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Wild Catastrophism to Mild Moderation in Northern Ireland

Arthur Aughey
7 May 2009

Northern Ireland's place in the Union has been the most contested. In this extract from Breaking up Britain Arthur Aughey weighs up the outcomes of the peace process for devolution.

To speak of politics being ‘after a Union' is an invitation to anticipate emancipation from old identity-constraints. To argue that we are already ‘after Britain' suggests that the fate of Britishness has already been decided, if not yet at the polls, then at the bar of history.

If this projection of a political future from the logic of history has become influential recently in discussing both Scottish and English affairs it has always informed thinking about Northern Ireland, implicitly and explicitly. And the experience of Northern Ireland casts doubt on the logic of being already ‘after Britain'.

Dry Stone Wall of History

A more appropriate image for understanding historical change can be found in the work of the English philosopher, Michael Oakeshott. Oakeshott uses the image of a feature of the rugged countryside, the ‘dry wall', to conjure up how historical events are related to each other. It is history of no premeditated design, but one in which events are related one to another by their particular interlocking shapes. The value of that particular image is that it evokes historical change in terms of historical continuity. But this continuity is not the continuity of permanent traits or fated behaviour but of contiguity, a contiguity that has space for events which appear to challenge much of what went before. The image of history as the dry stone wall of related events is a rather modest one because it is sceptical of two assertions: first, that there is in history some destiny to be fulfilled or some fate that awaits; second, that certain events or moments are of such revolutionary significance that all is changed and changed utterly. The lure of historical destiny and the justification by transcendent historical suffering informed the terror campaign of the Provisional IRA but traces were also to be found in constitutional nationalism as well, what Conor Cruise O'Brien once called Ireland's ‘ancestral voices' For unionists, this destiny was their apocalypse and like the Republicans they heard ancestral voices as a call to resist all restrictions of their civil and religious liberties.

This view suggests that the Good Friday Agreement represents a new beginning in which a radically new political space opens up out of the process of conflict transformation. Its potential in this regard was systematically theorised in the notion of ‘strong reconciliation' in the reflections of Norman Porter on Northern Ireland after 1998. According to Norman Porter ‘anti-Agreement unionists and republicans offer no hope of a reconciled society' and unfortunately ‘pro-Agreement unionists and republicans offer limited hope of it too'. The problem here is the historical misunderstanding of the Agreement as a foundational event from which a radically new society emerges rather than conceiving of it as an event standing in contiguous relation to other events, the particular qualities of which are more apparent than their world-historical significance.

Understood in this manner, the Agreement is not a new beginning or a re-foundation but a modification of circumstances in Northern Ireland, an adjustment of how practices stand in relation to one another. Some things come on to the agenda but some things also fall off it. Some things come up for debate but yet others are settled, at least for now. Some things may improve but others may get worse. The dry stone wall of Northern Irish history changes shape, as does the perspective on the relations between its parts, with each addition to it. The eccentricities, irregularities, inconsistencies and some might think, absurdities, are not defects or irrationalities but constitutive characteristics of its politics.

Out of the mouth of history

To talk, then, of a new dispensation or a new era of good relations is to put words into the mouth of history. The devolved Assembly has had only a fitful existence and was suspended from 2002-2007. The power-sharing Executive did not meet for most of 2008 because of a Sinn Fein boycott. Some, with good reason, have argued that the institutional inadequacies of the 1998 Agreement were only added to by the modifications at St Andrews, confirming the lack of policy cohesion, mutual sectarian vetoes, absence of collective responsibility and legislative vacuity. That criticism rests on two observations. First, the peace process represents a ‘Faustian pact with sectarianism' and so rests on precisely ‘the division it is supposed to solve'. Second, there is an absence of an overarching allegiance to the shared polity which can counteract sectarian instincts. Those points are well made and essential since nationalist and unionist parties, while not necessarily enamoured of the condition of ‘enforced coalition', have little incentive to change things if only because they directly profit by them. The dry stone wall image implies, of course, that there is no administrative solution to the division, only a modification of circumstances in which it is possible for those divisions to become political and constructive rather than murderous and destructive.

The evidence for the stability of the interlocking elements remains mixed. Sectarianism is alive and well in public affrays; politics is frequently conducted by tapping the wells of ‘ethnic rage'; and communal assertiveness remains a principle which often makes no distinction between the significant and the insignificant because everything is an issue of potential humiliation. And yet there is also evidence that the present standing in relation is more robustly accommodating than one would imagine, that there is the shape here of a modification in Northern Ireland's ‘politics of fate'. That modification suggests that a fated incivility can become a tentative civility such that even if the people of Northern Ireland may not choose to live together they are compelled to live together. Of course, we have been here before. Reviewing expectations on the eve of the Troubles, Hugh Kearney noted that the impression was that old antagonisms were moving towards resolution and that the violence of the next thirty years ‘was a future quite unforeseen in the 1960s'

The certainty of ‘endism' of whatever sort, of reading history and the future as the crow flies, is part of the problem which analysis needs to address. The eccentricities, irregularities, inconsistencies and - some may think - absurdities, even surrealities of Northern Ireland's political condition are not irrationalities to be resolved but an integral part of its distinctive shape. If the wild catastrophist expression of that distinctiveness has recently exhausted itself might a mildly moderate version succeed? For this to happen, there is a requirement to develop what Eugenio Biagini has called a ‘sense of the state', a common commitment to the politics of responsibility and to the rule of law. For the first time in a political generation, that at least is now a possibility.

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