CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: With all due respect - pluralism and parity of esteem (Report No. 7)

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With all due respect

Pluralism and parity of esteem

The following publication has been contributed by Democratic Dialogue. The views expressed in this report 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.

cover: 'with all due respect'

With all due respect
Pluralism and parity of esteem
Report No. 7

by Tom Hennessey and Robin Wilson
Democratic Dialogue (1997)

ISBN 1 900281 06 6 Paperback 120pp

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This publication is copyright Democratic Dialogue 1997 and is included on this site by permission of 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 publisher, Democratic Dialogue. Redistribution for commercial purposes is not permitted.


Executive summary
National questions
A defining issue
British? Irish? Or what?
Feeling institutionalised
Reconciling a balance
Conclusion and recommendations


Willie Thompson has recently written: "The rise to prominence of 'identity politics' has to be reckoned one of the most striking features of the later twentieth century. In one sense all modern politics is identity politics …"[1]

Identity politics has of course always been the alpha and omega of the Northern Ireland conflict, particularly with the emergence of the portmanteau term 'parity of esteem' in the 90s. Yet it is remarkable how identity politics has been assiduously prosecuted in Northern Ireland almost completely without regard to any understanding of its wider significance.

There has been no appreciation whatsoever of the wider international debate on nationalism, invigorated by the fall of the Wall in 1989. There has been no engagement with the more specific debate about the 'politics of recognition' in multicultural societies which has emerged in this decade. And there has been precious little work to fill out what 'parity of esteem' might in practice entail.

It is in this context, of intense energies incoherently directed, that the whole parades controversy has erupted in Northern Ireland since 1995. And it was in response to this controversy that Democratic Dialogue decided to initiate a research project on what was theoretically and practically required to engender in Northern Ireland a climate much more favourable to pluralism and parity of esteem.

DD, in addition to its core funders, is grateful to the Central Community Relations Unit of the Northern Ireland Office for supporting this project financially, allowing the appointment of a researcher for six months. This does mean that this report is necessarily more rigorously 'academic' than others from DD, and the initial, theoretical, chapter is inevitably intellectually challenging as a result.

In line with DD's principle of carrying out its work in a participatory way, however, the opening review of the international debate is balanced in subsequent chapters by teasing out the thoughts of a range of key players in Northern Ireland through interviews, and testing this against popular opinion on the ground via focus groups. Tom Hennessey diligently carried out these tasks.

As ever, the views expressed in this report, unless attributed, are the responsibility of the authors alone. Further copies are available from the address on the inside front cover, price £7.50 (£10 institutions, £4.50 unwaged plus 10 per cent postage and packing.

DD aims to publish several reports per year. Readers may wish to return the enclosed subscription slip, to avail of reduced-rate payment for reports, free copies of DD's newsletter and notification of all DD events.

We are open to requests to organise discussions around any of the themes or ideas raised in this, or other, reports. Again, the contact number is on the inside cover, where details of our web site can also be found.


[1] Willie Thompson. The Left in History: Revolution and Reform in Twentieth-Century Politics. Pluto, London, 1997. p198

Executive Summary

The term parity of esteem has since the Opsahl Commission of 1992-93, become a political buzzword in Northern Ireland. Yet there has been no attempt to develop its intellectual potential as the basis for an egalitarian and pluralist politics in Northern Ireland. In the absence of this, parity of esteem has become incorporated into a pine - existing political culture based on adversarial partisan claims, evidenced in 1996 in the polarised aftermath of the Drumcree crisis.

Part of the problem is that parity of esteem has, in Northern Ireland, been played out regardless of wider international conceptual debates. Though widely utilised in political discourse in Northern Ireland, it is ill-defined. This report begins therefore with an international commentary on how concepts of pluralism and parity of esteem have developed in recent years, particularly since the efflorescence of ethno-nationalist conflicts following the fall of the Wall.

But one of the lessons of this international debate is that in these uncertain, 'post-enlightenment' times, universal democratic norms require particular application. And so the report then explores, via interviews with key players from a range of social and political positions in Northern Ireland, what parity of esteem means to them. These interviewee responses are also tested against the results of several focus groups to get a sense of how 'representative' they are of the broader mood(s) on the ground.

The methodology focused on two key questions: (a) what is parity of esteem? (b) how can parity of esteem be achieved in Northern Ireland?

Aside from the broad international sweep of literature and commentary, the investigation involved interviewing a sample of some 20-30 prominent individuals from civil society in Northern Ireland and running several diverse focus groups.

The interviewees were selected to span government, relevant agencies, political parties, the main churches, trade unions and the voluntary sector. Locating interviewees was almost always done by networking-personal contact or introduction. This may appear subjective but is normal in much ethnograpic research. The technique employed was that of a simple structured sheet of cues. The wording of the questions and the order in which they were asked remained the same.

