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Multiculturalism and Britishness in Northern Ireland

Robin Wilson (Belfast): As a number of contributors to the ‘Britishness’ debate in OK have made clear, the other term at play here is ‘multiculturalism’. This is being debated in Gordon Brown’s own homelands north of the border. How does it look in Northern Ireland, the only part of the UK to have seen sustained armed conflict between its communities in modern times?

Funnily enough, Northern Ireland does offer illumination. We have, by turns, had ‘Britishness’ and ‘multiculturalism’ thrust upon us in particularly pure forms. The old indigenous unionist elite defined its project as assimilation of the Catholic minority, kicking and screaming, into a British state – from which most of their co-religionists had exited to be ruled from Dublin. The consequences were alienation, subordination and, at the margins, violence. Once this took on the claim for human rights and the British army had to be drafted in from ‘the mainland’ that strategy failed.

The British patrician class which then reluctantly took over in 1972 increasingly adopted the multiculturalist notion of ‘parity of esteem’ between nationalists and unionists to defuse their respective demands—or at least keep the consequences confined to antagonism in Northern Ireland. The atmosphere of moral hazard which this created only served to ensure Northern Ireland would prove the longest-running violent conflict in Europe outside of the Basque country. Now, while ‘peace’ has descended through eventual exhaustion, the province is more polarised than ever, with its 46 ‘peace walls’ at the last official count.

What could and should have cut the conflict short, and allowed communal division progressively to be healed, would have been an approach to constitutional engineering based on universal values of the rule of law, democracy and human rights, allied to the encouragement of intercultural dialogue across the sectarian divide. This was, however, far too European an approach for anyone in the British political class to contemplate.

And this tells us what’s wrong with the current debate. As evidenced by Brown’s allusion to flag-waving on a British Day, launching the debate in his 2006 Fabian address, his only reference point is transatlantic. As it happens, the Council of Europe, founded on the values mentioned above, is later this year to launch a White Paper on Intercultural Dialogue, while the EU has designated 2008 as Year of Intercultural Dialogue. Rather than launching an isolated debate on ‘Britishness’, a genuine engagement with this existing—and now well developed—European discussion would mark a real break from the last, toe-curling, Trimbdon speech by Blair, when he affirmed that Britain was the best ‘nation’ in the world.

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