CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: Reconstituting Politics (Report No. 3)

CAIN Web Service

Reconstituting Politics

Asking the right question

Robin Wilson

Across Europe and north America, there is widespread disillusionment with both the way politics is conventionally practised and its failure to deliver results. As strongly expressed in Italy, perhaps, as anywhere, there is a widespread popular perception that politics has become the province of a remote political class-the partitocrazia, as the Italians call it-which, at best, has failed to deliver on its egregious promises and, at worst, is downright venal.

This revulsion against incumbent élites has variously taken the form of electoral volatility (the Canadian wipe-out of the Conservatives), the rise of racist and xenophobic politicians (Jorg Haider in Austria), sudden popular explosions (the protests against Maastricht-driven welfare reform in France) and a wave of corruption investigations (going as high as the six-times Italian prime minister, Giulio Andreotti).

Yet if politics is not the prerogative of political parties-a glib remark would be to say it is much too important for that- parties nevertheless play a crucial role, even in an 'antipolitical age'.[1] This is so because of a paradox of recent times: while there is unparalleled disillusionment with the working of liberal democracy, its hegemony as a political system is more secure than ever.[2] The process of democratic representation, and so the role of parties in organising that process, thus remains critical.

This context is important to rehearse, because it reminds us that if there were a political settlement between Irish nationalism and Ulster unionism in Northern Ireland tomorrow, it would not usher in a new utopia. On the contrary, all the problems of global political (post-)modernity would come rushing in. Indeed, they would be likely quickly to overwhelm politicians ill-prepared for governance by the atrophying effect of nearly a quarter century of direct rule from Westminster.

Yet no such eventuality appears any way imminent. In February, a leading Fianna Fáil politician said a Northern Ireland settlement could take 30 years- and nobody demurred. That was before the Canary Wharf bomb in London which ended the IRA ceasefire. Following a collective popular outpouring for peace across Ireland, the British-Irish summit later that month restored political momentum and a sense of direction, signalling a new round of inter-party talks- this time including paramilitary representatives-for June 10th. But, as so often, the hopes raised by pragmatic intergovernmental co-operation dissipated amidst a welter of partisan ideological reaction in the region itself.

The initial IRA response was that the 'armed struggle' continued, thus ruling out Sinn Féin access to talks for as long as this post-post-ceasefire situation obtained, while the main unionist parties refused even to attend preparatory talks at Stormont on March 4th. No agreement was reached in these not-quite-proximity procedural discussions, on electoral processes and the format for negotiations-an ill omen for substantive, 'all-party' talks.

Tom Hadden and Kevin Boyle are arguably the two most valued longstanding commentators on Northern Ireland. After the IRA ceasefire ended, they wrote that what mattered was not whether Gerry Adams knew or did not: "The underlying reason for the breakdown was that all the parties to the peace process have been working to entirely different agendas and strategies."

Moreover, there is a disturbing sense of déjà vu about the whole enterprise of elections with or without talks, talks with or without elections. As Hadden and Boyle again argue, "The only surprising thing about these proposals is the touching faith that either immediate all-party talks or an electoral process will lead to agreement. In fact all the evidence points in the other direction."[3]

Northern Ireland is thus clearly more politically intractable than the ever-merely-critical Italy. There, governments (of a sort) are formed-interestingly, increasingly of a 'technical' character. In Northern Ireland, however, the parties remain poles apart on what the constitutional framework for government should be-never mind how the latter should be composed.

The heretical question finally must be asked: does the partitocrazia in Northern Ireland-including its recent entrants-contain the critical mass of moral commitment and intellectual capacity to achieve a settlement? Or is it time to face the need for a radical renewal-a reconstitution of politics?

Amidst political immobilism at home, much has been made in recent years of the transformations in South Africa and the middle east as pointers to agreement on Northern Ireland. Yet this has become a cliched comparison.

In the middle east, what was agreed was in fact that agreement was impossible: Arab and Jew could only co-exist on the basis of each having their 'own', separate, state. While at one level the middle east peace process has been thrown into crisis by the intense suicide bombings by Hamas, at another this has only served to accelerate and reinforce this dynamic of separation-now to be materialised in an $80 million barrier between Israel and the west bank.[4]

In South Africa, by contrast, the unsustainability of undemocratic white minority rule in the long run dictated that agreement had to be found, and that it had to be on the basis of power-sharing with the black majority. The international community, eventually, would tolerate nothing less.

Thus, whether through realpolitik or universally accepted standards of democratic life, unavoidable settlements, clearly signposted by circumstance, were dictated in both cases. They were spurred on, moreover, by uncontainable violence and protest way beyond the so-called 'acceptable level' of Northern Ireland. Yet no such imperatives apply to the latter.

Centrally, both the middle eastern and South African peace processes were about a transfer of power. Yet in Northern Ireland nobody holds power-that is precisely why its political culture is marked by such infantilism and irresponsibility. The argument here is rather over what the very unit of politics-within which power would be exercised-should be.

