PICKING UP THE PIECES
Northern Ireland after the Belfast Agreement
The Cadogan Group, May 2003
Cadogan Group pamphlets emerge from extensive debate within the Group and incorporate as far as possible the sometimes diverse views of members. The final text of Picking up the Pieces has been edited by Dennis Kennedy; it does not necessarily reflect all members’ personal views.
The Cadogan Group was formed in the 1980s by a number of academics and others in Belfast unhappy with overall government policy on Northern Ireland, and critical of the broad analysis of the problem shared by the United Kingdom and Irish governments and by many commentators. In 1992 it decided to publish occasional pamphlets on selected topics based on its private discussions. Since then these have included the following:- Northern Limits, The Boundaries of the Attainable in Northern Ireland Politics (1992); Blurred Vision; Joint Authority and the Northern Ireland Problem (1994); Lost Accord, The 1995 Frameworks and the Search for a Settlement in Northern Ireland (1995); Decommissioning (1996); Square Circles, Round Tables and the Path to Peace in Northern Ireland (1996); Rough Trade, Negotiating a Northern Ireland Settlement (1998); Taking Liberties, Human Rights and the Northern Ireland Problem (2002); Could do Better, The Burns Report and Post-Primary Education in Northern Ireland (2002).
The last two pamphlets were published on the internet only. The texts of all the Group’s pamphlets, along with other material produced by Group members, are available on the Cadogan website www.cadogan.org
Current Group members are Colin Armstrong, Arthur Aughey, Paul Bew, Arthur Green, Graham Gudgin, Dennis Kennedy, and Steven King.
Picking up the Pieces has its origins in the suspension of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement, and in the results of the 2001 census, published in December 2002. While confirming that Northern Ireland is a deeply divided society in terms of religious denomination and therefore, largely, of political allegiance, the significance of the census returns was that they confounded confident predictions that demographic change would clear the way for Irish unification by consent in the foreseeable future.
In fact the figures indicate that constitutional change is effectively off the agenda, thus significantly altering the context in which policies and political stances must be considered. Unionists and nationalists now have to face the reality that they have to live with each other within the United Kingdom.
There are two intermingling elements to the Northern Ireland problem. The first is the fundamental political issue - the difference in national aspirations and identities between unionist and nationalist. The second is the cult of violence, the resort to, and belief in, the use of armed force to achieve political aims – a tradition strong in both communities, particularly so in the history of Irish nationalism.
This second element was crucial in the prolonged negotiations that culminated in the Belfast Agreement of 1998, and explains the priority given to the inclusion of those regarded as the representatives of the illegal organisations responsible for sustained campaigns of subversion and terrorism over 30 years. This was something the two governments and all democratic parties had long regarded as totally unthinkable; the justification for doing it was that it would bring peace, and should remove completely the use or threat of force from politics.
In fact the near-desperation of the two governments, and of many citizens, to find a way to end the violence almost inevitably led to a degree of appeasement of the perpetrators of violence. Republican ideology sees an independent united Ireland as a ‘sovereign and indefeasible’ right, and one which Republicans are entitled to assert ‘in arms’. A deal with such ideologues inevitably meant some distortion of the political process, including a fudge on the illegal possession of arms and significant rhetorical concessions to the extreme nationalist analysis of the problem.
The Agreement reached has not proved the settlement many hoped for. Five years on, the institutions are suspended, terrorist organisations remain armed and active, violence, albeit at a much reduced level, continues, and opposing communities regard each other with hostility and increasing mistrust. As a recent Government consultation paper put it ‘Northern Ireland remains a deeply segregated society, with little indication of progress towards becoming more tolerant or inclusive’.
The priority given to the inclusive nature of the Agreement by both governments – the insistence that people associated with illegal violent groups must be given their full place in the process while their links with violence remained - has turned out to be the great stumbling block. The fruits of this policy are increasingly discernible in the growing hostility of the unionist community to the Agreement itself, and in the near eclipse of moderate non-violent nationalism by Sinn Fein.
Transition from Violence
The issue of violence, the full significance of acceptance by any political movement of a ‘total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means’, has still to be faced by all the players in the Northern Ireland drama. There may remain some faint hope that the bulk of the Republican movement will recognise this reality and follow the logic of the transitional course they seemed to have embarked upon. But five years after Good Friday there are serious doubts about a real commitment to complete transition, and the passage of time has seen a serious erosion of the trust needed to make the Agreement work.
Even if the IRA now does enough to allow a restoration of devolved government, we will remain a long way from a real settlement. Most unionists will continue to be disaffected from the arrangements for government, and most nationalists will continue to aspire to a united Ireland. There is a real danger that we face an enduring and sullen stand-off within which sectarianism will continue to flourish and violence will be tolerated or even condoned. It is an unattractive prospect, but one which the British and Irish governments seem prepared to contemplate as the only means of accommodating the diametrically opposed objectives of the two communities, and of keeping on board the representatives of the armed force traditions. After the March 2003 round of talks Mr Blair made clear his position – it is the Belfast Agreement or nothing.
But there must alternatives worth seeking; is it impossible to devise a set of arrangements to which majorities in both communities can give their assent, and to which both might feel a degree of allegiance and perhaps ownership or even pride? The fact that the Belfast Agreement was actually arrived at, and endorsed by majorities both of political representatives and of voters from the two communities suggests that it is possible.
But the Agreement has, at best, worked imperfectly and may not work at all. Its problems have stemmed in part from ambiguities in the Agreement itself, from fundamental differences in the interpretation of the basic principles which were meant to underlie it, and also from persistent incorrect identification of the nature of the Northern Ireland problem.
Is it, as the Prime Minister constantly implies, all about eradicating unfairness and injustice, and establishing in Northern Ireland an equitable society free from the threat of violence? Or has it little to do with those concepts in any social sense, and more to do with differing identities and conflicting nationalist aspirations?
Until we have a clearer common understanding of the problem, it is hard to see how the institutions can be restored with any confidence that their restoration will endure. Another compromise patched together under pressure from London, Dublin and elsewhere would almost certainly be short-lived, and could have a seriously detrimental impact on the balance of political forces and on any remaining trust among the communities. Now is the time for serious exploration and analysis of fundamental principles so that definitions common to both unionist and nationalist, and to the two governments, can be agreed. No one should under-estimate the formidable task this involves.
Nevertheless, we have to start from where we are: that point is the Belfast Agreement. Whether the Agreement and its institutions and mechanisms survive in anything like their present form, it must be assumed that the principles upon which it was based will, and that key elements such as cross-community power-sharing, institutionalised north-south cooperation, and a British-Irish intergovernmental framework, will be part of any settlement offering hope of stability. Strongly held positions for or against the Agreement should not obscure those realities.
The purpose of this pamphlet is to address the extent to which the preoccupation with ‘inclusion’ has distorted our understanding of the fundamental nature of the problem, and to seek to explore the post-census realities of the situation. In Picking up the Pieces we ask how the principal actors in this tragic drama – the UK Government, the unionist community, the nationalist community and the Irish Government – might contribute to its resolution.
In his Belfast Harbour Office speech in October 2002 the Prime Minister described the Belfast Agreement as a deal under which nationalists would give peace in return for ‘equality and justice’. About the same time the Irish Republic’s Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell, was reported as saying that since the people of both parts of the island had voted for the Belfast Agreement, there was now no justification for violence in Ireland.
The logic of both comments would seem to be that denial of justice to the nationalist minority is at the root of the Northern Ireland problem, and that the violence of the last thirty years is explained, if not indeed justified, by that fact.
It is an indication of the extent to which almost all public discourse in Dublin, London and elsewhere on Northern Ireland has moved to accommodate a Republican analysis of the problem. This conscious or perhaps unconscious embracing of a false account of the past is in part understandable. How else could democratic governments who had long proclaimed their determination to defeat terrorism do an about turn and insist that the representatives of that same terrorism must now be welcomed at high table and given seats in government?
The Sinn Fein-IRA version of recent history as a legitimate struggle draws heavily on the wider nationalist view of the Northern problem. Many who sincerely denounced Republican violence, and denied that there was ever any justification for it, nevertheless saw, and still see, injustice as the root cause. The New Ireland Forum had no doubt in its 1984 Report that the whole situation was the direct result of the denial of justice to northern nationalists. Its authors frequently used the phrase ‘the plight of nationalists’, referring to anything from the attacks on Catholic families in Belfast in 1969-70, internment, Bloody Sunday, ill-treatment of detainees to ‘systematic discrimination’, being deprived of ‘the means of social and economic development’ and to the very existence of Northern Ireland.
