'The Dilemmas of Political Transformation in Northern Ireland' by John D. Cash. (1998)
[Key_Events] Key_Issues] [Conflict_Background]
The following article has been contributed by John D. Cash. It was originally published in Pacifica Review, Volume 10, No. 3, 1998, pp.227-234; with a corrigendum in Pacifica Review, Volume 11, Number 1, February, 1999, page 83. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of the members of the CAIN Project. The CAIN Project would welcome other material which meets our guidelines for contributions.
This article is copyright © 1998 John D. Cash and is included on the CAIN site by permission of the author and the publisher. You may not edit, adapt, or redistribute changed versions of this for other than your personal use without the express written permission of the author. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.
The Dilemmas of Political Transformation in Northern Ireland
Since its inception in the 1920s, Northern Ireland has been, formally, a part of the much- celebrated civic culture of the United Kingdom. It has always constituted the other side of that civic culture, the blind-spot that has since come to light. Democracy has persistently met its nemesis in the political culture of Northern Ireland. However, over the past few years Northern Ireland has crept awkwardly and, often, perilously, towards new political arrangements. Two recent milestones along this troubled path are the signing of the Belfast Agreement on Good Friday of this year and the popular approval of the referenda on new political arrangements, in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, in late May of this year. In Northern Ireland the referendum measuring popular approval of the Good Friday Agreement was supported by 71% of the Northern Irish population and by approximately 50% of the Unionist community.
In this discussion I intend to develop a brief analysis of Northern Ireland’s current attempt to transform its political culture. I do so in the belief that such an analysis can enhance our understanding of how Northern Ireland, and other divided societies, might move from a culture of enmity to an adversarial democratic culture. In attempting to catch the dynamics and tensions of such a potential transition, my analysis also addresses some major dilemmas and impediments that are likely to be encountered along the way to such a transformation.
First, I need to set out a few markers regarding my particular approach. Along with the pressing substantive issues of life, liberty, equality, opportunity, democracy and national identity which have marked the conduct of everyday life in Northern Ireland, the very complexity of this society has also generated a series of social-theoretical conundrums. In short the complexities of Northern Ireland, and other "divided societies", have confounded the prevalent theoretical approaches which have been relied upon to analyse the conduct of social and political life in such societies.
For instance, Northern Ireland is an anomaly when viewed from a perspective that highlights the transformative effects of modernity, or indeed globalisation, whether these purported effects are construed in economic, social or political terms. In the face of rapid industrialisation and modernisation since the inception of the industrial revolution, Northern Ireland has been re-produced as a society riven by sectarian difference. Northern Ireland has also proved anomalous for those pluralism theories that have taken this sectarian difference as an inherent, unchanging feature of social and political relations. Such a pluralism approach has consistently missed the internal differentiation, and internal dynamism, of both the Unionist and Nationalist communities. Thereby, pluralism approaches have failed to take due notice, and apportion due weight, to the inclusivist tendencies, present and active in both communities, favouring movement beyond the politics of sectarian difference. Finally, Northern Ireland has also confounded those theories and approaches that rely unduly on realist assumptions about self-interest and rationality. The complex array of forms of reasoning and feeling which, together, constitute Northern Ireland’s political cultures (or its ideological formations) are more central to the conduct of political life than such realist assumptions about self-interest and rationality are able to comprehend.
In response to these anomalies I have developed an approach which attempts to take ideologies and identities more seriously. This approach attempts to hold together the social and psychic dimensions of ideologies and identities by exploring both their internal structure and ongoing structuration. More precisely, this approach attempts to address the intersecting psycho-cultural and socio-political processes which have been central to the re-production of sectarian difference as an institutionalised feature of the Northern Ireland state, and which are also central to the re-imagining and re-ordering of political identities and political relations in Northern Ireland.
Simply put, my principal claim is that ideologies, and the identities they organise, are central to the conduct of political life in Northern Ireland. Ideologies are central to political life because they establish the range of common-sense understandings, the predominant reality principles, which are recursively drawn upon by politicians and other citizens to construe proper forms of identity, proper forms of political and social relations and proper forms of power, authority and violence. At the same time what counts as proper – the proper way of being, relating, feeling or construing – is recurrently fought over in the ongoing making and re-making of social and political relations.
