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When you're in a hole, it's time to stop digging

Councillor Mark Langhammer, Newtownabbey Labour Party 

12th October 2003

Apparently, what we urgently need, is an election to a Stormont Assembly.That, apparently, would "move the Agreement process forward". Am I the only one unconvinced?

A few Sundays ago the Red Hand Commando organised a demonstration in my constituency.The protest, against the CatholicCemetery Sunday `Blessing of Graves' ceremony at Carnmoney Cemetry, was raw, primitive, brutal and moronic.But was it an aberration? I believe that Carnmoney, like Holy Cross and Harryville, was an inevitable outworking of the politics of Good Friday.Carnmoney, far from an aberration, was the highest expression -the logical outcome- of the Good Friday Agreement.

Since the Agreement, there has been an explosion in what I would call "dog leg" activity. Through flags, murals and bunting, territory has been `marked out' as belonging to one side or another.The Housing Executive report an increase in housing intimidations.A litany of pipe bombings, attacks on schools, attacks on Orange Halls and the like contribute to a daily tightening of sectarian demarcation.Engineered confrontations are hosted at a growing number of interfaces.In my constituency, sectarian gangs travel almost a mile along a railway line to confront each other at an "interface".There are interfaces in the middle of public parks, hundreds of yards from the nearest house!The marching issue provides ample opportunity for more territorial staking out - as I say, like a dog pissing round its territory.By any standard or measure­ment, we live in a more segregated, demarcated, ghettoized and polarised society than we did ten years ago.

But is this surprising? The Good Friday Agreement has formalised the "two tribes" view of society as never before. It is a form of institutionalised sectarianism par excellence.The centrepiece of the Agreement is the ‘confessional' Assembly and Executive. The designations system within the Assembly ensures that MLA's `confess' their designation - Protestant Unionist, Catholic Nationalist or `Other''.The system of `parallel consent' voting requires, for any measure, a threshold of Protestant votes, a threshold of Catholic votes, but requires no threshold of `others' votes. The votes of `Others' such as the Alliance Party and Womens' Coalition simply don't count.A system better suited to stimulate communal politics is hard to envisage - but that's not all.The generous state funding of sectarian politics through the Assembly, through the £70,000 plus MLA packages, through party office grants and party `research' grants all subsidizes an array of people paid to represent "their side."

When I presented a solid case to the Human Rights Commission to contest the Assembly's' discriminatory voting system, the Commission (itself a child of the Good Friday Agreement) wasn't interested. And recent events show the Commission under pressure to move, even more, towards an apartheid style `group rights' perspective.In the recent census, nearly 15 per cent designated themselves as neither Protestant, nor Catholic. But that couldn't stand, could it?By applying unexplained secondary mechanisms this 15 per cent was whittled down so that all 'but 3 per cent were allocated to either Protestant or Catholic camps - never mind what they themselves sated!

In education, supply of integrated places nowhere near meets demand. In housing, increased demand for integrated public housing is failing to roll back increased segregation on the ground.In employment, `group rights' has long been established. From international statute, right throughout the administration, we have legislated for a segregated, apartheid society.

And then, having elevated sectarianism into a system of Government, we feign surprise at Holy Cross. We get shocked at Harryville, We condemn Carnmoney;

We need to get real. It's simple cause and effect. You can't turn on a kettle and then blame the water for boiling over!Since Stormont was prorogued in 1972, every solution proposed has been predicated on the restoration, in some form or other, of a Stormont Parliament.Yet Stormont failed in 1972. Then Whitelaw's power sharing Executive ran out of power in 

1974. Rees' Convention failed to convene in 1975. Prior's rolling devolution rolled out-and rolled up in 1986. The 1996 Forum moved away from Stormont but failed nonetheless. And the latest 'confessional' Assembly has failed four times since 1998.By my count that's nine failures out of nine in thirty years.If Ruud Van Nistleroy missed nine. penalties out of nine for Manchester United, would he still be Alex Ferguson's spot kick taker? We all know the answer to that one.We just need to wake up and smell the coffee - Stormont doesn't work! Never has, never will.

The short facts are that there's no need, and no demand for another Assembly. I'm a busy politician at local council level. I get constituency complaints about all manner of things - from housing to benefits, from consumer affairs to neighbour disputes. But not one person has raised the need for Stormont.It's not wanted. It's not needed, and it's sole significant contribution has been in raising political temperature need­lessly, stimulating communal antagonism and stoking up sectarian enmity.The last thing Northern Ireland needs is another Assembly. As the Yanks say: "When you're in a hole, stop digging'. It's time to stop, digging.



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