The Forum defined the root causes of the Northern problem first as ‘the failure of the British government (in 1918-1922) to accept the democratically expressed wishes of the Irish people’, and secondly ‘the denial of the right of nationalists in the North to political expression of their Irish identity, and to effective participation in the institutions of Government’.
That view is today, perhaps, more strongly held than ever in nationalist circles. It also seems to be shared by the United Kingdom government and political establishment. Tony Blair and others have spoken of the ‘peace process’ as a historic move to establish fairness and justice in Northern Ireland, inevitably implying that, until now, unfairness and injustice have prevailed. In his Harbour Office speech, the Prime Minister was quite explicit about it; for years, he said, nationalists had been treated as second-class citizens.
To some such an approach has been little more than a willingness by London to put up with ‘necessary nonsense’ from the nationalist side, that is to accept much green rhetoric in return for continued dialogue and a measure of peace. However it increasingly forms part of a consensus view, held by many of the young of both communities within Northern Ireland. Whether sincere or not, the fact the UK government appears to endorse a Republican view of the problem is leading to a growing tendency to increase the degree of exaggeration of the scale of alleged past injustices, even to the point of complete falsehood.
For instance, the new chairman of the Bar Council in England and Wales, Matthias Kelly, was quoted in the Guardian at the end of December 2002, as saying: “growing up as a Catholic in Northern Ireland, I remember living in a society in which my people very often weren’t allowed to vote, you didn’t get a house because you had to be a Protestant, you didn’t get jobs. You got nothing. It was a society in which we were completely excluded”. Local government franchise was an issue, but any ban on Catholics voting disappeared with Catholic emancipation in 1829.
The Facts of History
To question this scenario, as the Cadogan Group has found, is to invite denunciation as politically-motivated die-hards refusing to face the facts of history. Many friends of unionism, and many unionists, now appear largely to accept that there was indeed something approaching a nationalist nightmare, and that in any event it is counter-productive to argue against it.
Certainly the minority’s perception of the nightmare is a rock-solid factor in the current situation, and therefore something which has to be addressed by way of guarantees and assurances that government and society in Northern Ireland are just and equitable. It is also true that in the circumstances here, these guarantees have to be more extensive and transparent than might be considered normal in democratic society.
Should, therefore, well-grounded arguments which question the reality of the nationalist nightmare be forgotten in the interests of ‘moving on’, of stabilising the region on the basis of the broad principles of the Belfast Agreement? The case for leaving such questionings to the elite levels of academic historians would be much stronger if the Agreement settlement was indeed working satisfactorily, and if the settlement itself had not been so clearly derived, in part, from an analysis of the problem which rested heavily on the validity of the ‘nightmare’ scenario.
The Cadogan Group takes the view that this explanation of the nature of the problem is misleading and self-serving, even though localised but serious cases of discrimination were part of the history of the Stormont regime. In our view an erroneous understanding of the problem has allowed an Agreement to be developed which is far from a genuine or final settlement, and which has led to a destabilising revolution of rising nationalist expectations and growing unionist alienation.
Even if this has succeeded in meeting the chief aim of the two governments in achieving an end to large-scale violence, it has left Northern Ireland as divided and confrontational as ever. Significant sections of the two communities continue to live in largely segregated areas and violence remains undiminished at interfaces in working class areas. While few expect a resumption of full-scale violence from any of the many terrorist groups, there is little sign of the normality that most expected would follow the Belfast Agreement.
Much remains to be done if a genuine settlement is ever to be achieved. Little movement can be expected towards such a settlement without a more accurate understanding of the nature of the problem. We argue that discrimination was never serious enough to have been a plausible cause of any deaths, never mind 30 years of murder and mayhem, but concentration on it, even obsession with it, has diverted attention from the real issue, namely the long established conflicting allegiances, differing identities and mutual mistrust and animosity of the two communities.
The Cadogan Group has, from time to time over the past decade, challenged the idea that partition in 1921 was ‘undemocratic’, arguing instead (in Northern Limits, 1992) that it was the inevitable outcome of the irreconcilable aspirations of the two major groups on the island. The Group has also questioned the validity of the term ‘nationalist nightmare’ to describe the minority experience within Northern Ireland. Specifically it has contradicted the New Ireland Forum’s assertion that the minority suffered ‘systematic discrimination’ to the extent that it was ‘deprived of the means of social and economic development’, and that the Unionist-controlled Stormont administration denied ‘the right of nationalists...to political expression of their Irish identity, and to effective participation in the institutions of Government’.
This is not to deny that serious instances of anti-Catholic discrimination took place, particularly within a small minority of the 90 local authorities, in employment, and in the location of house-building and the allocation of houses, and the manipulation of electoral boundaries for local elections to ensure unionist control. These matters have been well documented, and were inexcusable. They were, however, the practices of a limited number of local authorities rather than of the regional administration at Stormont. The valid criticism of Stormont was that it failed to correct what were blatant abuses, even if it compensated, to some extent, for local authority shortcomings through such organisations as the Northern Ireland Housing Trust.
Today many references to unionist misrule are unsubstantiated, exaggerated or simply untrue, and their constant repetition contributes to poor community relations. Catholics across Northern Ireland were not systematically deprived of housing, even if a few local authorities clearly and wrongly abused the allocation of houses. The 1971 census and the American Professor Rose’s magisterial study based on his 1968 survey are both clear on this. Catholics were over-represented in public-owned housing even when differences in income are taken into account. Professor Rose’s conclusion was, in fact, that the main evidence for discrimination was against Protestants in local authorities under nationalist control. The fact that Rose’s conclusion is almost never cited is evidence of the selectivity of the many commentators who write about discrimination, and of the lack of rigour of those who uncritically repeat nationalist charges.
Unionists did not systematically deprive Catholics of the means of economic development. Discrimination in employment was common in some local authorities, under both unionist and nationalist control. Catholics were most affected because most Councils were unionist, but only a few hundred jobs were involved. Again this was unacceptable. Other cases of job discrimination, as in the large engineering firms, reflected workers’ refusal or reluctance to work together as much as management recruitment practices. Stormont should have moved much earlier to stamp this out, with employers’ co-operation. Since these were mostly declining industries with reduced labour intake, even vigorous action against discrimination would not have impacted significantly on employment patterns. The number of additional jobs for Catholics has not been large since fully equitable rules were introduced under the Fair Employment Commission.
The exclusion of nationalists from ‘effective participation in the institutions of Government’ was initially self-imposed as a result of the nationalist refusal in 1921 to recognise or have any dealings with the Belfast administration, followed by their more prolonged boycott of the NI Parliament. In the longer term the focus of nationalist political participation on the pursuit of Irish unity and the dismantling of the partition arrangement, rather than on constructive opposition on the running of Northern Ireland, helped ensure minimal Catholic participation in the institutions of Government. This played into the hands of those Unionists who wanted no Catholics about the place.
No one could argue that Northern Ireland in the years from 1921 to 1972 was a smoothly run liberal democracy providing an example of how a substantial, reluctant, minority should be treated. But on the other hand the steady growth and increasing social and economic advancement of that minority scarcely suggest a nightmare.
Between the 1926 and 1961 censuses the Catholic population of Northern Ireland rose by 76,000, or eighteen per cent. During the same period in the independent South, the Catholic population actually fell by 78,000 or three per cent. Northern Ireland’s Catholic population continued to rise rapidly through the 1960s, as it has subsequently. Economic conditions north and south were not identical, though neither region enjoyed prosperity. Even allowing for marginally better conditions in the North, these figures alone make implausible the picture of northern Catholics as a minority suffering systematic discrimination and denied the means to social and economic advancement
Competing for Votes
Individual Catholics (or Protestants) with first hand experience of official discrimination may find the past difficult to forgive, but the numbers of people genuinely personally in this position must be small. More important are nationalist politicians competing for Catholic votes, and for British and international sympathy, who are unlikely to abandon the ‘nationalist nightmare’ which has proved so useful to them, but so unhelpful in community relations. There is also the strange phenomenon of unionist silence in face of all too persistent accusations of past discrimination. This may be in part a feeling of guilt, based on memories of just how pervasive was antipathy to Catholics in many protestant homes, or it may be a genuine desire to avoid divisive argument. The unfortunate result, however, is that this too has helped cement a distorted view of life in Northern Ireland under unionism, and has discouraged the objective examination of these matters which has been long overdue.
