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Northern Ireland

Some dialogue-based reflections 


Johan Galtung, TFF Associate


Terence Duffy



1. The "Normalization" of Northern Ireland Politics

There is (without doubt) a peace process going on in Northern Ireland. One of the most recent surveys has shown how these events are off-set by "persistent insecurities" about the return to violence./1/ However, a basic aspect of this on-going "peace process" is that the key issue underlying the conflict, the advocacy of "republic" or "union", will become less and less salient as time passes on.

But of the ten parties currently represented at the Belfast Assembly (based in the old Parliament buildings of Stormont) at least seven are clearly linked to that issue, at least in the name, and the name will always be indicative of some of the discourse. One might hope that, in time, party leaders might respond with imagination to new political discourses, perhaps even so as to develop a new variety of politics in Northern Ireland where the issues of "republic" or "union" are less overwhelming.

Then there remains the thorny issue of the role of religion in Northern Ireland and its pervasiveness in so many aspects of daily life. Religion, as a feature of ethnic and political identity, also remains a potent force in the north. This prevalence makes Northern Ireland stand out in stark contrast to so much of the rest of Europe.

One imagines that Northern Ireland might (in time) develop a broader basis of politics that eschews sectarianism and elevates social issues. There has certainly been no lack of initiatives towards reconciliation./2/ A "genuine" peace process in Northern Ireland, might be regarded (variously) as "normalization", and (less kindly) as the "detribalization" of politics - and would in all probably bring in its wake one or more of three subsidiary political processes:

- the political ball might be carried more by the other three parties, the Women's Coalition, the Alliance Party and/or the (mainly Catholic and moderate nationalist) Social Democrat and Labour Party (one should add the caveat that many political analysts actually regard the SDLP as a "traditional nationalist " party);

- conceivably the seven (other) parties at the Assembly might undergo profound changes, even splitting internally to form different kind of political factions- and forging new identities in a more innovative political climate;

- the political initiative may no longer be with Stormont (that decidedly Protestant icon of Northern Irish political history) but with, for example, the new Civic Socio-Economic Forum (a potentially influential force at the Assembly) as a transition formula toward more "issue-based" or even "class-based" varieties of political articulation. These are (without doubt) complex and painful processes.


2. "Future-orientation" versus "Presentism" and "Past-orientation"

Given the high drama of Northern Ireland politics in general, and the highly visible expression of ethnic identity in the display of flags etc. in Protestant and Catholic neighborhoods, the challenge to promote political change is considerable. The expression of ethnic or political identity is most conspicuous in traditional loyalist districts such as the Shankill Road and the nationalist/republican Falls Road, (but) throughout Northern Ireland a key concern is with the past as an inspiration for understanding the agonizing problems of the present.

The future may well belong to those who think and act most creatively on the future and, as indicated above, the party structure serves as a "time trap". This offers a tremendous opportunity for those who have not occupied the forefront in "traditional" conflict politics, (for example, women and youth) to come up with a program and a profile that makes a difference.

In other words, the present situation, dominated by males divided in the way everybody is accustomed to, is not a stable equilibrium. One hopes that, gradually, the attention will shift toward the future and political leaders with such agendas will eventually be rewarded.


3. Investment policies

One might be forgiven for assuming, from recent news coverage on Northern Ireland, that the focus at the Belfast Assembly seems more to be on the quantity of money secured to underwrite the budgets of the ten ministries than of the quality and purpose of the money. One might ponder to what extent the funding of the Assembly might be seen as a sort of "crisis donation" (some analysts, political cynics included, would argue that this borders on a bribe towards the paramilitaries in return for cease-fire) which certainly makes one ponder as to what extent is it self- sustainable? There can be little doubt that the state has indeed reached an implicit accommodation with anti-state forces. In the present economic climate business principles might be the best guideline.

But political considerations will also have to enter. Heavy and competitive British and Irish investments (including those reflecting the influence of the Irish diaspora in the USA) will inevitably, however unintended, carry some connotation of meddling- at least to the other camp. Other EU sources, Canadian and East Asian investment (Korean, Japanese) would not, and should be encouraged. It may be that inward investment which does not carry connotations of "influence" will be the most reassuring in the re-construction of the Northern Ireland economy.

But the basic problem in such a divided society is, of course, the issue of parity in access to employment, and that of equity- whether this (in fact) is or is not relevant to the dynamics of the conflict. It is not obvious that the heavy and very welcome investment in shipbuilding and aviation will satisfy such criteria. An equity commission to oversee this non-economic, but very significant aspect, might be called for.


4. Demilitarization

Any analysis of the Northern Ireland conflict must be as inclusive as possible- since the conflict is multi-faceted. There is no way of escaping a holistic perspective, taking in both the paramilitaries on either side (indeed the paramilitaries themselves are internally divided), the RUC (with or without Patten-type changes), and the British Army. Any effort to reduce the problem to one purely about IRA violence, is propaganda of the "terrorism brings troubles- brings army intervention" variety. The obvious quid pro quo would be a continued deep reduction in the levels of British troops; normalizing the RUC both in symbols and recruitment; and then some parallel dismantling of the paramilitaries of all kinds. What has to be kept in mind is how far the violent confrontation may shift to an internal rift within the communities. There are obvious risks.