Data from structured interviews are generally regarded as more reliable than unstructured interviews: since the order and wording of questions are the same for all respondents, it is more likely that they will be responding to the same stimuli. Thus different answers to the same set of questions will indicate real differences between the respondents; different answers will not therefore simply reflect differences in the way questions are phrased. Nevertheless, some flexibility was of course allowed to accommodate differences in responses as interviews progressed.

In addition to the interviews, a number of focus groups were established to compare the opinions with those of 'ordinary' people. The aim was to create interactive environments to assess the relationship of the data gathered in interviews with the opinions of those in the focus groups. Given the short time available for the research project, six months, the focus groups were again brought together through networking. They comprised:

  • a Protestant urban focus group,
  • a Protestant rural focus group,
  • a Catholic urban focus group,
  • a Catholic rural focus group,
  • a Protestant women's focus group,
  • a Catholic women's focus group, and
  • two youth focus groups.

The review of the international literature and commentary highlights a worrying ignorance in Northern Ireland-including in government-of the extent to which concepts regularly deployed as if they were unproblematic are in fact quite inappropriate to addressing such ethno-nationalist conflicts. In particular, terms like 'the right of peoples to self-determination', of 'sovereignty' understood as territorial integrity, and of democracy understood in majoritarian terms have all been thrown into question. Far from acting as a means to resolve conflicts such as that in Northern Ireland, on the contrary, they merely provide vehicles for their prosecution.

The report thus explores new concepts which may have a contrary potential, to diminish conflict and favour pluralism and parity of esteem. It suggests that such notions as multi-cultural citizenship, minority rights and dialogic democracy offer an alternative and more constructive basis for addressing group antagonism. And in particular it notes the emergence in the 1990s of a series of international conventions enshrining such principles in a legal-if not yet justiciable - form.

This approach offers a manner of avoiding the cultural relativism-and political antagonism-into which the Northern Ireland debate on parity of esteem has become mired, placing as it does these particularistic concerns in a more universal frame. This is crucial, because from the Northern Ireland fieldwork it emerges that while there is consensus that parity of esteem should involve recognition and tolerance of differing cultural traditions, this begins to fragment as soon as those particular cultural identities and allegiances are explored. Widespread misunderstanding-even intolerance-then emerges. It is clear that many in Northern Ireland are willing to tolerate the Other's cultural identity only within the confines of their own core ideology. And it is further evident, when it comes to discussing how parity of esteem should be given institutional expression, that there is widespread dissensus-even fear and threat.

The sense of a British national consciousness among unionists was the most fundamental difference distinguishing unionist from nationalist respondents. Among Catholic interviewees and focus group participants, it was clear that Britishness is exclusively a unionist concept in terms of a positive association with it. Irishness, on the other hand, was an identity common to both unionists and nationalists. But Irishness is a highly contested identity, subject to fundamentally different nationalist and unionist perceptions which profoundly affect notions of allegiance and group membership.

For unionists, their imagined political community, or nation, extending beyond the confines of Northern Ireland, is a British nation-or British patriotism! civic nationalism, depending upon one's definition-which is a social reality for them. Unionists describe themselves as primarily British, although this does not mean that they exclude or reject a supplementary Irish identity. But for many unionists this Irishness is firmly subordinate to a sense of belonging to a British national community. There is a perception of having been involved with the rest of the people of the UK in great historical events, such as war and empire, a strong identification with British political tradition and a sense of sharing culture, extending beyond parochial Orangeism. Unionists thus see northern nationalists as an ethnic minority within Northern Ireland, and the UK generally.

Northern nationalists do not, however, see themselves as an ethnic minority within Northern Ireland, or the UK, but as a constituent element in a wider Irish nation which transcends the border with the republic. Furthermore, most nationalists have extreme difficulty in accepting unionists' Britishness or, even if they do, the idea that unionists do not constitute an Irish ethnic minority which can ultimately be accommodated within the Irish nation. If they do accept that unionists have a right to be separate from the rest of Ireland, nationalists do so on the basis that the Irish identity is equal to the British allegiance of unionists, and, if it is to be granted full parity of esteem, this identity should be reflected as such, in institutional arrangements.

All interviewees were in favour of power-sharing and a bill of rights. Unionists see a bill of rights and proportionality among the various parties in a devolved assembly as sufficient to guarantee minority rights in Northern Ireland. Nationalists, however, see a bill of rights and proportionality working in tandem with the Anglo-Irish Agreement. Unionists cannot accept a role for the republic's government in the 'internal affairs' of Northern Ireland, while nationalists see the agreement as an expression of their political identity by right. Unionists wish to see articles 2 and 3 unilaterally removed from the republic's constitution, because they are considered to represent an illegitimate and aggressive claim. Dublin, by contrast, envisages alteration of the articles only in return for unionist co-operation in a devolved assembly and a north-south body.