Self-serving attempts to persuade external opinion that the Northern Ireland problem is based on a denial of civil or human rights to a minority have undoubtedly assisted the nationalist case nationally and internationally, but at the same time they contribute greatly to the growing sense of unionist alienation and frustration, and to inter-communal mistrust and animosity. It would help the situation considerably if the problem could be clearly and consensually viewed as a problem of differing identities and conflicting national allegiances. The key destabilising factor is a nationalist desire to take Northern Ireland into a united Ireland against the wishes of a unionist majority, though most nationalist writing and much government rhetoric either avoids or disguises this fact.
It is only in the context of that conflict of allegiance that unionism can be understood. In fact there is little mystery about it. Unionism is, and always has been, a simple reaction to Irish nationalism. Its key desire was and is to avoid becoming part of an Irish state with its perceived Catholic and Gaelic, and non-British, ethos. Unionists have seen no reason to give up their place within the United Kingdom, and not surprisingly have strongly resisted being forced out against their will. (Some have toyed with the notion of independence as a last ditch alternative to Irish unity, but since this has never been a practical proposition for financial reasons, it has never had significant support.)
Organised unionism originated as a means of opposing political moves to change, in a fundamental manner, the constitutional arrangement under which unionists were governed, first by seeking to place them under an Irish Home Rule administration, and then by taking them out of the UK and into an Irish state. Their motivation was their conviction that they did not share the identity or culture of nationalists campaigning for these changes, but did, energetically, share those of the rest of the United Kingdom.
The great strength of the unionist position today is its democratic legitimacy. There is no justification under the normal rules of democracy for transferring an unwilling people out of a long-established state in which both they and their ancestors have lived and into another state to which they are opposed. This viewpoint is incorporated in the Belfast Agreement, assented to by all parties including nationalists and the Dublin Government, and endorsed by the electorates north and south.
Within a modern European democracy like the UK, unionists have felt little need to explain their opposition to being absorbed within the Irish Republic, but their failure to specify their motivations has weakened their case in the eyes of the rest of the UK. Certainly, the archaic institutional means of expressing their opposition to being forced out of the UK through the Orange Order, anti-Catholic rhetoric, marches and flags, wins them few friends in the rest of the UK or anywhere else.
The nature of Irish nationalism is more difficult to explain. Emerging in the wave of national sentiment that engulfed Europe in the 19th century, it has survived through the 20th, and remains remarkably vigorous, in some aspects, into the 21st. This despite the achievement early in the 20th century of its great goal of an Irish state, and despite the discrediting of nationalism brought about by the rise of fascism and World War Two. One obvious historic factor is the territorial focus of Irish nationalism on the island of Ireland, and the sustained resentment over partition and the exclusion from the Irish state of the large nationalist minority in Northern Ireland.
More puzzling, perhaps, is the external support for Irish nationalism today, especially in left wing circles in Great Britain where almost all other brands of nationalism are usually opposed with vigour. Migrant Irish in the Labour Party in Britain have played a part in this, as has the constant presentation of the nationalist demand for Irish unification as part of a campaign for ‘rights’, civil, human and political in Northern Ireland, and against discrimination.
A Different Nationalism
In some ways Irish nationalism differs from other European nationalist movements, as does the conflict in Northern Ireland from other confrontations. Irish nationalism was born out of a sense of difference between the ‘Irish’ and the rest of the UK, particularly the dominant English, yet in modern times there is no significant barrier of language, culture or ethnicity. Even the religious difference is essentially that between two Christian denominations. Their shared cultural heritage of the English language and broadly British thought and tradition is far more extensive than distinctive regional factors such as the Gaelic language, and even that is not distinctive to Ireland.
Within Northern Ireland the dividing line between the two communities, while dangerously sharp in places, is also often blurred; inter-marriage is not uncommon, there is a growing demand for integrated education, and communal differences are scarcely visible in the commercial and business life of the province. Northern Ireland has its own race relations legislation, with recognised minority groups – but the ‘Irish’ are not so designated, which would seem official recognition that there is no ethnic difference between unionist and nationalist.
Irish nationalism would not, of course, recognise any such difference. It insists, as does the Irish state, that all residents of the island are Irish, though the Belfast Agreement rather grudgingly leaves them an option not to be. In the past many unionists would have described themselves as Irish, and many still do, though this has become increasingly difficult, first after partition in 1921, and more particularly since the violent conflict of the past 30 years consolidated the equation of Irishness with political nationalism.
Some, though by no means all, unionists today see themselves as culturally and even ethnically ‘non-Irish’. Identities are not fixed for all time, and the Irish state since its foundation has deliberately promoted its own concept of Irishness, emphasising at all possible points its non-Britishness, most obviously its Catholicism and its reverence for Gaelic language and culture. As a result, today, even when religious observance has declined dramatically, and when the Irish language continues to decline, the citizens of the Irish Republic, and northern nationalists, are more than ever convinced of their distinctive Irishness.
So the conflict in Northern Ireland remains resolutely one of identity and allegiance. Even the fact that the two states with which unionists and nationalists identify now enjoy the warmest of relations, and are both partners in an integrating Europe, does not seem to impact favourably on inter-communal relations. Whether one labels the division as ethnic or tribal, enough evidence of historic difference remains to make it fundamental. Catholic and Protestant can still be identified by surname, even though there is considerable overlap. This allows each community to identify with a different history, which in each cases portrays the other as a traditional foe.
Even without a language barrier, these deeply held self-perceptions have been maintained within Northern Ireland under the influence of strong institutions. Each community has its own church, or churches, its own schools, newspapers, and, to some extent, sporting and cultural organisations. The teaching of Irish in many Catholic schools has, it is true, not succeeded in reviving the language as a means of everyday communication, but it does act as a powerful confirmation of belief in the one-time existence of a distinct Irish cultural world, one that has, in a sense, been restored in the form of an, albeit English speaking, Irish Republic. The ideal of the nation-state has also remained strong in the mono-cultural Republic and among northern nationalists, who have resolutely maintained a view that the Irish nation-state should include themselves (and less understandably also the unionists).
The situation that has emerged is one which makes it practically impossible for any current Belfast-based government to build a common ‘national’ or even limited regional allegiance, just as it was impossible for the old Stormont regime. The networks of institutions that help maintain the sense of identity in each community have been too powerful. It is this inability to find common ground for identity and allegiance between unionist and nationalist that is the core of the problem, not the treatment of one community by the other, nor the comparative disadvantage of one vis a vis the other.
It is unlikely, therefore, that an approach heavily slanted towards guaranteeing respect for minority rights and identity within the present constitutional framework will in itself satisfy a minority convinced that it has been the victim of a great historical injustice and that it has endured a nightmare of discrimination and ill-treatment, as would seem to be the logic of the current consensus approach, and of the Belfast Agreement.
Harbour Office Speech
As Mr Blair’s Harbour Office speech showed he is well aware of the real nature of nationalist grievances and demands:
‘They wanted to be part of a united Ireland. They regarded the whole concept of Northern Ireland as a sectarian construct. They believed the only way to secure justice was to secure unification….At the core of the Agreement was this deal: in return for equality and justice - in politics, policing, in acceptance of nationalist identity - all parties were to commit exclusively to peace.’
That short extract identifies both the fundamental core of the nationalist position – that partition was wrong, and that ‘the nightmare’ of discrimination and unfair treatment was the inevitable result of it, to be remedied ultimately only by unification – and what the UK government wanted out of the deal, that is peace. In this context peace means a cease-fire not a settlement, an accommodation not reconciliation and a new beginning. The extract also indicates one weakness of the Agreement; it promises nationalists equality and justice as regards their ’nationalist identity’, but offers no hope of unification – which nationalists insist is the only way they can have such equality and justice - without unionist consent.
The negotiation of the Belfast Agreement, and increasingly the negotiations following from the series of crises since the Agreement, have prompted concern about ‘moral equivalence’, that is treating the actions and demands of a terrorist organisation such as the IRA as similar coinage to the actions and political demands of democratic parties and governments. This is seen at its most blatant in the readiness, even eagerness, of London to ‘buy’ IRA movement on arms held illegally, by ‘demilitarisation’, that is reduction in the legitimate forces of the state. It is seen too in the constant demands for ‘compromise’ and ‘flexibility’ from both sides on the central stumbling block – the presence in government of people inextricably linked to terrorism. Thus enormous pressure has been put on David Trimble and his UUP, by London, to make concessions politically in return for the IRA promising, or half-promising, to stop behaving illegally.
