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Dreary steeples…

February 18, 2010

Is the feeling that we are duty-bound to promote the peace damaging public life in Northern Ireland? That was the question posed at a meeting a couple of nights ago (16 February 2010) organized by the Belfast Salon and held in Belfast Exposed.

My own response to the question is yes and no. Yes, because the determination to sustain the peace process at any price has undermined any serious efforts to confront sectarianism and the anachronistic politics of unionism and nationalism. No, because without peace, public life in Northern Ireland would be considerably poorer, indeed meetings like the Belfast Saloon’s would be unlikely to happen in an atmosphere of violence and intimidation.

So I was in accord with those contributors at Belfast Exposed who felt that peace in Northern Ireland is largely dependent upon sustaining the political process and institutions no matter how flawed. However, I entirely appreciated the frustration of others at the meeting who saw the Northern Ireland Assembly as nothing more that an expensive vehicle that facilitates and perpetuates a pretty turgid dispute in less violent terms.

It’s a classic Catch 22: political progress needs peace and that means keeping unionism and nationalism sweet. But anything that validates or indulges unionism and nationalism makes political progress unlikely, or at least slothful. Seen in these terms, it’s tempting then to subscribe to the ‘dreary steeples’ thesis of Irish politics that predicts that the integrity of the old quarrel will endure whatever.

By the end of the Belfast Salon meeting the chair Pauline Hadaway encouraged the panellists – journalists Malachy O’Doherty and Jason Walsh, blogger Owen Polley and sociologist Liam O’Dowd – to sum up in optimistic fashion but it was hard to take much comfort from the evening’s debate.

I left with the feeling that we’d been asking the wrong question. Of course the constant ‘peace processing’ takes its toll on public life here. So many other issues just get pushed down the political agenda – employment, health, education – but they’ll be no nearer the top of that agenda if the political institutions collapse. Yet if we ask – how was peace achieved between the north of Ireland’s antagonists? – we might get a clearer sense of exactly were we are now, how we got here and what is possible in the future. Although first of all it’s important to debunk a few myths.

The ceasefires and peace process didn’t happened because people in Northern Ireland just ‘wised up’. That would presuppose that the combatants and their supporters had been in the grip of some sort of collective stupidity or madness. That’s always been a convenient explanation for the ‘troubles’ – that the Irish are just predisposed to violence – and it has been widely propagated because it presents other parties, namely the British state, as somehow bearing no responsibility for the conflict.

The conflict didn’t stop because Northern Ireland became war-weary. If that was the case, why didn’t the ceasefires happen sooner? Ask yourself how often did you turn on the news to learn of another atrocity — a massive bomb explosion or the spraying of bar with indiscriminate gun fire – and think to yourself, well, that’s it. That has got to be as low as we can go. The demand for peace will be just irresistible after this atrocity. And yet killing went on.

Unionism and nationalism have not substantially changed or revised their political ambitions. Unionists are no less committed to the United Kingdom today that they were before the peace process. Likewise, Irish republicans haven’t given up striving for a united Ireland.

Historic reforms or revolutions are usually the result of a new class or an aspiring social group demanding change. This wasn’t the case in Northern Ireland. Far from it. The parties and individuals that negotiated and signed up to the Good Friday Agreement had been around for decades. So what exactly brought Adams, Trimble, and eventually Paisley and Robinson into negotiates with each other (endlessly, it seems)?

The end of the Cold War and the apparent triumph of global capitalism had an impact on the thinking of two key groups. For some republicans, the end of ‘actually existing socialism’ required them to rethink their political ambitions. What were the prospects for revolutionary politics now, let alone a 32 county, socialist republic with the Soviet Union gone? More importantly, the Northern Ireland business community saw in the neo-liberal dream an opportunity to enjoy a share of all that new wealth. Bourgeois in complexion but never amounting to an actual bourgeoisie, the business community lacked political organisation but they were effective at suing for peace, petitioning the political parties to ‘sort it out’, while holding out the promise of a ‘peace dividend’. The recent scandals involving politicians and property developers perhaps have their roots in this period, when business men wooed Ulster’s truculent politicians with tales of rising property prices, grand urban designs and, its seems, personal gain.