Contrast South Africa, where only the extreme white right (supporters of a so-called Volkstaat, or 'people's state' for Afrikaners) and the black right (the Inkatha Freedom party, which seeks autonomy for Kwazulu Natal) rejected power-sharing in favour of redrawing the political map. Similarly, in the middle east, only the Israeli far right (who want to see the state extended to its biblical boundaries) and Palestinian 'rejectionists' (principally the fundamentalist Hamas and Islamic Jihad) would not accept the 'two-state solution'.

So why does this flawed comparison subsist? Sadly, it is merely the flip side of Northern Ireland's traditional political introversion to engage in a magpie-like sweep of global politics, seeking partisan support for pre-existing internal positions. In neither case is there the real learning curve that alone might enrich and enliven Northern Ireland's attenuated political culture.

There is another, rather seamy, factor too. There is something 'heroic' about the South African and Palestinian conflicts: it associates provincial Northern Ireland politicians with real statesmen and Nobel prize winners, like Nelson Mandela. Who wants, by contrast, to be compared with the Bosnian Serb leader, Radovan Karadjic, or the Croatian leader, Franjo Tudjman? And who wants to admit that the last quarter century in Northern Ireland has been a brutal nationalist[5] conflict with no victors-only victims-like so many that have exploded in central and eastern Europe since 1989?

Who, indeed. Yet in emphasising the middle east/South Africa analogy, many commentators have failed to see the global wood for the trees. A broader, less selective, appropriation of current international political trends should encourage altogether more sobering conclusions.

Anthony Smith has pointed out that 'globalisation' is only one side of the contemporary international picture:

The other is represented by the rise and proliferation of all kinds of social movement and identity protest, from feminism to the ecology movement, from the civil rights movement to religious revivals. In particular, we are witnessing a rebirth of ethnic nationalism, of religious fundamentalisms and of group antagonisms which were thought to have been long buried. Ethnic protests for autonomy and secession, wars of national irredentism and explosive racial conflicts over labour markets and social facilities have proliferated in every continent. In the era of globalisation and transcendence, we find ourselves caught in a maelstrom of conflicts over political identities and ethnic fragmentation.[6]
By ethnie, Smith means a group with a collective name, a common myth of descent, a shared history, a distinctive shared culture, association with a specific territory and a sense of solidarity.[7]

It should be apparent that, despite the pretensions of unionists and nationalists within Northern Ireland that they respectively form a component of an undifferentiated British or Irish 'nation', they each conform much more accurately to Smith's ethnic definition. And what Northern Ireland needs is a fuller and much more grounded engagement with the challenges such conflicts, everywhere and increasingly, throw up.

That is what this, and the next, chapter seek to achieve. They are not meant to be a showy Cook's Tour of international politics. The aim, rather, is to recognise, perhaps with some humility, that we have not been very good at resolving our own problems and we must learn what we can-however unpalatable, sometimes-from wherever we can.

Nowhere, perhaps, are the lessons more unpalatable than from the former Yugoslavia, though it is also worth a closer look at the (again, highly unattractive) stand-off in the Azerbaijan/Armenia region of the former USSR. For, taken with Northern Ireland, these comprise three zones of ethno-nationalist conflict, all of them on Europe's edge, in all of which political violence has recently but uncertainly abated, and in each of which religion is a key factor.

Crucially, they have still one thing more in common, and it is this that defines their intractability. While their populations are too intermingled for the realpolitik of total separation, no single international norm dictates what form a settlement should take. Hence the difficulty, most distressingly in ex-Yugoslavia, that the international community has found in sponsoring a solution.

In fact, these three regions are sites of a contradiction between two baseline principles of 20th-century international law. On the one hand is the principle of non-violability of borders, which is an essential guarantee against aggression. On the other is that of self-determination of peoples, an essential guarantee against oppression.

These principles are both enshrined in authoritative United Nations documents, in particular the 1970 Declaration of Principles of International Law concerning Friendly Relations and Cooperation among States in accordance with the Charter of the United Nations, which superseded the 1960 Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Peoples and Countries.[8] During post-war decolonisation, supervised by the UN, the acceptance by the anticolonial forces of boundaries often created by the colonists meant that the two principles mostly worked in tandem.

But the proliferation of ethno-nationalist conflicts in more recent years, particularly since the demise of cold-war bipolarity, has left the international community rudderless. The difficulty is that these conflicts are often characterised precisely by demands to change the boundaries of states, to conform more accurately to what is held to be the right of self-determination of a minority corralled within them. The principles of non-violability of borders and of self-determination thus become counterposed.[9]

One nationalist side-Ulster unionists, the Bosnian Muslim leadership, the Azeris-lines up behind the maintenance of borders. The other side-Irish nationalists, the Bosnian Croatian and Serb leaders, Armenians in NagornoKarabakh-lines up behind self-determination for 'its' people. Both are, and neither is, 'right'.

