Northern Ireland’s peace by peace

Robin Wilson
11 October 2005

Stephen Howe’s excellent survey of “Loyalism” in Northern Ireland is exhaustive. Indeed, few of us who actually live here, exhausted by (literally) wall-to-wall sectarianism, would have had the energy or enthusiasm to plumb these subcultural depths to quite such a degree.

Some observers may think there is little to know beyond the half-true stereotypes Stephen probes. In the Irish republican worldview, which has replaced old unionist supremacism with a more subtly sectarian propensity to patronise, all (non-nationalist) forms of thought among Protestants remain trivial false consciousness. Indeed, in the latest republican discursive fashion, the term “unionist paramilitaries” has operated to flatten out all intra-communal distinctions between politics and violence. The republican movement’s physical weapons have now (almost all) gone; the verbal ones remain well oiled.

Robin Wilson is director of the Belfast-based think tank Democratic Dialogue

He is responding to Stephen Howe’s two-part openDemocracy essay “Mad Dogs and Ulstermen: the crisis of Loyalism”

Part one of the essay is here

Part two is here

Also in this discussion: Graham Walker, “Loyalist culture, Unionist politics: a response to Stephen Howe”

For others, the idea that Loyalism is somehow “working-class” and progressive persisted for far too long. After the paramilitary ceasefires of 1994, some non-sectarian progressives saw hope in the emergent political fronts for the loyalist paramilitaries, particularly the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF’s) Progressive Unionist Party. But anyone who had read Peter Gibbon’s blandly-titled but classic article in the 1977 Socialist Register, “Some basic problems of the contemporary situation”, would have recognised the impossible nature of such “anti-establishment” proletarian unity in Northern Ireland.

Gibbon’s leftwing argument led to the same conclusion as that of the liberal political scientist John Whyte in his magisterial 1991 survey of perspectives on the conflict, Interpreting Northern Ireland. Contrary to the republican emphasis on the British state – a view which Anglocentric British leftists have tended to echo – they both emphasised the internal dynamic of the conflict. Both also saw efforts to change the faultlines of that conflict from Protestant versus Catholic to class against class as utopian

Politics beyond segregation

The implication for any liberal-left approach to Northern Ireland is to focus on political accommodation itself. Here David Held’s notion of cosmopolitanism, a broader attempt to deal with the challenges of “identity politics”, is extremely helpful. By cosmopolitanism he means a value system in which each individual (not “community”) is treated as of equal moral worth, all individuals recognise their common humanity and the state treats impartially all competing claims. If any government since partition had adopted such a stance, Northern Ireland’s problems would have been on the way to a solution.

This vision for Northern Ireland has quietly entered the new policy framework on “community relations”, published in March 2005. This document, A Shared Future, represented the first time that any government at Stormont since 1922 has recognised that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society and that, implicitly, this is not simply amenable to a political “fix” at the level of a deal between the political (now, ironically, including paramilitary) elites.

This has obvious implications for Northern Ireland as a society. For instance, Ballynafeigh in south Belfast remains peacefully demographically mixed, while Ballysillan in north Belfast is a ghetto of the impoverished loyalist nihilism Stephen portrays. This is because local voluntary organisations and inter-denominational networks have sustained the former as an attractive, integrated neighbourhood, whereas the latter embodies the anomie of decline where paramilitarism offers the only “order” there is.

The future clearly lies with the former social model rather than the latter. And if segregation has been a disturbing and continuing trend in Northern Ireland, it is worth stressing that socio-economic and politico-cultural changes have left the “Loyalist” section of the male-manual working class, on which Stephen’s essay focuses, a very small social fraction indeed. The demise of the paramilitary political wings on that side is testimony to the very fact that the great majority of Protestants, out of a combination of good liberal politics and bad social snobbery, see them as thugs and corner-boys.

But the cosmopolitan vision also has implications for what sort of constitutional accommodation will work. New Labour heavily spun the 1998 Belfast agreement as having “solved” Northern Ireland’s constitutional conflict. It did nothing of the sort – it merely repeated what earlier “breakthroughs” had done (like the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 which ushered in short-lived “power-sharing”): namely, setting competing unionist and nationalist claims side by side, and creating a method (a simple-majority referendum) for arbitrating between them. The failed border-poll experiment of 1973 should have warned the architects that this was the best formula for a destabilising sectarian headcount.

The 1998 agreement will not be revived on the basis of a politique du pire (“politics of making things worse”) deal between Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party. The sectarian blame-game that substitutes for politics in Northern Ireland is even more alive now than when Peter Gibbon and John Whyte wrote their classic analyses. But there is a basis for what can in shorthand terms be called a “both-and”, rather than an “either/or”, resolution of Northern Ireland’s constitutional conundrum – one impossible to conceive in earlier decades.

A cosmopolitan future

This is also where the concept of modernisation, whose relevance to Ireland Stephen ably discusses, comes in. In a four-dimensional political context – post-1997 devolution across the United Kingdom, prolonged (if contested) European integration, intensified globalisation, allied to the economic take-off and social “liberal agenda” in the Republic of Ireland – it becomes perfectly conceivable to imagine the citizens of Northern Ireland eventually sharing a cosmopolitan political space.

This polity could both be defined as a devolved region of the UK (where its competences, as with Scotland, would be extensive but constrained) and at the same time allocated a power of general competence in its dealings with the republic (where no such constraints would apply). For decades, the student movement in the region – which one would imagine would contain its most volatile political elements – has operated happily on a similar basis.

This would be a settlement, rather than an agreement, with three beneficial effects.

First, it would delegitimise the ethno-nationalist political forces on both sides - whose projects would be thereby rendered literally meaningless – in favour of the more civic-minded and progressive.

Second, it would remove from the scene republican irredentism (rejected as obsolete by most actually existing Irish people, as the small and very tasteless “Make Partition History” march in Dublin on 24 September demonstrated) and the cultivated sense of threat in which loyalists self-pityingly indulge.

Third, it would thus consign to the Ulster Museum, if not to the dustbin of history, the display of memorabilia that Stephen Howe has so carefully curated.

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