To explore such claims I have drawn on both psychoanalytic and cognitive-developmental theories, regarding ways of thinking, feeling and construing, to specify several sets of unconscious rules which structure particular forms of ideology. Here I want to briefly outline some unconscious rules in terms drawn from psychoanalytic theory. On the basis of prior research I have specified three "positions" within Unionist ideology (and observed three equivalent positions within Nationalism/Republicanism) that are recurrently drawn upon in the making and re-making of identities and social relations in Northern Ireland. These are the dehumanising position, the persecutory position and the ambivalent position. The first two, which, more generally, can be termed exclusivist are organised by psychic mechanisms characteristic of Melanie Klein's paranoid-schizoid position. The third position, the ambivalent, which can also be referred to as inclusivist, is organised by psychic mechanisms characteristic of Klein's depressive position. For reasons of space I will provide very brief descriptions of these positions and will rely upon the examples I go on to discuss to illustrate, at least intuitively, their most salient features. Elsewhere, I have specified the characteristics of these positions in considerable detail.
Both the dehumanising and persecutory positions split the political and social order into good and evil and regard political interaction as the conflict of these two forces. Allegiance to group norms of an exclusivist kind becomes the criterion by which the proper position of political subjects within this split world is determined; simply put, you are either "in" or "out". The dehumanising position establishes the emotional and conceptual boundary between "us" and "them" through the use of metaphors that construe the other as either a despised animal or a disgusting object. In this position violent aggressivity towards the other, allied with hateful contempt, constitute the emotional climate of "us" – "them" interactions. Currently in Northern Ireland, the dehumanising position is seldom drawn upon in public discourse.
In the persecutory position others are construed as persecutory if, within the field of social and political relations, they adhere to, and act upon, values and beliefs which are different from those sanctioned by the subject’s communal grouping. Acting differently is construed, within the persecutory position, as acting in a hostile and aggressive manner which must be opposed and defeated at all costs, in order to maintain the propriety and authority of the communal values, beliefs and interests of one’s own grouping. This incapacity to tolerate difference is not restricted to the construction of members of the "out-group". The same intolerance is evident in the construction of members of the subject’s own communal grouping who speak or act in ways that differ from those preferred ways that are sanctioned by communal norms. Another feature of the persecutory position is that the other, including the internal other adverted to above, rather than being graphically dehumanised, is construed in an iconic mode as a mere emblem or instance of the persecutory grouping itself. In this construction the other lacks complexity as he or she is reduced to a cipher of the persecutory design. Aggressivity and hateful contempt are present in the persecutory position, but these affects are alloyed with anxiety about the interests, welfare and future of one’s own grouping. Moreover the persecutory position is capable of establishing a distinction between those others who "know their place", as it were, and those who are construed as dangerous persecutors. It is only those who step out of place by refusing to accept their allotted social position, (a social position declared by the ideology of the "in-group") who are construed as persecutory. Toleration, for the moment, is extended to those who accept their declared social place. In the case of any nominal members of the subject’s own grouping, they are construed as proper members of the grouping for so long as they maintain their adherence to group norms and continue to draw upon the repertoire of exclusivist rules. To differ from group norms is to become an internal persecutory other deserving exclusion and retribution, usually symbolic in kind.
Consider these recent statements by Ian Paisley, all of which are drawn from an interview with Mervyn Pauley published in the Newsletter about a week prior to the recent Referendum. First, Paisley was asked his opinion about the fact that many local councils across Northern Ireland, including Belfast council and his own local council in Ballymena, had voted to endorse a "Yes" vote at the referendum for the Belfast Agreement. It was put to Paisley that this might be regarded as a setback for the "No" campaign.
Here it is clear that only Unionists count and that Paisley’s concern is with achieving (or claiming) a majority of Unionists in favour of voting "No". Nationalists are symbolically disenfranchised in this construction. And already one wonders about the symbolic fate of the "other Official Unionists" who sided with Nationalists in supporting a "Yes" vote.
The interviewer then put the following proposition to Paisley:
Here we see an exclusivist and persecutory construction that places Unionists holding a different political position to Paisley beyond the pale. Indeed they are cast into the pan-nationalist front, and construed as lacking the honesty to admit their betrayal of Unionism.
A little later Paisley comments:
Now we are accused by Mr Trimble ( the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party) of running away. What Mr. Trimble did was he ran away from the unionist family and joined Sinn Fein and sold his principles. That's what happened.
We now know where Paisley places those Unionists who disagree with him. Trimble has become the latter-day Lundy who has "joined" with the enemy.
Addressing a political rally prior to the referendum, Paisley referred to David Trimble and other pro-agreement Unionists as traitors who had been suborned by the British government. He continued:
They are liars. They have graduated from the devil's school. They have destroyed the act of the Union and given the title deeds of Ulster to Dublin on a plate. These people have sold out Ulster. As for me, I would rather starve than take filthy British money.