It is in that context that has emerged-and a very few changes of words (eg 'Serb nationalism' to 'Ulster unionism' or 'Irish nationalism', 'Yugoslav' to 'Northern Ireland') could translate this quotation without loss of meaning closer to home -

the atavism which would come to charactense the mentality of Serb nationalism, and, later, of the Yugoslav conflict itself: the deliberate evocation of atrocities that had long passed from living memory; a consciously-fostered paranoia fed at least as much by rumour and myth as by historical reality; the use of the past as a weapon of conflict, and, later, of war; and, above all ... the sublimation of individual identity to that of the collective …[10]
There are three features of such societies which provide conceptual barriers to resolution of their associated conflicts. First, there is an attenuated concept of democracy It is widely perceived as being about 'majority rule', the argument centring on which majority - 'the people' or 'the greater number' in which political unit, that is-can legitimately exercise that right.

Yet if liberal democracy is about anything, it is not the principle of the absolute sovereignty of the largest party or social group; rather, it is the principle of popular sovereignty, exercised by free and equal citizens." Only this second conception, and only if allied to 'dialogic democracy' (see below), can bring political settlements in situations like Northern Ireland. Zero-sum, majoritarian thinking can not.[12]

Secondly, there is a refusal, on the part of 'official' and 'unofficial' authorities, political and paramilitary forces, to accept the universality and inalienability of human rights. Yet again, in the absence of a common commitment to a human rights culture, dialogue involving diverse groups becomes a political Tower of Babel.

Thirdly, and linked to these two failings, a concept of civil society, separate from the formal political sphere and state and sub-state military forces, is weak or lacking. Yet if every issue-economic, social, educational or whatever-has the potential to become politicised, in this hypertrophy of politics and the state, permanent conflict is, again, inevitable.

All these trends underlie a politics characterised by ideology and adversarialism, repetitive and conservative, and deeply unattractive to those emergent, more dynamic, social actors who might represent the internal force for renewal.

Reconstituting politics in Northern Ireland is not a matter of finding a new answer-there's been enough time for that. It has to be about finding a new question.

The old question is simple: how much Northern Ireland should there be? Paradoxically, both Irish nationalists and Ulster unionists tend to give the same answer: less. The fundamental Ulster unionist demand is that Northern Ireland be treated as an integral part of-indistinguishable and thus non-detachable from-the rest of the United Kingdom.

And the fundamental Irish nationalist position is to deny the UK connection and propose steps-enhancing Dublin involvement-which advance what the republic's constitution calls 'the reintegration of the national territory'.

It's the same in Bosnia-Hercegovina. The Bosnian Serb leadership wants less B-H, through aligning its Republika Srpska more closely with Serbia proper. The Bosnian Croat leaders also want less B-H, through more closely confederating the theoretically joint Muslim-Croat federation with Croatia. What remains of the Bosnian government has sought to maintain the state intact.

The US-brokered Dayton accord,[13] while nominally upholding the integrity of B-H, in practice carves it up according to the lines established by 'ethnic cleansing'. It is therefore likely that B-H will increasingly become a legal fiction, with partition the reality, and there is no guarantee that serious conflict will not at some point resume.[14]

Indeed, a top-secret intelligence report for the White House on B-H warns that the protagonists "share a deep mutual mistrust and will continue to seek to achieve their fundamental goals, rather than accommodation, even as the Dayton agreement proceeds. They will see compromise as a zero-sum game and attempt to divide and manipulate the international community in the way the accords are implemented."[15] Hmm.

Already, many in B-H are voting with their feet:

The worst predictions about the Dayton peace settlement for Bosnia are coming true. Dayton was supposed to bring Serbs, Croats and Muslims back together in peaceful, tolerant co-existence, but what we are seeing is the remorseless physical separation of nationalities into isolated, mutually hostile communities. Dayton was supposed to restitch the multicultural fabric of a society torn apart by three and a half years of war. Instead, a seemingly inexorable process is unfolding in which Serbs are relocating themselves in exclusively Serb parts of Bosnia, Muslims in exclusively Muslim parts and Croats in exclusively Croat parts.[16]
As in B-H, so in Northern Ireland. Continuing struggles for less Northern Ireland will only achieve greater division within it, laying the ground for future conflicts. Segregation in the region is already frightening enough.[17]

It is for these reasons that asking the old question-how can we have less Northern Ireland?-can not lead to a workable answer. And it is for this reason that politics in Northern Ireland resembles a disengaged flywheel-plenty of motion but no outcome. Hence the high level of political alienation[18] and the associated 'hollowing out' of Northern Ireland's political culture.

If we cannot have less Northern Ire land, then the new question can only be: what kind of Northern Ireland will we have? And here the alternative vision for B-H, tragically betrayed by the international community, offers a new answer.