The Belfast Agreement was a well-meant attempt to find a way for the two communities to live together peaceably, but its implementation has been dogged by a series of crises. One major problem was the fact that its nationalist participants never saw it as a final settlement, but more as an advance which could be built upon sooner or later, a view not incompatible with the Agreement’s repeated insistence upon the ‘legitimacy’ of the nationalist fundamental demand for unification.
All of this is important because it sets Northern Ireland in a context which is not generally recognised in GB and certainly not in the Republic of Ireland. There the popular view of the Northern Ireland problem is one of stubborn, unreconstructed and unhelpful communities. If the problem could be seen instead as one of complex circumstances, a greater sympathy and understanding would be engendered. Without an underlying tendency to blame one or other group, the problem might be a little less intractable.
If the problem is wholly one of divided loyalties does this mean an unending struggle for dominance between the two communities? Not necessarily; other regions of Europe have come to terms with conflicting loyalties, and learned to accommodate detached national minorities. But progress towards a real settlement can be made only if the true nature of the problem is recognised.
A new analysis must in our view start from both a realistic understanding of the nature of the problem, and a willingness to face up to realities, not fudge them. It is the nature of the problem that a genuine solution is likely to emerge only if all participants play their part. Until now too many have protected their vested interests rather than go all out for a settlement. All need to work out themselves how they can contribute to a genuine settlement. In the rest of this pamphlet we set out a series of suggestions which the two communities and the two governments may wish to consider.
The United Kingdom Government is the sovereign authority in Northern Ireland; it has ultimate responsibility for it. Northern Ireland is, essentially, London’s problem, even if from its very creation successive UK governments sought to have as little involvement in it as possible. Today’s Government clearly feels that it has gone to great lengths to achieve a settlement, and that, in fact, it has finally done so. This is a view widely shared by public opinion in Great Britain.
It is true that Tony Blair has personally devoted more time and attention to Northern Ireland than any of his predecessors. It is also true that by forcing through an Agreement that was in large measure inspired by nationalists and the Dublin Government, he may indeed have dealt with the problem of large-scale organised violence. But this has been achieved at the expense of outraging the morality of a large and mainly, though not entirely, peaceable section of the community. Even if devolution were to be restored and the institutions of the Agreement up and working, it is still the case that the UK government has done little to solve the underlying issue of a society bitterly divided by political allegiance.
London, whichever party is in power, is now seriously mistrusted by a large section of the majority community. For some this mistrust began long ago with the Tories at Sunningdale, and for many more was greatly increased by the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985. Today even those unionists who still strive to implement the Belfast Agreement say privately that they have been betrayed by Tony Blair and Labour. Mr Blair’s strongest fans in Northern Ireland are those whose chief aim is to leave the United Kingdom – the nationalists. (Some of whom, it is reported, regard him as a ‘naïve idiot’.) This fundamental lack of trust seriously weakens the ability of the UK Government to find a solution here, and must be addressed.
So too must the glaringly obvious inconsistency between London’s treatment of terrorism and terrorists in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the world. Even if many in the unionist community were willing to swallow hard and accept the unprincipled compromises built into the Belfast Agreement, subsequent tough talk on defeating global terrorism has made many of them feel foolish.
This is now the most blatant example of how London increasingly treats Northern Ireland as a place apart. UK Governments have been willing to introduce radical changes within Northern Ireland, but invariably in a manner which maintains the arms-length policy which has been in existence since 1921, and which sees the province as within, but not really part of the United Kingdom to which its gives its name. All administrations appear to have regretted the amount of time spent on what, to any objective observer, might have been considered their greatest political challenge.
While we accept that different circumstances and problems require individual responses, there are many disparities in treatment that are clearly beyond the Pale. Among these has been the refusal or unwillingness of major UK parties to organise in Northern Ireland. The Labour Party’s outright refusal to do so, or to accept anyone living in Northern Ireland as a member, is particularly indefensible. In practice an end to this ban would not lead to a flood of new Labour members, nor a transformation of the political scene in Northern Ireland, but as an indication of the attitude of the current government party to the whole Northern Ireland issue it is revelatory. Effectively, citizens of one region of the United Kingdom are barred from joining, or voting for the party which governs them. It means too, that under Labour, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can never be an MP for any constituency in Northern Ireland. With no votes at stake in the province, major parties treat Northern Ireland as if it were an issue of foreign rather than domestic policy.
Current legal challenges to this situation on human rights grounds may overturn Labour’s ban. How much preferable it would be for the Labour Party itself to admit that the ban has its roots in traditional Labour support for Irish nationalism, and in the pervading desire of UK Governments to avoid their responsibilities in Northern Ireland if at all possible. Already the Labour Party has invited ridicule through its lawyers’ suggestion that a strict reading of party rules effectively excludes residents of Northern Ireland from UK citizenship. The Government can, and should, move immediately to end the ban.
No Selfish Interest
A related issue is the statement enshrined in the 1993 Downing Street Declaration that the British Government has no ‘selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland’. In the context of what was already a negotiation with Irish nationalism, including an armed terrorist organisation, this might have seemed an unremarkable attempt to force them to the reality that it was a democratic majority inside Northern Ireland which thwarted nationalists’ claim to the whole island, not an imperial occupying power.
But in its formulation it was also a remarkable, almost incredible affirmation from a long-established European state that it had little commitment to the integrity of its boundaries, and that the inclusion of one region within those boundaries was essentially conditional upon the wishes of a majority within it. It is inconceivable that any other European state would do this. Italy, for instance, made it clear that it had no intention of giving up the South Tyrol to Austria, even though that region had a large German-speaking majority. Today the South Tyrol is stable and peaceful.
The United Kingdom’s declaration may well have had the good intention of drawing nationalists, particularly those engaged in violence, into negotiation, but it was also dangerously destabilising, alarming unionists as much, if not more than it encouraged secessionists. Ten years after the Declaration, the Government should reformulate its position in the light of both the Belfast Agreement, and the latest census returns. It should assert that Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, that it expects it to remain so for the foreseeable future, and that all discussion of the problem must revolve around that central fact.
A Fresh Approach
Action on these points alone would indicate a fresh approach to Northern Ireland on the part of London, and perhaps prompt the beginnings of more rational thinking among the wider British public. The popular view in Britain is that this is an Irish problem, that its roots lie in Irish history, and that it persists today mainly because of the total unreasonableness of those most directly involved, particularly the unionists. Thus we are constantly told that it is up to the people of Northern Ireland to solve it, leaving the UK Government with little more to do than hold the ring and pay the expenses.
This is a profound and self-serving misunderstanding of the issue. The conflict of allegiance in Northern Ireland is as much a British problem as an Irish problem, with its roots deep in the history of these islands, a history dominated for many centuries by the overwhelming power of what became the British state. The policy errors of remote governments led to the structural divisions of today and in many ways are still being compounded.
Whether an Irish population that was overwhelmingly Catholic could ever have identified fully with a British state that was explicitly Protestant, both institutionally and in ethos, is debatable. But the grievous failure to grant Catholic Emancipation at the time of the Act of Union helped ensure the growth of an Irish nationalism that was distinctly Catholic and was determined on a measure of independence for Ireland, albeit within the United Kingdom. Foot dragging over Home Rule and eventual independence also laid the ground for Republican separatism, with the result that Home Rule was no longer an option in 1921.
Partition had become inevitable, though the circumstances in which it came about in 1921-22 made it appear an arbitrary solution imposed by British power, leaving within the United Kingdom a substantial Catholic and nationalist minority, a minority whose politics were explicitly grounded on rejection of any British identity, and on the conviction that partition was a gross injustice of which they were the principal victims.
It is conventional wisdom to blame Unionists for the failure of the partition settlement to provide a stable Northern Ireland within the UK. As we have already argued the accounts of unionist misrule are greatly exaggerated, and if blame must be apportioned, a share must also go to nationalists, for refusal to engage fully with the state in which they found themselves, and for their blinkered and impractical insistence on the all or nothing solution of Irish unity.
But blame too must attach to the United Kingdom, for the failure to accommodate Irish nationalism fully within the British polity in the 19th century was followed post 1921 by an almost total ignoring of the presence within the United Kingdom of a disaffected Catholic and Irish nationalist minority.
The most distinguishing political characteristic of that minority was its anti-Britishness, its rejection of any British identity, and its strong belief that the British state was inherently the enemy of its religion (Catholicism), and the historic repressor of its national identity (Irishness). As unionism was little more than a reaction to those positions, it was almost inevitable that Northern Ireland would develop as it did. The UK government, the sovereign authority, stood very idly by and did nothing.