It is worth noting that these examples highlight a striking feature of many divided societies; that a great deal of political conflict is intra-group conflict within the nominal community, in this case within Unionism. Of course such intra-group conflict is concerned, exactly, with the issue of which set of ideological rules should be drawn upon to think, feel, construe and act properly within the field of inter-group relations.
Soon after the referendum Queen Elizabeth expressed approval for the success of the "Yes" vote. In an outburst that clearly illustrates his reliance on exclusivist rules, Paisley characterised the British Monarch as a "parrot". As he put it: "She is very foolish to do what she is doing, I don't think the people of Northern Ireland will take kindly to it. She has become a parrot". The irony of a declared loyalist characterising his monarch in such a denigratory manner is left to the reader to reflect upon.
It is my claim that, within the Unionist community, this exclusivist, persecutory form of Unionist ideology is not peculiar to Paisley and his ilk. Rather, it remains the predominant ideological form for the construction of political relations in Northern Ireland, although it is not always declared in such a forthright manner and with such reliance on religious symbolism. At the same time it is the ideological form whose predominance is being threatened by the current political and peace process. On all prior occasions when this exclusivist, persecutory form of being, relating, feeling and construing as a political subject has been seriously challenged, political groupings whose identity is strongly invested in its preservation have succeeded in re-colonising the political space and re-asserting the proper pre-eminence of such exclusivist rules. The political conflict within Unionism has routinely taken this form, especially during the O’Neill premiership in 1969 and Faulkner’s premiership of a power-sharing cabinet in 1974. It is clear that this battle within Unionism over the proper place of exclusivist forms is about to be played out yet again, although not necessarily with the same outcome.The ambivalent position of ideology is inclusivist. It construes individuals, groups and the whole political and social formation as complex and multifaceted. It is from this complex construction that the ambivalence arises. Rather than being split and projected in ways characteristic of the dehumanising and persecutory positions, "others" and other groupings, (including frustrating others, distrusted others and, even, despised others) are construed as complex subjects with both positive and negative aspects. Thus, in contrast with the dehumanising and persecutory positions, the capacity for the handling of complexity, for the shifting of perspective and the enactment of bargaining and compromise is greatly enhanced.
Consider these recent examples, again drawn from the Unionist community. The Deputy leader of the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP), John Taylor, speaking just after the announcement of the referendum result, predicted the end of the relationship between the Orange Order and the UUP. As he put it:
You are going to find a more secular, modernised UUP. In particular, the link between the Orange Order is very questionable, especially since the Order jumped into the No camp. The time is now right to break the link.
The voicing of such an observation by a central Unionist figure such as Taylor indicates a looming sea-change in the character of the UUP. Taylor was himself a victim of an IRA attack and has been a significant figure within the Orange Order for many years. For the past few years he, with others, has been engaged in an attempt to create what he here has termed "a more secular, modernised UUP". One which, in the terms outlined above, draws on inclusivist rules to construe its own identity, the identity of other groupings and its notions of the proper form of intergroup relations. Further, when speaking about the prospect of allocating preferences, under the proportional representation voting system used for the June 25 elections to a Northern Ireland Assembly, Taylor has entertained the prospect of UUP voters transferring their preferences to the Nationalist SDLP. As he put it: "It won't be simply a sectarian vote any more. It will be people deciding who are the positive candidates and who are the negative candidates". In his key-note address during the Northern Ireland Assembly election campaign David Trimble drew on inclusivist rules when stating that "(w)e can now get down to the historic and honourable task of this generation: to raise up a Northern Ireland in which pluralist unionism and constitutional nationalism can speak to each other with the civility that is the foundation of freedom." Whether this adoption of an inclusivist idiom can survive the tensions and dilemmas of political transformation is the issue upon which hangs the future of peace and democracy in Northern Ireland.
It is worth reporting that the UUP currently has ten Westminster MPs, six of whom campaigned for a "No" vote in the referendum. Several of these appeared with Paisley, Robinson and others from the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), and McCartney from the UK Unionist Party, as part of the new United Unionist grouping which toured around Northern Ireland campaigning for the "No" vote. The UUP, which is the major Unionist party, is, then, entirely split between inclusivists and exclusivists. The split vote within the Unionist community at the referendum, where approximately 50% voted "Yes" and 50% voted "No", suggests that a similar division exists within this broader community.