Much has been written about the gradual emergence of a spirit of peace and reconciliation, and of the contribution of individuals to that process./3/ However, the road to peace in Northern Ireland is paved with symmetries as soon as we accept that both communities have valid goals. Any asymmetry in the arms issue might also be regarded (by many) as capitulation, as the larger unionist parties have pointed out, and is a "dead end street" politically.


5. The punishment beatings

The Belfast Agreement can be seen in many lights; (controversially) one might regard it as an agreement between London and the paramilitaries to keep bombs out of London and Great Britain (to make investments safe), giving the paramilitaries de facto control over their turfs in return. This would be in line with such old English policies as attachments to "permanent interests", a split and rule policy to keep Northern Ireland divided, and "territorial control" by means of physical force as a basis for recognition. Seen in this light the Agreement was a "done deal" using Senator George Mitchell as a facade. This is a pessimistic reading of the political situation, but one which may contain an element of truth.

This perspective is also compatible with the stark reality of continued punishment beatings, including the lack of adequate policing, and the virtual impunity from police investigation granted to many of the perpetrators. For some, that kind of realpolitik "deal", in which mafias can easily pursue their underworld criminal and drug-dealing activities may appear (sordidly) pragmatic. However, if these conditions are regarded as any long-term basis for the Agreement, it is self-denying, and a massive sacrifice of the "punished" for the sake of the appearance of a peace process. Politics of that type should certainly be de- masked for the sake of peace process. A peace which is based on these considerations is shaky indeed.


6. The Marches

In general, in most other parts of the world, public marches are used by the suppressed to protest repression, exploitation, alienation, or whatever. Marches are used not only to make a major problem visible, but also to mobilize, to confirm allegiance to common values, and to demonstrate a readiness to go beyond marching. Marches are usually in favor of recognition and of parity. But the marches in Northern Ireland, rather like those of the Ku Klux Klan in the southern states of the USA, (and despite the often articulate case made by the Orange Order) are marches which appear to be in favor of supremacy, and of marking territory.

Marches "from below" generally aim at changing the status quo; whereas marches "from above" normally aim at maintaining the status quo, as did the KKK in the 1930s. States used to make use of representative troops for the same functions of marching, using parades to instill respect, even fear. It is regrettable that, in recent years, the issue of parades has become such as to be almost outside the powers of the police to contain, notably in Drumcree and Portadown.

The marches in Northern Ireland are incompatible with any idea of symmetry unless the other community possess genuine equality in this marching process. In practice, it is inconceivable that nationalists would wish to, or be capable of marching through sensitive Protestant areas, thereby marking turf in space and important events in time. Even if this did occur, it would only serve to freeze the status quo even if it could be useful as some kind of "transition" device. Some might argue that a partial solution to the marching issue might be to take a more "permissive" approach to parades and to control them less. This could prove a recipe for disaster. But the point about the march is the reality of the challenge that is being made to "the other side". If it were only a matter of historical tradition one might consider the possibility of creating "neutral venues" for such marches and their accompanying followers. However, the marches are actually a symptom rather than the cause of the underlying tension in Northern Ireland today.


7. Four Possible Outcomes - and a Fifth?

There are four well-known formulas for Northern Ireland:

- continuing strong ties only to Great Britain: the UK formula

- strong ties only to Southern Ireland: the Republican formula

- strong ties to both: the UK + North-South Commission formula

- strong ties to neither: the autonomy formula

The first is (loosely speaking) the unionist and the second the republican formula; they would (probably) only be established, or sustained, by physical force and will never be acceptable to the other party. To what extent they hold up under a referendum is more a question of demographics than of discursive, argumentative politics. They probably may not be regarded as formulas that are likely to encourage "peace" at this stage in the process.

The third is actually what is inherently written into the sub-text of the Agreement and might read as a de facto Anglo-Irish condominium. There is a strong objection: it weighs very heavily on the shoulders of the inhabitants and will shift much too much of deep decision-making to informal London-Dublin bodies, however useful that might have been in the recent past and as a transition formula. The formula puts Northern Ireland under permanent "parental surveillance". At this time, it does not appear to be much of a "runner".

The graduation from this third "possibility" is often referred to as "autonomy" as an "entity", an increasingly used term in international law. In this context, a majority can decide to sever the ties built into the United Kingdom formula. But majoritarian democracy is a very crude instrument for the very strong sentiments of the minority. The right to have two passports, one for Northern Ireland and one for Great Britain or Ireland, with rights and duties to be negotiated, may offer individual security and belongingness or indeed "identity". An elected assembly for each community to safeguard cultural patrimony in ways not objectionable to the other community, may, in addition, offer some collective security.