Those politicians, both unionist and nationalist must have been cognisant of the broader political and economic environment as Northern Ireland entered the 1990s, still dependent on a massive subvention from the British exchequer. For unionists, the Celtic Tiger economy next door had kicked away the North’s claim to economic superiority, one of the arguments upon which the case for the union rested. Also, the United Kingdom looked like it might be entering its twilight, while the monarchy, to which they pledged their loyalty had descended into a soap -opera. Meanwhile, John Hume and the SDLP were pushing the idea that the dispute over the north of Ireland could be resolved within the context of European integration, especially since the old animosities that bedevilled British-Irish relations in the past been laid to rest and the two were now European partners.

As the European project and globalisation advanced, arguments about national allegiance and territory looked more and more anachronistic as the nation-state seemed to haemorrhage power and authority to trans-national institutions. On top of this it must have been obvious to republicans, that the southern electorate and government had little interest in pursuing Irish unity, while unionists must have noticed that most people in Britain couldn’t see them far enough. In effect, loyalist and republican violence was counter-productive, its greatest achievement being to estrange them from those who they would count among their ‘fellow countrymen’.

Seen in this context, unionism and nationalism were intellectually and politically exhausted. What the ceasefires, peace process and subsequent agreements have done is provide the conditions in which they can ‘park’ their dispute and try to reconstitute it for new times – so the argument about the border gets put on the long-finger and instead everybody wrangles about parades, culture and language.

I doubt Ulster unionism and six-county Irish nationalism will disappear any time soon because the Northern Ireland electorate has made clear its preference for a politics central to which is national identity, and we can hardly sack the electorate. And I regret that I don’t see any new political force emerging to challenge that status quo, so we may wait and see whether history, which seems to have undermined them in recent years, can deal unionism and nationalism a fatal blow in the future. Here’s hoping…

Additional (19 February 2010): Owen Polley’s account of the evening is here on his blog Three Thousand Versts of Loneliness

8 Comments leave one →
  1. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 18, 2010 5:45 pm

    But then there’s demography.

    When is the predicted (voting age) adult majority of catholics/ nationalists supposed to materialise? Is it 2040? Something’s got to give before then, surely?

    Or are you hinting that the GFA has just frozen everything until the inevitable border referendum shortly after 2040 blows it all up again?

    Paul Bew( is arguing on CIF today that the SF leadership are begining to wake up to the fact they have to reach out to at least some of the unionist community. (From this side of the Irish Sea this is quite difficult to see, but I’ll take his word for it.) I’m not sure the unionists will take any such SF initative seriously though . In fact I’m pretty certain they won’t.

    But both sides must know they’re sitting on a demographically unstable political settlement – and a settlement partly held together by what Paul Bew describes as,

    “….a [British taxpayers’] subvention which works out at £20,000 per annum for every family of two, nationalist or unionist…..”

    It can’t last: Norn Iron politics will shift as the demography does and the Brits get fed up with paying so much. But it may take the departure of the current generation of political leaders from both sides of the divide before the politics of ‘preparing for 2040’ begin in earnest.

  2. Rabelais permalink*
    February 18, 2010 7:04 pm

    I don’t know how much weight to give the demographic argument, that one side (Catholics) will out breed the other. It’s not an argument or a prediction that I hear made very often. There may be a number of reasons for this.
    1. It is dependent upon a rather stereoptypical view of catholics – a notion of catholic fecundity that has often been used to sectarian discourse
    2. If the conflict can be resolved by catholics populating the north, then there is a loyalist remedy to this that is too horrible to contemplate
    3. There is strong evidence to suggest that more catholic voters won’t necessarily mean more votes for nationalists
    4. If politics is simply a question of out breeding your opponents, then I am proud to announce that I am currently doing all I can to re-populate a moribund membership of the Labour Party

    Also, don’t count on the next generation of politicians being any more predisposed to compromise as the current crop. Research suggests that young people are more polarised than ever.