During the war, the Muslim-led government, as well as the usually-ignored liberal and pluralist Serbs and Croats, stood by the principle of a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious B-H, epitomised by the traditions of its residentially mixed capital, Sarajevo. There is even a political shorthand for this - in Tuzla they call it the 'multi-multi solution'.

In situations like ex-Yugoslavia or Northern Ireland, the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural approach represents, by definition, the only middle way between the colliding principles of self-determination and non-violability of borders. It does not require that the conditions in which existing units came into being be endorsed-there was much to be said for the efforts of many in Ireland, particularly within the labour movement, to avoid partition becoming a reality in 1920-22.[19] But it does require a recognition that the only alternative to 'ethnic cleansing' and new and more entrenched partitions is to render existing units, unless and until changed by consent, jointly owned by all their constituencies-and so, in a sense, owned by none. Simply put, it means living "distinctively, but together and in mutual tolerance".[20]

For Northern Ireland, as Asbjorn Eide explains, this means:

The legitimate competing approaches to nationhood must not preclude the development of a civic society in Northern Ireland, in which each community can participate on an egalitarian basis ... It is assumed that any measures leading to further physical separation within Northern Ireland based on communal identity should be avoided. The experience in other parts of the world, including Bosnia, to divide [sic] land by ethnic or religious identity, is so frightening that it should be avoided at all costs.[21]
But can it be? Yes: a multi-ethnic, multicultural B-H could have been sustained by a combination of those forces within civil society who supported it[22] and the international community.

A territorial carve-up between the nationalist forces in ex-Yugoslavia was first suggested in the Vance-Owen plan of 1993. At the time, the professor of international law at Sarajevo University, Zoran Pajic, co-authored a critique which proposed alternative "concrete steps". Amongst these was "nurturing moderate forces, including recognition of the many opposition figures and non-governmental peace, human rights and other professional organisations that have refused to become ethnic protagonists".[23]

And what of Northern Ireland? The top civilian official with the UN Protection Force in ex-Yugoslavia, Cedric Thornberry, returned to his native Belfast for a visit in October 1994. Asked the lessons he drew from his UN experiences, he said: "I think that the lessons are extremely clear-effective human rights and politics of consensus, isolating extremists on both sides. That's the way it is being done in a lot of different places that are trying to build nations." And, significantly, he added: "It is time for another generation to take over in this country."[24]

It has become fashionable to decry the efforts of 'moderates' in Northern Ire land, in favour of a focus on the nationalist (including unionist) 'extremes. In doing so, the nearest the region has ever come to a settlement, the power-sharing experiment of 1974, has had to be airbrushed from history.

Yet it was external factors-such as Edward Heath's precipitate calling of the February Westminster election and the Boland case in the republic-rather than internal contradictions which rendered the power-sharing executive vulnerable to the loyalist putsch-cum-strike. And republican violence neither prevented its formation nor brought it down (the rationale for the post-1992 'peace process' was, let us recall, that talks could only succeed in a peaceful climate). Notably, the Social Democratic and Labour party saw its main interlocutor then as the Ulster Unionists, rather than Sinn Fein, and the UUP leadership (if not all the party) recognised it had principally to deal with the SDLP, not the Democratic Unionists. These two mainstream parties plus Alliance provided a 'sufficient consensus' for success.

Just after the IRA ceasefire, one very senior architect of the 'peace process in Dublin confidently asserted that while others had sought to build the 'pink' strand in Northern Ireland, he had gone for the 'orange' and 'green'. Within a year, the same official was despairing that a settlement would ever be reached.

The confusion has arisen because 'moderate' has more than one meaning: it connotes not only accommodating but also cautious, just as 'extreme' can mean both fundamentalist and radical. Yet, it is at least arguable that it has been the protagonists in the Northern Ireland conflict, both political and paramilitary, who have pursued a cautious conservatism, rather than leave the comfort zone of the tribe, while it has been the pluralists who have been prepared to take the risks political cross-dressing entails.

Within days of the IRA ceasefire, Adrian Guelke put to a prestigious conference of politicians and officials, from London, Dublin and Belfast, an obvious point that those who have emphasised the Northern Ireland/South Africa/middle east comparison have studiously avoided. It was that while the relationships between the mainstream political forces, the African National Congress and the National party, the Israeli government and the Palestine Liberation Organisation, had been crucial to establishing accords in the latter two instances, "Northern Ireland still lacks a centre to provide the foundation of a political settlement". Indeed, once we replace the loaded term 'moderate' by 'political centre', it becomes clear that without such a focus compromise is, again by definition, impossible.

Prof Guelke pointed out that the alternative futures, post-ceasefire, were not just a settlement or renewed violence. Pointing to the two decades of "bloodless conflict" of Cyprus, he offered the other scenario of "polarisation of the society without a return to organised violence but politically divided into hostile blocs".[25] It was-until February 9th 1996 at least-a prescient warning.