The argument here is not that London should have intervened from the start and imposed some sort of unionist-nationalist power-sharing on Northern Ireland – nationalists would have flatly refused to join in – but that Northern Ireland was largely forgotten; the UK post-1921 effectively became the United Kingdom of Great Britain. Today’s almost universally accepted terminology which equates Great Britain, or even simply Britain, with the United Kingdom is, in part, a reflection of this mind-set. (In February of this year the Foreign and Commonwealth Office advertised, in the Belfast Telegraph, for recruits ‘…willing to travel and live all over the word serving the interests of Britain…’)
It is true that the adjective British is almost inevitable, given that none is easily derived from the full name of the state – no one could suggest that the BBC becomes the UKGBNIBC, or that the British Museum and the British Library change their names. But it would help if Mr Blair could remember occasionally that he is Prime Minister, not of Britain, but of the UK and describe himself as such. From a London perspective this is ludicrous nit-picking, not to be taken seriously, even when a point which could be addressed is made. Recently, for instance, the UK had to adopt its designation on the new EU car number plates. David Trimble proposed that the initials UK should replace the GB which dates from the early days of motoring. His views were ignored, and yet again GB has triumphed over UK.
This constant use of the terms British and Britain presents a particular problem for those citizens in Northern Ireland who define themselves as Irish rather than (and not as well as) British. They are therefore unusual in being a large group within the UK who not only do not live in Britain or even Great Britain but have little or no sense of Britishness, differing from Scottish or Welsh nationalists who were, by and large, brought up within such a culture, and for whom the adjective is appropriate enough geographically.
If the idea of the state as the source of civil administration was distinct from the idea of the nation as the source of identity, the problem would hardly arise. This distinction is, perforce, beginning to develop in modern Europe, but has yet to arrive. Meanwhile there is surely an obligation on the state to do all it can to accommodate the reluctant minority, yet in more than 80 years the UK has shown little sensitivity in this regard.
For example, the minority in question is overwhelmingly and determinedly Catholic, while the state remains doggedly Protestant – both in retaining an established Protestant church in most of its territory, and in excluding Catholics from the monarchy under the Act of Settlement. Raising disestablishment or the repeal of an Act of 1701 in the context of the Northern Ireland problem would probably only provoke smiles of bewilderment in Britain, but that fact in itself should be an indication of how little serious thinking the British political establishment has devoted to the problem. These anachronisms are retained, after all, in a Britain which has largely deserted the Anglican church, and which has little interest in the religious beliefs of the monarch. The problem this presents to more recently established Islamic and other non-Christian groups in GB has attracted much more attention.
To consider such matters at all in the context of Northern Ireland will require a major reorientation of British thinking. London has to stop treating Northern Ireland in isolation, or in a solely Irish context, and see it as it is, a United Kingdom issue the solving of which requires action at UK level, not just by measures devised for and peculiar to the region. This last approach has simply served to isolate the province more and more from the rest of the United Kingdom, and from the traditional standards and practices which have constituted the essential core of British governance.
The current ‘settlement’, while it brought Northern Ireland into a wider UK scheme of devolution also in some ways increased the extent to which things are done differently here. The bizarre d’Hondt method of selecting the Northern Ireland Executive in proportion to seats won in the Assembly is a near total contradiction of the concepts of majority rule and collective responsibility that are the foundation of British government. Its lack of flexibility has been a prime cause of the dire straits in which the Agreement now finds itself.
Under the Belfast Agreement Ministers in the Stormont Executive are required to abide by a Code of Conduct which incorporates the Nolan Principles that govern UK Ministers, and, among other things, requires Ministers to declare any personal interests which might conflict with their responsibilities. Do Sinn Fein Ministers declare interests arising from being, in the Prime Minister’s view, inextricably linked to a terrorist organisation? If they did, would they be excluded from office? Elsewhere in the UK Ministers are forced out of office on the merest suggestion of misconduct. But not in Northern Ireland. Even human rights in Northern Ireland are different; not only does the region require its own Human Rights Commission, it also requires its own Bill of Rights.
Certainly the Government applies a different definition of terrorism in Northern Ireland. Even after September 11, with Mr Blair zealously joining in the war against terrorism, and even after reports of IRA gun-running, of IRA links to FARC in Colombia, of IRA targeting and spying in Belfast (in the offices of Mr Blair’s own government), not to mention regular criminal assaults in Catholic areas here, the Prime Minister’s chief concern was how he could get those he regards as inextricably linked to terrorism back into government in Northern Ireland. Only under severe pressure from David Trimble did he belatedly begin to insist that a presence in government required ‘acts of completion’, taken to mean effective disbanding of terrorist associations, and disarming.
This almost obscene double-think encourages the cynical view that London’s prime concern in Northern Ireland has been short-term; not to find a long term real settlement, rather to insulate the province even further from the rest of the UK. It has been sufficient, some say, to reach a deal with the terrorists which will mean no more bombs in London, and a much-reduced security burden, even at the cost of consigning the communities in Northern Ireland to a resentful stand-off inside a set of institutions that entrenches a sectarian approach to government.
We accept that the theory underlying the Belfast Agreement was more sophisticated than this. At least some of its architects believed that a fudge to reduce violence in the short-term would permit the development of warmer community relations in the longer term. This in turn, it was believed, would make a return to large-scale organised violence difficult if not impossible. Part of this has happened, lives have been saved, and a return to large-scale violence looks unlikely. What remains is the underlying problem – a society divided between a disaffected minority, now with enhanced expectations, and a mistrustful and indignant majority.
After the 2001 Census results it is clear that Northern Ireland will remain within the UK, probably for ever. If, as is more than possible, the Agreement fails under the weight of its own contradictions, a UK government rethink will be needed sooner rather than later. In the short-term the majority community will be content with Direct Rule, preferring it to any devolution which involves Sinn Fein ministers who, they believe, are members or supporters of the IRA. Moderate nationalists and republicans will be angry, but will differ on where to place the blame. A return to major violence is a risk, but one that now looks remote.
In the longer run a revised or alternative version of the Belfast Agreement will have to be developed. This should reflect normal UK democratic values. Most obviously the d’Hondt arrangements that have proved impractical with the inclusion of Sinn Fein, should be replaced. A better alternative is a system of voluntary coalitions, perhaps requiring 60% support within the Assembly to ensure cross-community involvement. This would provide the flexibility to change governments without bringing down the whole system.
Such an arrangement could lead to the exclusion of Sinn Fein from government. The prize of ministerial power would then provide a real incentive for Sinn Fein completely to sever its links with violent paramilitarism. The Belfast Agreement could then be seen as having provided an invaluable transition from war to peace, and from Direct Rule to normal democracy. The problem of a disaffected minority would be diminished by inclusion in government, but would still remain. It would then be for the UK government to negotiate an accommodation with nationalism that combined a future within the UK with an acceptable degree of involvement with the Republic.
The United Kingdom Government should resume its prime responsibility for the region and for the problem. This is not a call for direct rule, but for a rethink by all the major British parties, taking on board that the problem stems from the evolution of the United Kingdom, and that it cannot be solved by fancy mechanisms in Belfast, ambiguous deals with Dublin or by lecturing the people of Northern Ireland on the error of their ways.
London should also abandon the foolish practice of appearing to give Dublin an equal share in solving the problem. Dublin has a legitimate interest, a right to be consulted at every stage, and a vital role to play, but Northern Ireland is not under joint authority; it remains under the sovereign jurisdiction of the UK Government. It is misleading and unhelpful, therefore, for London to appear often to defer to Dublin on major policy issues, just as it is to concede joint chairmanship to the Dublin Government over talks specifically convened to discuss the future government of a region of the United Kingdom.
Unionists do not like the Belfast Agreement. Some want it scrapped entirely; more, probably most, want it revised, significantly modified if not replaced. In part they have themselves to blame. They are an almost wholly reactive political force, and rarely devise policies that address the concerns of others. Even if the UUP changed direction now by saying yes to restoring the institutions, it would be, as almost all such policy changes have been, a response to initiatives devised elsewhere, often by nationalists.
Yet unionists more than anyone else involved in Northern Ireland have a vested interest in securing a genuine settlement as soon as possible. Many of them thought that the Agreement might indeed be a final settlement, and that was why they voted for it five years ago, and why the Trimble unionists have moved so far to implement it. From their point of view they saw the nationalist minority given, as quid pro quo for formal endorsement of the consent principle, as large a say in government as any minority in a democratic state, alongside extensive guarantees of respect and ‘parity of esteem’ for minority identity and culture.