    The British (perhaps eventually the English) may find themselves still bank rolling the ‘wee six’ for some years to come.

  3. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 18, 2010 7:09 pm

    The argument isn’t about catholic fecundity. It’s about first direct rule and now the GFA framework nibbling away at the traditional biased employment practices of the former unionist statelet so catholics are less forced to emmigrate.

    Being of catholic extraction is *almost* the same as being a SF or SDLP voter – at least outside the middle classes where the Alliance or Greens may make some headway. Both SF & SDLP favour a united Ireland. I think that makes the community nationalist, at least in formal electoral terms.

    I accept there has always been some poll evidence which suggests identities around ‘the border issue’ may be more fluid than often thought. But the correlation between religion and preferred constitutional status remains very powerful, and some say quite a lot of those catholics who don’t identify as nationalist don’t do so precisely because they might not want the province to go back to war on the question, even if they vote SF & SDLP.(I can certainly imagine thinking, if I’d grown up in the North, that the price of unity was simply too high so I’d better make the best of things. My point is that the basis for such a calculation may change with the demographic shift)

  4. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 18, 2010 7:12 pm

    P.S. “If politics is simply a question of out breeding your opponents, then I am proud to announce that I am currently doing all I can to re-populate a moribund membership of the Labour Party”

    Does this mean you’ll soon be half way to havingfyour very own ‘wee six’?

    • Rabelais permalink*
      February 19, 2010 12:13 pm

      Changing demographics, whether through new patterns of immigration (protestants perhaps tending to leave the ‘cold house’ of the north instead of catholics) or poor application of the rhythm method, still doesn’t really ‘sort things out’. Although from the perspective of the British Treasury its easy to see how 50% + 1 in favour of catholics looks like very attractive maths. However, will 6 go into 32? Well, democratically it’s the only right and just equation except I suspect that a lot of bad politics will get in the way of an easy and straightforward transition of power. Does the south really want the north, especially a whole lot of surly prods? How would Dublin feel, let alone east Belfast, if the Brits up sticks and go? I know that there will be lots of talk about ‘transitional’ programmes and arrangements but I have a hunch we can count on Britain being involved in one from or another in northern Irish affairs for a long time to come. Indeed, the Good Friday Agreement may well help to facilitate that. By 2040 unionists will probably have become firm advocates of ‘parity of esteem’ and the equality agenda, and be insisting upon their ‘right’ to have their Britishness respected. In the end, Ireland could at last be constitutional united but deeply, politically divided.

      My preference is for rational political arrangements arrived at through negotiation rather than sectarian head counting. I fear though, Charlie, that the demographics you refer to may play their part.

      On the question of repopulating the Labour Party: I’ve decided I have too many little comrades already and they’re wrecking the place.

  5. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 19, 2010 12:46 pm

    If I’ve given the impression that demography per se can sort things out then I apologise. But it can unfreeze things, as you implicitly acknoweldge when you imagine the unionists adopting the ‘parity of esteem’ rhetoric – and potentially in a real way not just all that Ulster Scots Language Agency nonsense.

    Who knows what 2040 holds? Another dual referenda both sides of the border with the North’s newly minted majority voting for unification and the South voting against perhaps? Now that would be an interesting turn of events!

    Humour aside though, you’re quite right to remind me of the distance – a growing distance I think – between the political cultures of the Republic and the North. Not sure how that’s going to play out now the Celtic Tiger is looking a bit wounded (to put it mildly). All I’m saying is things need not be frozen in place for ever, so don’t give up hope.

    • Rabelais permalink*
      February 19, 2010 1:21 pm

      While there is ‘lead in my pencil’ there is hope for Ulster.

  6. CharlieMcMenamin permalink
    February 23, 2010 4:19 pm

    You want ‘normal’ politics? Well, certain people on the right are willing to help ……UCUNFs everyone one, of course

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