Yet Northern Ireland, as well as the rest of the world, has moved on dramatically from 1974. The power-sharing experiment, while centrist on the nationalist-unionist axis, was conservative on a left-right axis: in line with 'consociational' thinking of the time, the theory was that getting the élites of the 'two communities' together was both a necessary and a sufficient condition of a settlement. It presupposed a pillarised society, in which citizens 'knew their place' and which would remain set in aspic along its sectarian lines. As van Schendelen remarks, "Consociational democracy remains élitist democracy. "[26]

Such arrangements have looked less tenable in recent years. Consociationalism broke down in the Netherlands-the focus of its principal theorist, Mend Lijphart-in the late 60s. The collapse of power-sharing in Lebanon in the 70s reveals how changing demography and the emergence of social forces which do not respect the dominance of the existing élites can fracture inflexible arrangements.[27] In Belgium, while consociationalism is still technically in place, divisions between Flemings and Walloons have steadily widened.[28] Switzerland remains a durable instance, but then none of its language-based groups feels a strong allegiance to an external state or contests the legitimacy of boundaries.[29]

Would the power-sharing executive in Northern Ireland, had the loyalist strike been nipped in the bud, have survived to today? It is a moot point. And the chances of recreating it are increasingly slim.

For the particular political culture of Northern Ireland, as it has evolved under direct rule, is increasingly inimical to élite agreement. All bar one member of that élite, Gerry Adams, is a current MP and a recent study of Northern Ireland's Westminster representatives pointed out:

Northern Ireland's politicians, regardless of party, can support any cause their constituents demand. They are not forced to consider options, make hard decisions, or weigh financial implications; all of that is largely done for them by ministries and quangos' whose budgets dwarf those of local councils. Direct rule has created a system where elected officials promote grievances, be they of local constituents, or those of the unionist and nationalist communities. Politicians are not expected to resolve these problems through accommodation and/or resource reallocation; rather the assumption is that a solution will be imposed by a local authority, the Northern Ireland Office, Parliament, or perhaps an Anglo-Irish agreement. Thus, a major difference separating NI MPS [from their British counterparts] is their lack of practical political experience in making decisions and achieving consensus, something that does not auger particularly well if they are asked to negotiate a common future for Northern Ireland.[30]
Hence what might be called the 'responsibility gap' in Northern Ireland. Perhaps the most acute frustration with the performance of the partitocrazia is felt by those who do have to take touch decisions in the quango and agentised order of the 'new constitutionalism'-against those who do not.

Yet, once the consociational approach is foregone, the blockage presented by the impossibility of élite agreement is removed too. And the 'multi-multi' perspective points to alternative ways forward.

As Bhikhu Parekh characterises it,

Multi-cultural, multi-religious and multiethnic societies need to develop new models of political universalism that both respect deep differences and ensure equal citizenship. If they were to embrace an abstract and culturally insensitive universalism, they would provoke violence and secession. But if they surrendered to particularities in the name of celebrating differences or out of a naive belief in moral relativism, they would sacrifice social cohesion, common citizenship and a shared way of life, and risk disintegration. Each plural state has to strike a suitable balance in the light of its history, traditions and social composition. The balance between the two is not easy to work out and sustain.[31]
More simply, a slogan can be borrowed from the Council of Europe's youth campaign against racism and xenophobia. It is: 'All Different, All Equal'.

For Northern Ireland, while building on the 'new constitutionalism' introduced in recent years, the 'multi-multi solution' provides a cogent philosophy for what have essentially been discrete, ad hoc developments. It sets out a clear vision of an outcome-a clear answer to the question as to what kind of Northern Ireland is sought.

Currently such a statement is officially taboo, for fear it would highlight the conflicting party positions on the old question, how to get less Northern Ireland - a lack of definition which itself makes getting the parties to agree even more difficult. The 'multi-multi' approach, by contrast, is about engendering-not endlessly and futilely debating - a constitutional framework protective and supportive of the combination of pluralism and equality it embodies.

In one, unedifying, sense, Northern Ireland has one massive advantage over ex-Yugoslavia in the credibility of the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural solution. No consolation this to the victims of its conflict but, relatively speaking, the scale of human depredation involved has been small, when set against a war which in the space of a few short years has seen such huge carnage and innumerable atrocities. On top of the unnumbered (indeed many unknown) graves, 'ethnic cleansing' is estimated to have left four and a half million displaced persons and refugees.[32]

Indeed, there is considerable evidence of strong latent support within civil society in Northern Ireland for this option, were the choice to be presented. While the poor contact between the churches[33] shows they are part of the problem as well as part of the solution, they have broadly sustained a rhetoric of peace and reconciliation over the period of the 'troubles', whose fundamentally pan-Christian ethos has suffused the many unsung heroes of the conflict who have laboured away tirelessly in peace and reconciliation groups on the ground.

