The recent revelations should make it clear that our political figureheads are men and women of straw. They have faults, they have weaknesses, they have distractions, and they have human fears and hopes. The image we have of them is no more than our image – it is a construct inside our heads, and not a real thing. We imagine our politicians to be what we want them to be, so that we can sleep more soundly in the belief that they are looking after our interests.
Recent days should remind us that our interests are not necessarily being defended by our politicians. Some of them are dishonest and use the system to enrich themselves; some of them are liars and hypocrites. Some, of course, are honest and decent people – but probably fewer than we once believed – and even some of these can be overwhelmed by personal events.
The revelations show us that our old patriarchal view of politics – where we vote for our 'champions' and they then defend our interests – is mistaken. The old days of voting for any donkey wrapped in the right flag, and crowing about 'poll-topping' and enormous votes must end. We must replace the old model with a new one that is more realistic, more democratic and flatter. If our 'champions' have failed us, then we must do the job ourselves. As the figureheads behind whom many sheltered are progressively removed or brought down to human dimensions, the defence of our political objectives – whether orange, green, Green, yellow or red – must increasingly fall on our shoulders.
Ordinary people must re-engage with politics, initially at local level, and build larger, wider political movements. Politics in its real sense – the debate over the allocation of public goods and the management of the powers of the state – must be re-democratised. The days when ordinary people withdrew from 'real' politics into pointless, futile and counterproductive tribal or cultural politics must end.
If the humbling of the Titans achieves such a re-engagement then it will turn out to have been a good thing. If a new generation grows up and starts to participate in active politics it can only benefit Northern Ireland. Real politics requires engagement, and engagement requires compromise. 'Ulster' could say "no" when nothing was required of it, but such calcified positions will not be possible if there are no monoliths to hide behind. The 'Brits' cannot be told to get "out" if their cooperation is needed to achieve simple and necessary progress for all the people – and such slogans cannot survive engagement with the hundreds of thousands of 'Brits' in the north.
A first, and quite obvious, test of the chances of new humbler engagement between the two political blocks will come very soon. As Peter Robinson said at the end of his statement yesterday:
"It is my intention to be at my desk tomorrow morning to continue the work the people of Northern Ireland have entrusted to me. I will be meeting with Martin McGuinness to discuss how we might make real progress. I want 2010 to a better year for us all."The coded reference to the transfer of policing and justice is clear. Robinson and McGuinness will meet before the Sinn Féin Ard Chomhairle meeting on Saturday, and if Robinson's comments mean anything, then we can expect some progress to be reported at the Ard Chomhairle, leading to the transfer of policing and justice during 2010. From then on, if 'new politics' takes hold, we can hope for genuine engagement between the parties with the aim of really improving things in Northern Ireland, rather than a continuation of the sterile zero-sum politics of the past.