Endgame in Northern Ireland?

Kevin Donegan

The outbreak once
more of sectarian violence, along with the threatened resignation of an
instrumental political leader, the express refusal of a terrorist/liberation
militia to give up their weapons, and electoral gains in recent British
elections by hard-liners on both sides tell an inauspicious story of competing
nationalisms fast approaching an endgame in Northern Ireland.

Despite having
an island culture and history, Ireland has not been politicall or economically
independent for more than 1,000 years. After centuries of foreign rule, forced
emigration, and national struggle, the people who live in Ireland today, north
and south, are at the same time Irish and multi-ethnic, natives and settlers,
colonizers and colonized. It is a place where the historical importance of a
defined national identity and the everyday reality of manifold cultural and
religious heritages often conflict.

But it is this
mixing of people, past and present, that can point the way to political and
cultural harmony in the future. Ethnically, Ireland has long been mixed up,
mostly as a consequence of past invasions, such as those by Vikings and
Anglo-Normans, and by colonial settlers (particularly English and Scottish).
The solutions to present problems in Northern Ireland, including police
reform, British army demilitarization, decommissioning of IRA weapons, and a
strengthened institutional structure, also lie within the broader context of a
Europe, where the importance of existing nation-states is diminishing and the
crucial need for a more regional approach to government is just beginning to
be addressed.

The search for
identity in this mix has often led to sectarianism—the notion that if I don’t
agree with what you’re saying I perceive it as a direct affront to my very
existence. The so-called “community” to which we belong becomes an
abstraction, removed from the people who actually live there and leaving out
so many of the values that are shared. Manipulative political leaders
regularly exploit differences and ignore opportunities for cooperation. It
often seems that, in Northern Ireland, politics is the art of the impossible.

Ireland has
gone through periods in history when defining a “national” identity was a
preeminent goal. The foundation of the Irish state on the southern
three-quarters of the island in 1922 (with a constitutional “special position”
later reserved for Catholicism) coincided with the Irish Literary Revival.
This enabled writers like Yeats and Synge to synthesize Irish myths and ideas
of nationhood into a somewhat illusory reading of actual Irish history. While
many contemporaneous and later figures (e.g., Beckett) rejected this, Northern
Protestants saw in it their worst fears: the workings of a theocratic state in
which they weren’t welcome.

But defining
identity mostly has been the privilege of the elite classes—neighbor to
neighbor, people from different stock have always gotten on better than any
restricting cultural construct would allow. The current intermixing of people
in makes it clear that diversity is a value shared by many people on the
island. For example, a recent study estimated that two out of every five
Protestants in the South who married in the 1980s were wed to a person of
different religious beliefs. Other data also suggest that such intermarriage
is increasing. Contemporary culture largely transcends religious and
nationalist divides: U2 is as popular in Belfast as in Dublin.

Because it is
often through cultural expression that we recognize our common bonds, it is
imperative that any program for a peaceful society in Northern Ireland address
not only peoples’ political and economic needs. Unfortunately, the only
cultural undertakings in the current (1998) peace agreement are somewhat vague
pledges about “the importance of respect, understanding and tolerance…[for]
the protection of minority languages (Irish).” There is no reference to the
role or importance of the family in society (or indeed of the roles within the
family, although the agreement expresses the desire to promote the advancement
of women in public life). A new society cannot be built based solely on a
peace agreement that addresses political structures, without also finding a
way to facilitate and fulfill people’s needs for cultural (and religious)
expression and their needs for family and kinship.

Another part of
the difficulty in understanding the conflict in the North has always been the
accepted framework of nationalism (the desire by most of the Catholic minority
to reunite the province with the Republic of Ireland) versus unionism (the
desire by most of the Protestant majority to remain part of the United
Kingdom). People are aware of past job, housing, and other discriminations
faced by Catholics in the North (some still remain). But many people are
reluctant to identify with a nationalism that, although apparently rooted in
liberation, seems a little too close to the ethnocentric nationalism that
provoked many other European conflicts and which has been the cause of much
oppression and slaughter.

The reality is
that there are two principal nationalisms that underlie the conflict in
Northern Ireland: an Irish version and a largely unacknowledged British
(monarchical) version. It is this British nationalism that provided much of
the intellectual basis for the formation of the British nation-state at the
end of the 18th century and is evidenced today in the particular reluctance of
the British to integrate more closely with their European neighbors (through
various opt-out clauses in European Union treaties and the refusal to date to
join in monetary union).

Kearney, a distinguished Irish intellectual, argues that what is needed in
Northern Ireland “is a transition from traditional nationalism to a
post-nationalism which preserves what is valuable in the respective cultural
memories of nationalism (Irish and British) while superseding them” (Postnationalist
, 1997).

But in order
for such a transition to truly occur, two paradigm shifts must take place. The
first is the recognition that the people in Northern Ireland not only have a
shared past, complete with religious intermarriage, ethnic mixing and
colonization but, because of the perpetual necessity imposed by geography,
will have a shared future. If the North is to become a society with some
measure of equity, solidarity, and diversity, the divesting of power and
privilege that has begun with the power- sharing government must continue, as
must efforts to integrate and reform the predominantly Protestant police
force. It is also unlikely that the handover of paramilitary arms can be
fudged for much longer; too much is at stake.

The second
shift lies with sovereignty. For too long the choice was either government
from London or government from Dublin. To many people neither option seemed to
promise a stable, secure, and tolerant society. As Europe moves slowly but
measurably towards a more federal structure with regional governments, the
present attempts to build a stable devolved government in Northern Ireland
could in the future provide a model for other areas of conflict. This is not
to say that the solution lies in ceding sovereignty to the federal structure.
Rather, the power is devolved to the local or regional governments from the
more centralized nation-state. This type of arrangement operates in several
other European countries, including Germany, Italy, and Spain and more
recently in Scotland and Wales, with varying amounts of devolved power. Such a
regional view has long been advanced for Northern Ireland by Nobel Peace
prize-recipient John Hume and others.

As of this
writing, David Trimble, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (and the other
joint recipient of the Nobel prize), says he will resign July 1 as First
Minister of Northern Ireland. This move will put the functioning of day-to-day
government in jeopardy and also strain the stability of the constitutional
structures; Trimble says it’s necessary because the IRA has yet to hand over
any weapons. (Their weapons caches have been subjected to periodic independent
inspections which, so far, have shown that they’re not being used.) Trimble
deserves credit for being courageous enough to take on the intransigent
constituencies in his party and win, leading his party into a power-sharing
government with nationalists. But the debate within Unionist circles is most
certainly not over, especially given the recent electoral gains of the more
reactionary Democratic Unionist Party, which opposes the current peace

Sixteen hundred
newly arrived British troops are in Northern Ireland for the annual Unionist
summer marching season, usually a time when tradition trumps tolerance.
Resolute orange flag-bearing Unionists will celebrate old victories over
long-dead Catholics, while living Catholics with protest banners will likely
jeer from behind police lines. For the people who live in Northern Ireland,
it’s a time of heightened tensions and the arousal of deeply held suspicions.
Many others envision a time when they may yet all march together, just waving
different flags.                                Z

Kevin Donegan is a reporter and social justice activist working at Children
Now in Oakland, California.