Within the community sector, women's groups have often led the way in cross-community initiatives: it was Women Together, of course, who captured the moment after the ending of the IRA ceasefire to call the big peace demonstrations. The trade unions have also played an important role, including in the major peace rallies they organised in November 1993.

More broadly, the Northern Ireland Social Attitudes surveys offer some encouragement to those favouring the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural approach. There is considerable popular support for more integration in housing, at work and in school,[34] as well as for community relations and fair employment initiatives.[35]

Thus, the two governments can enjoy considerable legitimacy in developing and codifying this strategy, under the banner of the 'multi-multi' solution- without awaiting inter-party agreement.

This perspective also offers the only way in which we can, if we so wish, get more Northern Ireland.

It is now widely recognised that the conflicting struggles to get less Northern Ireland have left us with a yawning 'democratic deficit'. Yet the persistent association of democracy with majoritarianism has blocked all efforts to assuage that deficit - caught between the devil of unionist attempts to restore majority rule (however qualified or dressed up) and the deep blue sea of nationalist resistance to the 'unionist veto'.

The beauty of the multi-ethnic, multicultural approach is that it recognises as a foundational principle that democracy can only function in such fractured societies (and which society isn't, these days?) if it is based on a rich pluralism and the pragmatic pursuit of consensus between different political subjects.

In this context, Anthony Giddens' concept of 'dialogic democracy', of whose relevance to Northern Ireland he is in no doubt, is highly germane.[36] Giddens counterposes dialogic democracy to 'fundamentalism', by which he means not only the defence of tradition but the defence of tradition in a traditional way.

Arguments for less Northern Ireland have generally been of a fundamentalist character, as evidenced by their taken-for-grantedness and the paucity of their converts. The desirability of a United Ireland or a United Kingdom has essentially been assumed as inherent for the audience, defined in basically sectarian terms, to which it has been addressed.

Dialogic democracy, by contrast, may well involve exchange of traditional-as well as modern, or post-modern-views. But, crucially, it places upon the exponent of any political view the onus not merely to rehearse it, but to explicate it to a sceptical public and persuade others of a contrary predisposition. It is thus essential to any multi-ethnic, multicultural politics and to any attempt to stem political alienation. It is about horizontal relationships between citizens, not just a top-down address by politicians to their subjects.

In 1970, shortly before what passed for democracy was abolished in Northern Ireland, regional assemblies and governments were established afresh in Italy Twenty-five years on, the results of this democratic experiment are instructive. For, despite the paralysis of national government, and though there have been abysmal failures in the backward south of the peninsula, there have also been impressive successes in the go-ahead north. If Northern Ireland could follow the way of Emilia-Romagna, its troubles would be over.

Analysis of this Italian experience by Robert Putnam has shown that the basic difference is not the greater prosperity of the north (rather that is an effect), or the form of the institutions (constant across Italy) but the culture of the north. A key distinction is the prevalence of vertical social relationships between political patrons and their client supporters in southern Italy, encouraging dependency and fatalism, as against the vibrant network of horizontal associations in the north, promoting a 'civic community' there. And he concludes: "The effectiveness of regional government is closely tied to the degree to which authority and social interchange in the life of the region is organised horizontally or hierarchically Equality is an essential feature of the civic community."

Intriguingly, Putnam discovered the following as well: "Political leaders in civic regions are also readier to compromise than their counterparts in less civic regions ... Civic regions are characterised, not by an absence of partisanship, but by an openness of partisanship."[37] It is not hard to recognise the effects of a vertical social rift, and associated clientelism and political polarisation, in consolidating mistrust and inequality in Northern Ireland.

Culture? Is this what politics is 'really' about? Actually, yes. As a recent Demos Quarterly argues, in a survey of government in an age doubtful of its potential, "despite fashionable warnings that governments' powers are in irretrievable decline, they can achieve much-but usually only where they are able to influence the cultures of their employees, their beneficiaries and their citizens ... Recent reformers concentrated on governing by numbers. The challenge today is to learn to govern by cultures.[38] In Northern Ireland, it has been precisely in this domain-the value-based focus of the 'new constitutionalism' which John Morison describes in his chapter-that government has made the most tangible progress, against a barren broader backdrop, in recent years.

But the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural approach also has the advantage that it is ultimately people - rather than government - centred. It is about the multiple allegiances and identities citizens choose to adopt, combine or change, rather than the singular options states, or even parties, seek to impose upon them. It rejects 'the sublimation of individual identity to that of the collective'.