Some further clarification is called for here. Although, for shorthand, I have spoken of "inclusivists" and "exclusivists" it is critical to recognise that political actors and other citizens can move between these positions. Of course, someone like Paisley is highly unlikely to move. In part this has to do with his own psychological disposition, no doubt. More significantly, it has to do with the character of the party he created. The DUP, unlike the UUP, has never tolerated, and hence has never institutionalised, any rules of an inclusivist type. However, this is not the case with the UUP, which has always contained both inclusivist and exclusivist scripts, so to speak. Less than 12 months ago the UUP leader, David Trimble, drew regularly on exclusivist scripts and rules to construe, evaluate and act. He is, after all, notorious in many circles for the role he has played at Drumcree over the past few years, when Orangemen have demanded the right to march down the Garvaghy Road, past a Nationalist housing estate. On such occasions he has drawn entirely on exclusivist rules when acting as a leading spokesperson for Orangeism as well as Unionism. This same David Trimble is, today, lionised on most sides (we have seen one exception in Paisley’s evaluation of him) as the champion of a "new deal" in Ulster, rather as Terence O’Neill was before him. As leader of the largest Unionist party Trimble is caught between two conflicting requirements of the situation he finds himself in. On the one hand, in many circumstances he needs to draw upon exclusivist scripts for internal Unionist consumption. On the other hand, as the principal Unionist negotiator in a setting where new rules have been demanded by some of the principal actors, he needs to draw on these inclusivist rules in order to continue as a viable political actor within the new setting. These principal actors who have insisted on the propriety of inclusivist rules include the two sovereign governments of the UK and the Republic of Ireland, along with the United States President and government and the European Community.
So far I have loosely illustrated the claim that Unionist ideology contains both exclusivist and inclusivist forms for the construction of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity. I have also made the empirical claim that, on all prior occasions, any movement towards the institutionalisation of inclusivism has immediately called forth a strong exclusivist reaction; most tellingly in the defeat of O’Neill and in the overthrow of the power-sharing executive by the Ulster Worker’s Council Strike. I have also suggested that the role played by several principal actors, including the two sovereign governments, along with the United States and the European Union, has created the possibility of a different outcome on this occasion. But to achieve this different outcome new institutions, such as the soon to be elected Northern Ireland Assembly, will need to institutionalise inclusivist rules as the proper mode of being, doing, feeling and construing for political actors. These inclusivist rules will need to achieve a new legitimacy. In turn, this would amount to a profound transformation of Northern Ireland’s political culture. Inevitably, such a transformation must confront and, eventually, displace certain dilemmas that are contained in the very setting from within which the transformation needs to be enacted.
The new Northern Ireland Assembly will need to institutionalise what we might term an inclusivist lingua franca, or common-sense. For many Unionists, even pragmatic acceptance of such a lingua franca will produce critical questions of legitimacy; questions regarding the proper forms of subjectivity and inter-subjectivity for Unionism. Similar processes are likely within the Nationalist community. Such a situation contains a dilemma for many of the principal political actors. To achieve authority and legitimacy as a political actor in the intergroup context, for instance in the Assembly, it will be necessary to play by the inclusivist rules. We have already seen an example of this in the proposal for the UUP and the SDLP to swap voting preferences, a proposal which has not been formally adopted by the UUP. Sinn Fein’s legitimacy in the United States creates a similar burden. To maintain this legitimacy Sinn Fein must at least appear to be playing by inclusivist rules, or have good reasons for not doing so. These exceptional reasons could only be Unionist recalcitrance and Unionism itself holding to exclusivisist rules for the construction of the ongoing political process.
However, for some of the principal political leaders, especially on certain highly sensitive issues such as decommissioning, prisoner release and the perennial issue of parades during the marching season, intra-group legitimacy may require adherence to an exclusivist script. This will be especially so as the marching season reaches its crescendo at Drumcree and at the less fraught Twelfth celebrations. The dilemma is that the intergroup setting now requires adherence, pragmatic or otherwise, to inclusivist rules. However, for many, in many circumstances, successful and proper intra-group communication, and the legitimacy it confers, will require continued reliance on the well-entrenched exclusivist rules. The problem of distorted communication arises in this context. It is the effect of the deeply entrenched institutionalisation of exclusivist rules within the cultures of Northern Irish institutions along with the co-presence, now with a new legitimacy, of inclusivist rules which are attempting to displace these entrenched ways of being, doing, feeling and construing. The very prospect of substantive change challenges the forms of thinking, feeling and reasoning which characterise the exclusivist position. This is the case because substantive change itself must always move beyond the merely tactical or pragmatic. Substantive change, in this context, involves, eventually, a transformation of the predominant set of unconscious rules that organise subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Along the way the dilemmas of distorted communication will have to be resolved.
