symbols and gestures are massively important. Eames, and others who were criticising Robinson, were picking up on this when they expressed concern about how badly Robinson’s silence was playing in a society that is still desperately divided.
Conscious attention to symbols, gestures, and new reconciliatory discourses are essential in any society transitioning from violent conflict. But it is somewhat disappointing when they become the focus of repeated news stories.
First, this demonstrates how far away we remain from a ‘normal’ society. Second, concentrating on the politics of symbols, gestures and new discourses unavoidably means we avoid other pressing – and some might say more substantial – political issues.
For example, anyone listening to William Crawley’s full interview with Eames would have heard the former Archbishop say that he thought that one of the most important issues Northern Ireland faced in the year ahead was in deciding just what kind of democracy we want. Eames commented that the people he meets on an everyday basis are concerned about education and healthcare, and disappointed that the devolved institutions seem so impotent to do anything constructive in these areas.
There are a host of reasons why the Assembly is so ineffective, which I plan to explore in later posts on this blog. But it is interesting that not many people have picked up on Eames’ comment about democracy, thus raising wider debate about what’s wrong with our government and how it might be democratically reformed. Rather, there was a general rush to latch on to Eames’ remarks about Robinson’s silence. It is worth reflecting on what that says about Northern Ireland politics.
(Photo from the BBC website)