Ironically, getting more Northern Ire land is linked, rather than antithetical, to getting more all-Ireland. Here, interestingly, John Bradley's impressive survey of the 'island economy' for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation warns that, like the southern Italian regions, Northern Ireland "risks becoming trapped in a Mezzogiorno-like problem of permanent dependency".[39] He stresses the common economic weaknesses of the two parts of the island: serious long-term unemployment, demographic trends at variance with those elsewhere in the European Union, poor competitiveness of indigenous industry, over-dependence on multinationals, extreme vulnerability to external influences and public financial imbalances. And he offers an alternative vision:

Recent trends in international specialisation and the phenomenal success of other high-growth regions hold out great potential for the economies of the island of Ireland. Prominent among such regions are Emilia-Romagna in Italy, Baden-Württemberg in Germany, Jutland in Denmark, Silicon Valley and Route 128 in the us, and the M4 corridor in the UK. However, successful emulation by Ireland of such rapid growth is likely to need appropriate supporting domestic policies and a resolution of North-South issues.[40]
The logic of Bradley's position, originally-and his thesis is convincingly argued on the basis of modern economic theory as well as concrete historical trends north and south-is that more all-Ireland actually implies more Northern Ireland, not less. Thus a key part of his argument is that the policy autonomy of the north needs to be maximised if north-south harmonisation, or even coordination, are to be pursued. 'Separate development' of north and south he sees as no longer a credible stance.

On the wider European canvass, membership of the EU since 1973 has revolutionised the intellectual context of north-south relationships. For sovereignty, like democracy, need not now simply be a zero-sum game in which somebody wins and somebody loses. Thus, for instance, European integration has worked so favourably for the republic because it has allowed it to exercise greater sovereignty than when under the shadow of the UK. European regions, particularly the German Länder, have also accrued sovereignty through the relationships they have developed with the EU. It thus becomes possible for Northern Ireland to exercise more autonomous power-representing itself directly, or in tandem with the republic, to the institutions of the EU, according to its choice, rather than it always being assumed that it is represented by the UK.[41]

At the time of Sunningdale, one SDLP figure unfortunately described the proposed Council of Ireland as "the vehicle which will trundle us into an Irish republic".[42] Yet today the scenario opens up, in a way that was hardly conceivable in 1973, that, instead of an either/or choice, Northern Ireland could both remain linked to Britain and become equally linked to the republic-options which in the Guardian/Irish Times poll in February together commanded the support of nearly 80 per cent of respondents in Northern Ireland. [43]

It is thus that north-south economic and social integration-which, as Bradley points out, of course can not imply disintegration of the much greater east-west economic links involving either part of the island - has commanded such pragmatic support in recent years amongst employers, trade unionists and the voluntary sector across Ireland. Something along these lines is already being talked about at senior levels of the Northern Ireland civil service using, by analogy, the Euro-shorthand of 'variable geometry'.

The broad perspective outlined in this chapter bypasses the intractable questions about Northern Ireland and seeks to open up more fruitful avenues to explore.

The next chapter suggests what concrete steps to follow.