The dilemma for political leaders is that any movement towards enhancing the scope and propriety of inclusivist rules risks throwing into dispute their own authority to speak and act for the group. Such a move is likely to generate internal conflict which, if settled through the re-assertion of exclusivism within the group, will immediately rebound with perverse effects in the intergroup context. As a consequence, distortions of communication between groupings will expand as the pragmatic acceptance of an inclusivist lingua franca is radically undercut. At this point the new political structures, themselves, are thrown into crisis. On the other hand, if elite members of the various groups participating in the new political structures can hold to a pragmatic acceptance of the inclusivist lingua franca, eventually they will have to carry this inclusivist set of rules back into their own grouping. In so doing they, again, risk the emergence of distorted communication within the group and, potentially, the loss of their own authority.
The new assembly, then, could be described as a kind of "testbed" for the capacity of leadership to re-work the predominant set of unconscious rules which organise a grouping's identity. Moreover, the further political cooperation across the sectarian divide proceeds, the more "testing" circumstances will become. As particular proposals, constructed according to inclusivist rules, take on specific definition, the challenge to exclusivism will become more pronounced. A predominant form of thinking, feeling and reasoning about social and political relations will be threatened with imminent displacement. And the agents of this displacement may include a grouping’s own leadership. At such moments, the potential breakdown of political cooperation and negotiation, due to the emergence of distorted patterns of communication both within and between groupings, is heightened. It follows that the potential for the re-colonisation of the political field by exclusivism is enhanced at such moments. It is important to note that this "danger" is the other side of the political advances already achieved, for instance by the success of the "Yes" vote at the referendum and by the imminent election of the Assembly. Of course, such a re-emergence of distortions in communication is not inevitable. But it is a sobering thought that politics in Northern Ireland has never, as yet, successfully resolved such distortions in the patterning of communication within and between groupings at the moment of potential change. The approach I have briefly outlined helps us to see that these issues of identity, and the modes of thinking, feeling and reasoning such identities entail, are the crucial dimensions of any political process which attempts such a substantive change.
If we were to ask whether history will repeat itself in Northern Ireland, the rhetorical answer would have to be "yes". But, what does such an answer entail? It has been my argument that it entails a recognition of the ongoing conflict within the process of structuration; a conflict over which forms of common-sense, which forms of identity, which forms of intersubjectivity, and which constructions of power, authority and violence should organise the political and social field. As at many previous critical moments in the history of Northern Ireland, the apparently "primordial" set of exclusivist rules (replete as they are with persecutory anxieties, mechanisms of splitting and projection, dehumanisations or iconic representations of the other; replete also with constructions of what is proper which are regulated by reference to conformity with group norms) offer certainty and reassurance regarding questions of identity. Hence they are particularly difficult to dislodge. Not just because they are currently in place but also because attempts to displace them threaten already established forms of identity and relatedness and set in train the dilemma of addressing intra-group and inter-group concerns, at once. This attempt to look both ways, in turn, opens up the conflict between different rules for the organisation of subjectivity and intersubjectivity. Characteristically, but not inevitably, in such a conflict exclusivism tends to re-produce itself. Certainly this has been the empirical outcome in Northern Ireland. However, as exclusivism cannot resolve the problems it creates within the political and social field ( unless unacceptable "solutions" such as partition are resorted to) the persistence of civil conflict provides the basis for further attempts to reconcile the differences. So, my rhetorical answer that history will repeat itself entails the claim that similar processes concerning conflicts between different rules will, yet again, recur. Hence, the current situation, with the referendum and election campaigns, has, again, re-set the conflict between inclusivism and exclusivism. However, my analysis, whilst highlighting the difficulties involved in substantive change, indicates that history need not repeat itself in its outcomes. My analysis also indicates that such a transformation of outcomes requires, within a broad range of social and political institutions, a type of leadership that can resist the emergence of distorted patterns of communication and address the anxieties of those groupings which construe change through an exclusivist lens. Such leadership will need to address and displace the predominance of exclusivist rules for the construction of identities and social relations. It will need to displace a predominant, although in no way necessary or inevitable, form of thinking, feeling and reasoning about the self and the group within the field of social and political relations. As I suggested at the outset, it will need to move Northern Ireland's political culture from one marked predominantly by enmity to one organised by the inclusivist rules of adversarial democracy. The very dynamism of identities, boundaries, desires, rules and rewards becomes the ground upon which such leadership can act.
(Published in Pacifica Review, Volume 10, Number 3, October 1998, pp. 227 – 234.
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