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Endgame in Northern Ireland?
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).
Richard 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 Ireland, 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 agreement.
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.