[1] Geoff Mulgan, Politics in an Antipolitical Age, Polity, Cambridge, 1994
[2]Robert Putnam, Making Democracy Work: Civic Traditions in Modern Italy, Princeton University Press, 1993, p3
[3]Tom Hadden and Kevin Boyle, 'Talks, votes or bombs?', Fortnight 348, March 1996
[4]David Horowitz, 'Peres drops his vision of open borders after blast', Irish Times, March 4th 1996
[5]Throughout, I use the term nationalist in the generic sense it carries in the literature-thus it includes unionism and there is no implication that unionism has had any less responsibility (indeed, it has arguably had rather more) for the conflict of nationality in Ireland from the 1880s onwards. Nor does this imply any downplaying of the (largely negative) role of the British state. However, I do believe this more generic perspective encourages a little less hubris and a little more self-criticism.
[6]A D Smith, Nations and Nationalism in a Global Era, Polity, Cambridge, 1995, p2
[7]Smith, The Ethnic Origins of Nationalism, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1986, pp 22-3 1
[8]The key clauses of the former are reproduced in Adrian Guelke, Northern Ireland: The International Perspective, Gill and Macmillan, Dublin, 1988, p6.
[9] I first heard this point made, unsurprisingly, by a Slovenian lawyer working with the United Nations, at a conference in Strasbourg in 1994 on the limits of self-determination. It has now become commonplace internationally-see, for example, Laura Silber and Allan Little, The Death of Yugoslavia, Penguin/sac, London, 1995, p161. Yet, to my knowledge, the only reference to date in an Irish context to this dilemma was in the report for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation by the Norwegian human rights lawyer Asbjorn Eide, A Review and Analysis of Constructive Approaches to Group Accommodation and Minority Protection in Divided or Multicultural Societies (second draft), Dublin, September 1995.
[10]Silber and Little, op cit, p98
[11]'Democratic Politics Today', in Chantal Mouffe ed, Dimensions of Radical Democracy: Pluralism, Citizenship, Community, Verso, London, 1992
[12]This is why the repeated formulation, from the Sunningdale agreement of 1973 through to the Framework Document of 1995-allowing of majority agreement on the island to unity, but only if a majority in the north consents-has not ended the conflict. It merely stands the two competing claims, self-determination versus non-violability, side by side, leaving each minority (depending on the context) insecure.
[13] Ironically, the accord was the premise for the suggested 'proximity talks' on Northern Ireland. The very idea, however, only makes sense between people who have no intention, not only of not talking together but of not living together- thus the participants at Dayton were confined to the governments of B-H, Serbia and Croatia, excluding the Bosnian Serb and Croat leaders. 14 This is also a continuing fear in Nagorno-Karabakh, despite the ceasefire there in May 1994, because of the absence of political agreement-as a seminar in Slovenia in December 1995, drawing together NGO representatives from ex-Yugoslavia, Northern Ireland and the Transcaucasus, was told by the co-ordinator of a citizens' group in Nagorno-Karabakh. (The group is called Initiative 1992!)
[15]'Us "spies" dash Bosnian hopes', Guardian, February 1st 1996
[16] Tony Barber, 'Flight spells doom for the west's noble ideals', Independent, February 24th 1996. See also 'Carving smoothly', Economist, March 2nd.
[17] Paul Doherty and Michael Poole, Ethnic Residential Segregation in Belfast, 1995, and Ethnic Residential Segregation in Northern Ireland, forthcoming, both Centre for the Study of Conflict, University of Ulster, Coleraine
[18]Much testimony to the Opsahl Commission was to this effect. See Andy Pollak ed, A Citizens' Inquiry: The Opsahl Report on Northern Ireland, Lilliput, Dublin, 1993, p12.
[19] See the excellent surveys of the labour movement's efforts to come to terms with division in Ireland from the 1880s to the 1920s in Henry Patterson, Class Conflict and Sectarianism Blackstaff, Belfast, 1980, and Austen Morgan, Labour and Partition: The Belfast Working Class 1905-23, Pluto, London, 1991; on the later, mid-century, period, see Terry Cradden, Trade Unionism, Socialism and Partition, December Publications, Belfast, 1993.
[20] Silber and Little, op cit, p323
[21] Eide, op cit, pp 5-6
[22] Think, for example, of the newspaper Oslobadenje, produced under incredible conditions in Sarajevo; see Mark Thompson, Forging War: The Media in Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia-Hercegovina, Article 19, London, 1994, pp 243-247.
[23] 'Geneva's piece of nonsense', Guardian, April 25th 1993
[24] "'Link peace with human rights" call', Irish News, October 31st 1994
[25] 'Improving the political process: peace by analogy', in British-Irish Association, Extracts from the Conference Held at Queen's College, Oxford, 9-11 September 1994, available from the BIA, 38 Ebury St, London
[26] M P C M van Schendelen, 'The views of Arend Lijphart and collected criticisms', in van Schendelen ed, Consociationalism, Pillarization and Conflict Management in the Low Countries, Uitgeverij Boom, Amsterdam 1984
[27] On the last point, see Fred Halliday, Islam and the Myth of Confrontation: Religion and Politics in the Middle East, I B Tauris, London, 1996, pp 17-18.
[28]'Belgium's melting fudge', Economist, March 16th 1996
[29]and it has been hard to take the idea of Switzerland's political export potential seriously ever since Harry Lime's excoriating comment in The Third Man that all it had contributed to centuries of civilisation was the cuckoo-clock.
[30]William A Hazelton, 'A breed apart?: Northern Ireland's MPs at Westminster', Journal of Legislative Studies, vol 1, no 4, winter 1995
[31]Bhikhu Parekh, introduction to a special issue of New Community, vol 21, no 2, April 1995, pp 149-50
[32] Le Monde, August 26th 1995
[33] D Morrow, D Birrell, J Greer and T O'Keeffe, The Churches and Inter-Community Relationships, Centre for the Study of Conflict, Coleraine, 1991
[34] A M Gallagher and S Dunn, Community Relations in Northern Ireland: attitudes to contact and integration', in Peter Stringer and Gillian Robinson eds, Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: 1990-1991 Edition, Blackstaff, Belfast, 1991, pp 7-22
[35] A M Gallagher, 'Community Relations', in Stringer and Robinson eds, Social Attitudes in Northern Ireland: The Third Report 1992-1993, Blackstaff, 1993, pp 33-48
[36]DD report 1, New Thinking for New Times, pp 8-23
[37]Putnam, op cit, p105
[38]'Missionary Government', Demos Quarterly issue 7, 1995, p1
[39] John Bradley, An Island Economy: Exploring Long-term Economic and Social Consequences of Peace and Reconciliation in the Island of Ireland, Economic and Social Research Institute, Dublin, October 1995, p42
[40]ibid, p84
[41] The former taoiseach Garret FitzGerald has become a forceful advocate of this view.
[42] cited in Maurice Hayes, Minority Verdict: Experiences of a Catholic Public Servant, Blackstaff, Belfast, 1995, p167
[43]Irish Times, February 28th 1996-only 12 per cent of Northern Ireland respondents preferred a united Ireland

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