Northern nationalists would hope to exploit the 'dynamic' and 'harmonisation' potential of the 1995 framework document, leading to joint authority or beyond. Unionists conversely fear eventual imposition of joint sovereignty or the emergence of an all-Ireland government by stealth. They wish to see a Council of the British Isles, to replace the AngloIrishAgreement, and of which any north-south body would be a component. The key source of authority in any north-south relationship would rest with a Northern Ireland assembly, which would have the right to withdraw from north-south contacts.

The republic's government rejects the concept of a Council of the British Isles, arguing that unionists' parity of esteem is already provided for in their membership of the UK, and prefers the retention of the Anglo-Irish Agreement on the grounds that its removal would reduce the political value of any north-south link. It resists the suggestion that a Northern Ireland assembly should be the central authority in such a link, and sees the agreement as guarantor of a default option against unionist disruption of any new arrangements.

All respondents who expressed an opinion, apart from the Catholic Church, supported the principle of integrated education. It was felt, however, that the government could do more to promote this. There was a sense that initiatives such as 'education for mutual understanding' and 'cultural heritage' in schools were having only a limited effect, and therefore the role of the curriculum was also highlighted by many interviewees. In particular, it was suggested by many that history might be more effectively utilised in this respect.

The issue of flags and emblems highlighted the deep divisions over national identity/allegiance in Northern Ireland. Unionists and nationalists saw these as 'their', or alien, cultural representations, with unionists believing that attempts to remove symbols of the British state were aimed at diluting the Britishness of Northern Ireland and undermining the unionist ethos. Nationalists, on the other hand, saw symbols of Britishness as a form of cultural discrimination and a denial of the Irishness of Northern Ireland and their community's position within it. This issue was closely connected in respondents' minds with parades and policing, with again many dividing along unionist-nationalist lines. While Catholics saw parades as an attempt to demonstrate cultural triumphalism, Protestants saw the parades controversy as another attempt to dilute unionists' ethos of Britishness.

The report focuses upon other definitions of identity within Northern Ireland, outside the traditional, two-communities model. It highlights the existence of a third strand of identity formation, which stresses individualism and separation from unionist and nationalist definitions. The report also addresses the rather different views offered by organisations representing women and ethnic minorities. And it sees some encouraging pointers, here and in the more sophisticated understandings of some of the other interviewees drawn from civil society, as to the potential for progressive steps towards pluralism and parity of esteem.

The report concludes that the problems of language highlighted in the initial chapter, the incongruent claims of especially the party-political interviewees and the tenor of the focus groups all add up to a very sobering assessment of the extent of polarisation, the gulf of understanding and so the unreality of any early progress towards a settlement voluntarily arrived at by the parties themselves. It therefore argues that moves towards pluralism and parity of esteem can not be allowed to be dependent on such agreement spontaneously emerging or be rendered attendant upon its arrival.

The report, however, is careful not to endorse a simply top-down approach. It stresses, again from the international literature, the importance of non-governmental organisations in peace-building and pioneering new forms of dialogue, such as through the district partnerships linked to the European Union 'peace package'. Since it does not envisage a 'big-bang' constitutional fix anytime soon, it recognises all the more the potential that NGOs may have for securing modest, but at least tangible, progress.

Very real concern is expressed as to how government(s) have allowed such a starkly polarised society to develop, given its obvious implications for the chances of that settlement to which government is committed. And it worries that parity of esteem has been pursued in recent years regardless of whether Northern Ireland is moving towards a scenario of sharing or of separation. It strongly emphasises that support for integrated education must be strengthened and urges establishment of pilot projects to foster integrated housing.

On the constitutional level, the report argues for the incorporation into the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of the three significant minority rights conventions of the 1990s, alongside a more general commitment by government to parity of esteem and equity of treatment. These provisions would be a powerful statement of multi-cultural citizenship, derived from universal norms, and would be rendered justiciable in the Northern Ireland courts, or a new constitutional tribunal.

At a policy level, the report addresses the lack of real impact of the equality-proofing Policy Appraisal and Fair Treatment guidelines. It concurs with the view that a new set of policy priorities should be constructed, specifically tailored to Northern Ireland, powerfully indicative of government commitment to pluralism and parity of esteem.

There are a number of further specific recommendations - including in such difficult areas as policing-but at a political level the report sees the North review of parades as not only offering excellent substantive proposals but as also indicating a model towards an eventual resolution. It stresses that an absolutist defence of rights can only lead to permanent antagonism, and that only through a mutual recognition that rights must be tempered by restraint and responsibility can different groups work together towards a pluralist but equal future.

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