The news was a constant background noise when I was kid. Bombs, shootings, riots reported over the radio while we sat around in the kitchen or in the car. When I was maybe 7 or 8 we were driving home from a day out when news of the latest shooting was announced. A man was dead, the IRA had claimed responsibility. “If they know who did it, why don’t they just go and arrest them?” I asked my parents. The concept of anonymity and code words were explained to me.
A couple of years later after hearing the latest news report on the state of affairs I silently wondered why they didn’t just put one of each side in charge. Make everybody vote for someone on the Nationalist side and someone on the Unionist side and then make them share the job of being in charge, I thought. That’s what my mother would have done with us if we couldn’t stop fighting over something. And it’s not a million miles away from the political solution they came up with in the end: a power-sharing government.
Although, the politicians have reached an impasse in recent years and power-sharing has collapsed. Northern Ireland has now been without a government for 759 days and counting. A world record. Multiple rounds of talks have so far been unsuccessful. Both sides have things they can point to as their logical reasons why but I think there’s a deeper issue at the heart of it all. In a place that’s been as divided as Northern Ireland a democratic political solution is not enough. What we need is Deep Democracy.
Deep Democracy is a term from the world of psychology. It was developed by Arnold Mindell, who says,
Mindell says, “Deep Democracy at its deepest manifestation refers often to an openness towards the views of other people and groups. It also embraces emotions and personal experiences that are most often excluded from conflict and rational public discourse.”
My husband will tell you I am obsessed with ‘being heard’. If you were to categorise our past arguments the bucket for ’Megan not feeling heard’ would be filled to capacity. As would the overflow bucket labelled, ’You just don’t get it!’ But I’ve learned I don’t have to have everything my own way as long as I feel heard. Once I feel heard I suddenly have a tremendous capacity for compromise. I don’t think I’m the only one like this.
One of the deadlock issues in negotiations for getting Northern Ireland’s power-sharing government back up and running is the Irish Language Act. Nationalists want an act to offer protections for the Irish Language and give it parity with English in Northern Ireland, while some Unionists fear that would be an erosion of British identity. There’s a deep cultural wound at play here too. The Irish language suffered a catastrophic collapse in the mid-1800s around the time of the Famine. The 1830s saw the introduction of the compulsory English-speaking National School system in which the Irish language was prohibited for decades. It makes a lot of sense to me that a country whose history involves its language being almost wiped out would breed a culture that acutely needs to feel heard.
Lisa McGee’s award-winning Derry Girls was the stand out sitcom of 2018. Set in mid-nineties Derry at the tail end of the Troubles, it follows a group of teenage girls at a covent school. McGee was a few years above me at school so it felt like they’d literally made a show about my life. I watched every episode 2 or 3 times. There was something profound about seeing my life reflected back to me.
And this might sound silly, but after a lifetime of watching sitcoms filled with Dublin accents, American accents and English accents, just hearing Derry accents on the TV like that is a very healing thing, I think. It doesn’t surprise me that Derry Girls became the most watched series ever in Northern Ireland.
We all have a primal need to be seen and to feel heard. Whether in a country, organisation or relationship, a democratic power-sharing solution only gets us so far. It’s the willingness to engage in Deep Democracy – to listen to each other’s stories and really hear each other – that gets us the rest of the way. It’s not enough to be in power together, we have to figure out a way to actually be in relationship with one another.