Northern Ireland, as well as being an extraordinarily beautiful part of the world, is a place that stirs up all manner of emotions in many of us. Cast-iron preconceptions of its politics and culture are common among those who have never been, or have not even thought to go.
Yet the complexity and sophistication of its communities and society deserve representation that reflects this diversity. The new shadow Northern Ireland secretary Ivan Lewis is brilliantly placed to provide it.
On my first visit to Northern Ireland I too had my own preconceptions. Experience of IRA bombing campaigns in London combined with an Irish heritage inherited through my grandmother had allowed me to think that I understood at least something of the background. Looking back in those first few days I was definitely more inclined to form a private view on the basis of who was saying it, rather than what was being said.
Thankfully this did not last long; such a mindset would have led to incalculable levels of mistrust, bad judgements and would have undermined my ability to play my small part in moving the peace process forward when I was a Northern Ireland special adviser. It is this lesson that I have taken with me ever since, and which I see reinforced around me in my current job in international development.
Ivan Lewis needs to learn no such lessons. As shadow development secretary he recognised the complexity and sophistication in the communities he cared so passionately for. He understood the purpose of development is to enable and empower societies to determine their own futures, rather than have it determined for them.
By removing fundamental barriers such as poverty and disease, leadership and innovation are given the opportunity to flourish. The recognition of civil society in effecting this change is the most fundamental aspect of this approach to development, and the similarities between his former role and Northern Ireland are stark.
Northern Ireland is not one of the poorest parts of the world. It is thoroughly modern and European and the barriers faced before the Good Friday agreement were not of poverty and disease, but the stifling political environment that for so many decades had the same limiting effect on communities’ ability to build their own futures. The governments of Major, Blair and Brown – alongside their counterparts in the Republic and successive US Presidencies – can rightly claim credit for enabling the fundamental shift towards peace to occur.
But it is without question the people, given voice by civil society, churches, individuals and community organisations that have shaped the political landscape that followed. Without their buy-in and support devolution could and would not have happened and power-sharing by unionist and nationalist parties would not be a reality.
What follows is not a completely rosy picture. At the better end of the scale there is a dissatisfaction and cynicism with politics and politicians in Stormont that is growing (a sign, perhaps, of the political maturity of the devolved assembly). At the other, terrifying end is the threat of dissident activity and vigilante reprisals, which remain not only strong but represent a credible threat to the peace settlement.
Harnessing the goodwill of communities is an area where Ivan can make a great impact. It was the unprecedented increase in numbers of those seeking recruitment to the police service of Northern Ireland following the tragic shooting of Constable Stephen Carroll that demonstrated mass support for the peace process. When thousands of women – a section of society so often ignored in the history of Northern Ireland – marched to appeal for calm following the protests over the flying of the Union Flag over Belfast City Hall it showed again that there is a vast undercurrent of support for peace.
In many respects Northern Ireland has shown itself to be an exemplar of community cohesion – Stormont has the UK’s first and to date only elected politician in a national legislature born in East Asia. It is essential to give voice to all parts of the community and to empower those who still feel marginalised in the new Northern Ireland.
The UK Government’s task must be to support the continuation of this process, and Ivan must put pressure on them to do more. In this task, his background, understanding and passion for development will be invaluable.
Seb Dance is a former Northern Ireland Special Adviser. He is a candidate in London for the European Elections, a Fabian and currently works in international development. He tweets @SebDance