However neither northern nationalists nor the Dublin Government have given much indication that they regard the settlement under the Agreement as final. The principle of consent for any constitutional change is certainly central to it, but with a Catholic population at 43% and growing, this principle could seem little more than a stop-gap. Prior to the publication of the 2001 census results – and even after - most nationalists appeared to expect demographic trends to carry them across the 50% winning line. Both northern nationalists and the southern government insist that 50%+1 is sufficient to achieve Irish unity.
What then, then can unionists do in the present situation to stabilise the constitutional position, and make a genuine settlement of the problem more, not less, achievable? They start from a position of some strength; the census results show that demographic change is most unlikely to lead to a Catholic majority in the foreseeable future, let alone a majority for Irish unity. Moreover few can believe that a 50%+1 majority for unification would solve the problem. The Life and Times Survey shows that 27% of Protestants regard Irish unity as unacceptable under any circumstances. An imminent threat of unification with the South could be enough to drive a proportion of this fraction into the arms of the loyalist paramilitaries. Some leading unionists now assert that a simple nationalist majority would not provide a sufficient basis for Northern Ireland to join the South.
Simple unionist assertion of these harsh realities is hardly going to be enough to convince nationalists to give up their cherished goal and settle down happily as citizens of the United Kingdom. Much more is needed from unionists, who now face the challenge of persuading a significant percentage of the nationalist minority that living with unionists inside the United Kingdom will not mean nationalists accepting second-class citizenship in any sense. Nor will it involve any sacrifice of Irish identity, or cause them cultural or religious offence.
Amidst growing evidence that the unionist community now rejects the Belfast Agreement, unionist leaders have to make it clear that they remain totally committed to certain fundamental principles. These particularly include cross-community sharing of power in any devolved administration, and optimum cross-border cooperation, including shared institutions where these are of demonstrable mutual benefit.
Some aspects of the Agreement have proved both unworkable and unacceptable, notably the inflexible rules leading to government by involuntary four-party coalition; much better to achieve the required cross-community executive by means of a more flexible arrangement whereby participation is not automatic, but by choice of the parties concerned. At the same time unionists will have to accept that some of the actions so distasteful to them under the Agreement, such as the abolition of the RUC and the early release of prisoners, are now irreversible.
However the impasse over Sinn Fein and the Provisional IRA is overcome – whether by IRA disbandment and disarmament, or by Sinn Fein’s exclusion from the Executive – the best interests of the unionist community will surely be served by working for a return of devolution based on a settlement agreeable to both communities, and one that makes Northern Ireland a happier place in which the citizens can concentrate their energies on the normal range of social and economic concerns.
Scorn and Ridicule
The traditional unionist response to Irish nationalist aspirations has been scorn and ridicule. It is perhaps time for unionists to initiate a dialogue with nationalists taking as a starting point a sincere understanding of the position of their political adversaries. They cannot be expected to sympathise with nationalist demands that unionists deliver themselves into a united Ireland. However they could show greater public recognition of nationalists’ strong sense of identity with, and allegiance to, an Irish state, and of the problems they face identifying with the United Kingdom while living in a stridently British region of that kingdom.
How can unionists set about this task? What have they to offer? First, and most obviously, the Ulster Unionist Party must sever its formal links with the Orange Order. It does not have to subscribe to the view that Orangemen are a bunch of bigots who do not want a Catholic about the place, but it has to recognise that the Order is, above all else, a Protestant organisation – in its origins, its membership and its purpose. As such it has no place in a broadly based democratic party.
The Orange Order does not control the UUP, its financial contribution is negligible, and its allocation of votes in the Ulster Unionist Council is not huge. Removing that formal representation would not mean a total loss of Orange influence, for many Council members would still be individual Orangemen. But it would be a very public declaration by the party that it is breaking the formal link with organised Protestantism, and especially with a dogged, old-fashioned articulation of Protestantism. The UUP must begin to think seriously about attracting more Catholics into its ranks. It needs to appeal much more broadly if it is to break out of its Protestant laager.
Ending the Orange link would be a way for the party to announce that it is looking to the future, and that it wants to attract members and voters of any or no religion. Stability and a degree of normality will be more easily achieved if a significant section of the nationalist community willingly and fully embrace United Kingdom citizenship and engage in politics other than primarily as nationalists. If the largest moderate pro-union party remains formally linked to the Orange Order, this is made almost impossible. This issue has been debated within unionism for half a century. David Trimble seemed ready to tackle it when he became leader; he should do so now.
Almost identical arguments could be applied to the more complicated task of detaching the Democratic Unionist Party from Paisleyism. While the DUP was the creation of Rev Paisley and was originally seen as the Free Presbyterian Church on the march, it has, from time, to time shown a tendency to develop policies that have distinguished it from fellow unionists on grounds other than extreme Protestantism. However a party led and dominated by an individual who has made his name as a Protestant firebrand and scourge of Rome and all its works – and who remains pope of his own fundamentalist Protestant church - can have only a limited role to play in creating a better Northern Ireland, no matter how many votes it wins.
Unionists also desperately need to find some way of defusing the parades issue. The Orange Order and its unionist supporters may often have had theoretical right on their side, and opposition may well have been deliberately organised by Republicans, but the end result has been disastrous for unionism. The Order itself may not be responsible for the big increase in the number of ‘loyalist’ parades over recent decades - in a few areas clearly war by other means – but it is time stop beating the unionist head against the wall and even gain some credit for a constructive effort to find a resolution.
Drumcree is a particular gift to Sinn Fein and severely damaging to all of unionism. There is strong logic, from a unionist standpoint, in simply cutting losses, ending the Drumcree stand-off and abandoning other highly controversial parades. There is no gain for unionism in ‘standing firm’ at Drumcree or elsewhere. It would be far better to formulate an approach that takes account of population changes and local hostility to parades, but stops short of giving a veto, or ‘control of the streets’ to Sinn Fein or any other self-appointed controller of the area. The Orange Order itself could assess with local authorities the sensitivity attaching to any particular march, and it would then be up to the Order to decide not to march, or to re-route in its own interests as well as those of the community. This could, in most cases, avoid any ban on marching, and any infringement of rights, particularly if these decisions could be made well in advance, far ahead of the dates of proposed marches. In return the Order should demand the closure of the parades Commission.
Orangemen are much better at looking backwards than forwards but a long-term goal might be to make the marches universally accepted and even admired. The idea of Orange marches developing into a significant and uncontroversial tourist attraction need not be so unthinkable. Despite all, they remain one of Europe’s largest and most genuine folk festivals, largely untainted by commercial involvement.
Distancing organised political unionism from Protestantism could be accompanied by a less defensive attitude to the constitutional question. The age-old unionist tactic – if tactic it always was – of defending the union by constantly declaring it to be under attack and in imminent danger has hardly inspired confidence, and has no doubt helped make nationalists more resolutely nationalist. Given demographic stability it is perhaps time for unionists to take the union more for granted, as a fact of life, not as key focus of their political activity.
Unionists should energetically support current moves to remove sectarian and subversive murals, and to discourage kerb-painting. Self imposed constraints on the private flying of flags would be helpful. As a start, and without any reciprocation, the security forces should remove all flags, graffiti, and murals directly associated with illegal paramilitary organisations.
Unionists’ brief period in devolved government should have awakened them, rudely perhaps, to their almost total lack of coherent policy on anything other than the border. Historically unionism began as and always has been a simple rejection of nationalist demands for an independent united Ireland. As a broad coalition with one purpose it had neither the time nor the motivation to develop a political philosophy on the whole range of social, economic, cultural and other issues.
Up to now unionist parties have competed with each other on the narrow ground of the constitution, dividing over which was more resolute in its defence. More recently this argument has focused on the Belfast Agreement and the manner of its implementation. It has, at the same time, become more bitter, severely inhibiting unionist thinking generally, and, in particular, preventing any coherent unionist analysis of the ‘peace process’.
Unionist infighting has been so intense that all sides have dug ever more deeply into entrenched positions, even though time and circumstances have rendered many such positions questionable, if not untenable. For example, David Trimble has felt obliged to defend his readiness to put trust in the good intentions of the Sinn Fein leadership long after many observers and many of his own followers have concluded that SF has proved itself ultimately untrustworthy. Trimble’s harshest critics, on the other hand, in the DUP and elsewhere, have been so focused on denouncing the UUP leader that they have done little to develop realistic alternative policies.