8. The Council of the British Isles

When it was first mooted, and eventually implemented, there was a certain degree of disdain voiced by opponents from every camp towards the notion of a Council of the British Isles. This has mellowed. As the years pass, the Council of the British Isles will probably gain in salience. Any extrapolation from devolution would tend to lead in that direction, and the direct contacts among the assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland are important stepping stones towards that. A senior civil servant at Belfast's Parliament Buildings, Murray Barnes, suggests that co-operation among administrative staff and parliamentarians alike, has done much to "give life" to the Council./4/

Social scientists should also try to measure the levels of direct contact in the fields of political decision-making, economic investment, tourism, and even military decision-making. Something is growing, however small and embryonic in the links between these diverse assemblies which may (in time) contribute to changing thinking on the nature of Northern Ireland. On the negative side, the Belfast Assembly itself seems still uniquely preoccupied with the sectarianism of the political milieu, but that may change with time./5/


9. Reconciliation

There can be little question that societies experiencing the transition from political violence invariably find it difficult to deal with the legacy of their violent pasts. This might be discussed with reference to so many examples- from South Africa to Guatemala to Northern Ireland./6/

Then we must confront the thorny reality of what might constitute "genuine reconciliation"? An outcome not only acceptable, but even welcomed by all parties is a necessary corollary of, but not sufficient (alone) as an approach to reconciliation. There has to be a way of healing the wounds and not only of finding an outcome for the conflict, but even of "closing" the conflict. The word "closing" does not mean forgetting, but some unwritten, even unspoken agreement that, "we shall try not to bring it up again and again, but indeed to go beyond that conflict."

This might be encouraged by joint sessions of memory and hope, using the Opsahl Commission idea of the "Big Book" to collect the memories, and another book for recording the hopes of people at all level of Northern Ireland society. The Opsahl Report certainly constituted a unique experiment in asking the people for their ideas about ways out of the violent deadlock which has gripped Northern Ireland for over thirty years./7/

One might also think of joint celebrations that might mark the collective sense of embarking on a "New Beginning" for Northern Ireland (with an agreed day of "joint celebration") such as the very Good Friday which led to the signing of the initial Agreement.

One image of the process leading to that stage of "peacebuilding" is provided by the path-breaking Truth and Reconciliation process in South Africa, and the considerable expertise that has been developed in that connection. But that process still has much of the ethos of a court process built into it. Maybe the communities in Northern Ireland would be better off without that and (instead) to engage in direct, co-operative "peacebuilding" at all levels as they have been doing in the last decade or so instead?


Conclusions: Problems and Possibilities

Regrettably, the Belfast Agreement has been based on a pragmatic avoidance of the "hard issues" which divide the political parties and their communities in Northern Ireland so that many of the underlying issues still remain unsolved. The big question must be whether those matters can be dealt with in any new Assembly, or could it be that the Agreement has merely institutionalised the conflict?

Unionists are already suspicious because it appears to offer so much to nationalists whilst republican paramilitaries are not yet giving up their weapons. But if nationalist goals of closer north-south co-operation do not materialise, for whatever reason, will they still be so positive about the assembly? Unionists would then start to feel more confident and positive, and nationalists more suspicious, or would the whole exercise then come to be seen as another spurious waste of time, just like the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985? The 1985 Agreement failed because it was a constitutional exercise that largely ignored the real divisions within Northern Ireland; and did not address the basic constitutional issue of the national status of Northern Ireland.

From whatever angle the talks process is viewed, the experience of the Assembly has thus far offered little evidence of emerging common ground between the two communities. Devolution in Northern Ireland is inextricably linked to the broader momentum towards devolved assemblies in other parts of the UK. Yet the Assembly remains still uniquely obsessed with the atavistic politics of the province. The current internecine violence among loyalist paramilitaries, and the renewed threat from dissident republicanism as indicated by the missile attack on the headquarters of MI6 in London - both point to the intractable nature of the conflict in Northern Ireland.

It remains to be seen how both Westminster and the Assembly, with Dublin as a necessary partner, tackle the continuance of violence amidst this shaky peace process.



1. See C. McCartney (editor) Striking A Balance: The Northern Ireland Peace Process (Conciliation Resources, London, 1999) esp. pp. 15-16.

2. On this subject see Michael Hurley SJ (editor) Reconciliation in Religion and Society (Institute of Irish Studies, Belfast, 1994) esp. pp. 1-5.

3. This "spirit" is discussed by Terence Duffy in "A New Spirit of Reconciliation in Northern Ireland", The Ecumenical Review, Vol. 45, No. 3, July 1993, pp. 345-349.

4. Interview by authors with Mr Murray Barnes, Clerk to the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Parliament Buildings, 23 June 2000.

5. For a detailed analysis of this subject see Terence Duffy et al., "Northern Ireland and the UK Since the Good Friday Agreement", Representation: Journal of Representative Democracy, Spring 1999, Vol. 36, No. 1, pp 39-52.

6. See Brandon Hamber (editor) Past Imperfect: Dealing with the Past in Northern Ireland and Societies in Transition (INCORE, Londonderry, 1998) esp. pp. 1-12.

7. Andy Pollak (editor) A Citizens' Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland (Lilliput Press, Dublin, 1993) esp. pp 3-8.



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