Ironically the intransigence of the Republican movement may now have given the various unionist factions a brief opportunity to draw breath, stop wasting their energies in attacking each other, and begin some internal debate on how unionism can most sensibly respond now to the situation that has emerged five years after the Belfast Agreement. Beyond that immediate hurdle the competition for votes from committed unionists and others will have to take more and more account of social and economic issues.
Moreover, any unionist party wishing to reach out to voters from the nationalist community will have face up to what might be called the nationalists’ ‘Irishness’ and the problem of accommodating that not just within the United Kingdom, but within a UK unionist party.
A recent household survey showed that most people living in Great Britain did not describe themselves as British when asked their nationality. Instead they said English, Scottish, Welsh or Irish – less than one third said British. Only 27% of Scots said they were British, and even in England the figure was below 50%. This was not a manifestation of fringe nationalism, nor a rejection of Britishness – it was much more probably evidence of a strong regional or national sense of identity within the overall ambit of the United Kingdom.
Pre-partition the vast majority of people in the six counties that became Northern Ireland had no problem describing themselves as Irish. Post-partition unionists continued to do so, even though the Irish state was increasingly appropriating the label, and as recently as 1992 an Ulster Unionist Party paper presented to the inter-party talks declared ‘Many of us are proud to be Irish, and will always hold ourselves to be so’. Increasingly, however, and particularly in the context of the negotiations over the past decade, the term ‘Irish’ has become less a general description of identity and more a specific badge of national or political allegiance, specifically indicating a preference for a united Ireland over the status quo.
In the Northern Ireland context these are essentially expressions of a preference for a political identity rather than a cultural one, though the close identification of the Irish state with a catholic ethos (real) and a gaelic culture (theoretical) has helped increase northern Protestant rejection of Irishness. Behind this, however, lies a very broad culture common to all communities, north and south – that of the English language, of Premiership soccer, of both popular and classical music, of theatre and film and literature.
Unionists generally could be more open-minded about cross-border cooperation. The existing bodies are quite wide ranging, but their activities are closely controlled by a unionist veto. Further co-operation may be mutually advantageous especially in the area of public services like health, and cultural and sports activities.
It is ironic, and a touch tragic, that the only formal cross-border cooperation under the Belfast Agreement in the cultural sphere deals with the Irish language and Ulster-Scots – one very much a minority, partly politicised and controversial aspect of modern Irish life, the other little more than a retaliatory invention. Unionists must take some of the blame for this; the attempt to erect Ulster-Scots as some sort of counterweight to Irish was a dishonest, short-sighted and ultimately self-defeating exercise in competitive nationalism. All it does is boost the delusion that the Irish language is a key to ‘Irish’ culture, and bring into disrepute the legitimate, if somewhat modest, Ulster-Scots cultural heritage.
Would it stretch unionist imagination to breaking point to consider a cross-border cultural body, which would work to promote the best of all culture – which would develop cooperation in drama, opera, ballet and film and build on the close links already operating in many of these areas? The National Museum, the National Library, the National Gallery, the Irish Museum of Modern Art all embrace the whole island in their collections. The same point is even truer for the major UK cultural institutions and collections which are of great importance for all the people of the island of Ireland. Cooperation between the whole island and the rest of the UK should be further developed as part of this cultural sharing.
To nationalists cross-border cooperation is a vital element in any settlement. However, their constant linking of it to the goal of political unity makes it a problem for many unionists. But unionists do not have to assume it is simply a concession to nationalism; it can be seen not as an attempt to weaken the Britishness of the unionist population, but rather as a sign of confidence, a way of emphasising that the totality of relations in these islands can be accommodated within a settlement that does not require constitutional change.
Northern nationalists now face a historic dilemma in the light of the census returns and the prospect of living indefinitely under the Belfast Agreement or something like it.
Many unionists tend to see the Agreement as a nationalist triumph paving the way to Irish unity, but in fact it presents a greater challenge to nationalists. It commits them to accepting that Northern Ireland is legitimately part of the United Kingdom by the will of a majority of its people, and to playing their full part in its politics, government and administration. This has profound implications for the meaning of nationalism in Northern Ireland. Up to the present there is little evidence that either moderate SDLP–type nationalists, or the more extreme Republicans have faced up to these.
The belief that demography would inevitably produce a different majority preference within the not too distant future has enabled nationalist leaders to minimise, if not ignore, those implications. The census figures should dispel any such illusions; there is no realistic hope of majority consent for Irish unity in anything like the foreseeable future, if indeed ever. How now can nationalists reconcile pursuing Irish unity as the primary focus of their political activity with the reality that it is not going to happen?
It is not an easy challenge for any nationalist politician or voter to face, for belief in the basic injustice of partition and in the overwhelming rightness of Irish unity and in its inevitability have been central tenets of nationalism since partition. By that time Irish nationalism was already intensely geographical; it was the territory, the island of Ireland, not language, not culture, not even religion that was the focus of national sentiment. Even today the physical island remains an object of almost mystical devotion.
Partition was the sundering of that holy ground, and the reunification of it became the be all and end all of nationalism. Thus Sinn Fein explicitly identifies partition and the continued ‘British presence’ here as the root cause of all our troubles, which can be ended only when partition goes. The SDLP when it was founded in 1970 placed more emphasis on radical policies within Northern Ireland and rejection of violence and on greater cooperation and understanding between North and South. Eventual Irish unity by consent was its ultimate, much less immediate goal. But it was nationalism that caused it to split in 1979, when its founding leader, Gerry Fitt, resigned, declaring that nationalism as a political concept had not brought peace to Northern Ireland.
Since then the continuing Troubles and the dramatic rise in support for Sinn Fein have seen the SDLP shift its ground, becoming in some ways more traditionally nationalist, not less, despite deep private reservations on the part of some senior party members. Once the severest critic of Sinn Fein and political violence, it became Sinn Fein’s uneasy partner in a pan-nationalist front while at the same fighting for its political life in a struggle for nationalist votes, a struggle made more vital by enhanced nationalist expectations aroused by the Belfast Agreement. Every bit as much as Sinn Fein, the SDLP has recently tended to look to demography and the inevitability of a nationalist majority for its salvation.
That expectation is no longer sustainable. Nationalists must now ask themselves profound questions about the future of Irish nationalism as a political creed within the United Kingdom. No one can require nationalists to stop being nationalists and become unionists, nor forsake their Irishness and embrace Britishness as an alternative, but a fundamental re-evaluation of nationalism in the Northern context, in the light of the census figures, is now vital. Is a broader Irish nationalism possible; one which no longer has the political focus of an independent Irish state in a united island?
The SDLP in its origins was an attempt to adapt nationalism to medium if not long-term acceptance of partition. The difficulties that caused were evident in the changes in party leadership in 1979 and its subsequent ‘greening’. Even so, it has long shown awareness of the need to present itself as a nationalist party of a different kind to Sinn Fein – more moderate, more liberal and more intelligent. John Hume constantly sought to portray its nationalism as a positive factor in tune with European integration.
Unity by Persuasion
More recently the party has again shown signs of seeking to redefine its nationalism. In February 2001 the party’s newly installed leader, Mark Durkan, addressed the Oxford Union and launched what he termed his New Nationalism. But despite insisting that the SDLP had radically changed the nature of nationalism, and proclaiming an ‘integrated, agreed Ireland’ as his goal, Mr Durkan restated his party’s fundamental aim to be the reunification of the island under an independent Irish Government, with the North’s consent, and by peaceful means. (In fact, exactly the policy of mainstream nationalism at least since Sean Lemass addressed the same Oxford Union in 1959.)
He did, however, add that ‘an essential defining part’ of this New Nationalism was a genuine exercise to persuade unionists of the merits of Irish unity. This was a recognition of the implications of the consent principle, for without successful persuasion of the unionist population there could be no reaching the nationalist goal. Its novelty lay in the fact that hitherto nationalist attempts at persuasion had been directed mainly at London, Dublin and Washington rather than Belfast, in the belief that pressure from there would oblige the unionists to consent.
Making the persuasion of unionists the defining element of a new nationalism immediately poses two key questions: what arguments will you use, and how does your policy cater for the possibility that unionists will not be persuaded? Without good answers to both, new nationalism may turn out to be very old-fashioned. A third question raises another issue. Irish News columnists reacted quickly to the census results by restating the nationalist tactical aim as one of picking off enough protestants to make unity achievable. Even if, though it seems highly unlikely at present, a sufficient number of unionists could be persuaded to accept unification as the only way of giving them hope of stability and normal lives, would unification based on a narrow overall majority vote guarantee any such thing?
Mr Durkan has said that unity would indeed hold out a guarantee of permanent peace, economic growth and an inclusive and fair society. But the guarantee of permanent peace within a united Ireland could sound to some ears as a warning that IRA violence will stop only when unity is achieved. It takes no account of the possibility of violence from anti-nationalists swept into a united Ireland against their will. The promise of economic growth sounded better when the Celtic Tiger was in the whole of its health, but even then Mr Durkan made no reference to the internal UK transfers into Northern Ireland which Dublin could never match, and which remain vital to the standard of living here.
An inclusive and fair society is already promised in Northern Ireland under the Belfast Agreement; why unionists might wish to exchange that for the promise of something similar as a minority within an independent Irish state Mr Durkan does not say. Yet Mr Durkan seems very attached to the idea that transferring the Belfast Agreement in toto from its current location within the United Kingdom to being part of a united Ireland is the key to convincing the unionists.
Despite the census results Mr Durkan’s new nationalism still seems to be betting heavily on unionists realising that the numbers game will soon be up. They simply need persuading that the time has come to relax and enjoy it. With some unionists, before December, seemingly ready to believe the exaggerated claims based on demography, and accept the inevitability of a Catholic majority in Northern Ireland, such an approach could have had an appeal to moderate nationalists. Even then the necessary assumption that the Catholic community would vote to a man for Irish unity made the policy a very long shot indeed. After December it can have little merit.
Where then does this leave the SDLP? What is the key objective of the New Nationalism if unity is not available? Is the SDLP ready to commit itself to an indefinite future as the party of a minority community pursing an unachievable goal? And can it even survive as the party of the minority community if its chief tactic in competing with Sinn Fein is a slightly different version of anti-partitionist nationalism?
Growth of Sinn Fein
Sinn Fein’s growth vis a vis the SDLP in recent years is probably due as much to its efficient organisation and its ability to extract political concessions from London as to any preference among the nationalist community for physical force over constitutional methods. At the same time its ‘peace’ posture coupled with a vigorous rewriting of the history of the Troubles has allowed it to continue to benefit from the glamour that attaches to armed struggle in the eyes of a section of the younger generation in the nationalist community. It represents a more virile nationalism, the daring exploits of which have won great gains for that community. Those exploits, for the most part, are obscured by the passage of time, and can be presented as essential actions in an armed struggle, not the obscene acts of terrorism they actually were.
In the short-term Sinn Fein has two main objectives – to complete its demolition of the SDLP and establish itself as the undisputed representative of the nationalist community, and to ensure that the Belfast Agreement is implemented in full according to Sinn Fein’s interpretation, particularly as regards policing, cross-border cooperation and ‘demilitarisation’.
But its rhetorical adherence to a blunt territorial nationalism, anti-partitionist and anti-British, is even more marked than that of the SDLP. For it too the Belfast Agreement, followed by the census figures, should present difficulties. However, the great changes since the cease-fires of 1994 and the rapid acceptance of its leaders in Downing Street, Merrion Street and Pennsylvania Avenue have enabled it to present the surrenders of principle involved in joining a regional British executive and sitting in a UK regional Assembly as indications of progress towards its ultimate goal of Irish unity.
This approach has caused strains within the Republican movement, both in the form of splinter groups such as the Real IRA and the Continuity IRA, and in internal dissension within the Provisionals. The major split that many would have expected, given the history of republicanism in Ireland, has not, however happened. This is partly because the increasingly pragmatic approach of the leadership since the 1981 decision to adopt the ballot paper alongside the armalite has proved so successful politically, and partly because increasing confidence in the early demographic resolution of the problem left scope for tactical flexibility.
If, however, the prospect is now an indefinite prolongation of partition, the nationalist gains in the Belfast Agreement will soon appear modest enough from a Republican perspective, and the cross-border dimension limited. This will present a Sinn Fein still wedded to the rhetoric of 1916 and to the still-armed and active Provisional IRA with serious problems, beginning with that of getting the institutions restored, and itself back into the Executive. Thereafter, with Sinn Fein part of a regional executive within the United Kingdom, what will happen to the whole catechism of republicanism - the sovereign, independent Irish Republic of 1916, the inextinguishable right of the people to ownership of the island, the illegality of partition?
Sinn Fein will have an acute problem with its attitude to physical force, and to the events of the Troubles. The 1916 Rising was based on the right of the Irish people to assert ‘in arms’ their sovereignty and indefeasibility. Sinn Fein throughout the Troubles defended, and still defends, the Provisional IRA’s exercise of that right, both in pursuit of unity, and in combating alleged injustice. Even with the Belfast Agreement implemented to the last letter, partition would remain, and in those circumstances, according to Sinn Fein’s own assertion, injustice with it. How then would Sinn Fein square circumstance with a total commitment to peaceful means?
It is the SDLP which should be posing these questions, reopening the vital distinction between moderate, non-violent nationalism and the extreme Republican variety which still clings to the right to armed struggle. Instead, regrettably, the SDLP seems determined to assert its own undiluted nationalism, and do all it can to ensure Sinn Fein’s inclusion in the Executive, whatever its links with the Provisional IRA. The SDLP may have wasted a historic opportunity when it made clear to Mr Blair last October that it would not contemplate supporting Sinn Fein’s exclusion.
Essentially, SDLP members should have more in common with the UUP than with Sinn Fein. If the party could recover its reconciling origins there would be the prospect of a new cross-community Executive without Sinn Fein. If that is not possible, then only a rapid transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means by Republicans can avert long-term Direct Rule.
Nationalists are not going to stop being nationalists, whatever the logic of the census figures or of the consent principle. But does the focus of nationalism have to be a politically unified and independent island? Does nationalist participation in politics have to be via nationalist parties, the prime aim of which is incorporation of Northern Ireland into an Irish state?
The idea of the nation as the key unit of organised society from which the state draws its legitimacy, is historically fairly recent. In its short lifespan it has helped spawn a multitude of conflicts and two world wars. It remains a potent and divisive force, despite the fact that it has proved an ever-more ambiguous and flexible concept. There is no clear definition of a nation that could be applied to all so-called nations, though most people are convinced they belong to one, and the states of Europe are indeed based on the nations from which they take their names.
Manifestly nation states and national identities have not disappeared. Nor has there been any effort within this integrating Europe to alter existing state boundaries to accommodate the demands of isolated minorities. The European Union has not sought to eliminate borders, but to make them as porous as possible, posing no obstacles to economic, social and cultural movement. An evolving European citizenship has helped give substance to the separation of the concepts of citizenship and nationality – the rights of the individual stem from and are guaranteed by his citizenship, irrespective of his nationality; his nationality can remain, irrespective of his country of residence and citizenship.
The idea that every nation must have its own state today finds its most ardent advocates among the more overtly nationalist movements in Europe – in the Balkans, for example, among the Basques, in Scottish nationalism, and, of course, in Northern Ireland – in other words among those peoples who do not have, or are not part of their own nation state, and whose political activity is focused on achieving that aim.
These examples, and others like them, are the exception, not the rule. In most European states there are minorities with a nationality other than that of the majority, who are not agitating for constitutional change and are to varying degrees integrated into the political life of the state. For some a strong sense of national identity may remain, along with a distant vision of rejoining a national home, but it is not a significant element of their politics let alone the defining one.
Nationalists, by retaining Irish unification as their primary political goal, are consigning themselves to permanent minority status in the political life of Northern Ireland, even though under the Belfast Agreement they are guaranteed remarkable levels of equality of participation in administration and public life. They are also helping condemn Northern Ireland to a permanent unionist-nationalist apartheid, which, as we are currently seeing, has the capacity to poison many aspects of life.
The starting point of an individual’s nationalism is his belief that he is part of a particular nation, thus Irishmen believe they are part of the Irish nation. How anyone defines that nation may depend on time and circumstances. The Belfast Agreement recognises the right of anyone in Northern Ireland to be Irish, or British, or both; he can be a British and an Irish citizen.
Is the Irishman living in Northern Ireland any less Irish than the one living in the Republic? He lives on the island of Ireland, he speaks the same language as the rest of the island, he probably shares a church with the rest of the island. If he plays sport the odds are that it is a sport organised on an all-island basis. If he plays rugby, cricket, hockey, tennis, golf or almost any other sport well enough he can represent ‘Ireland’. If not, he can still support ‘Ireland’.
He travels freely throughout the island, with no passport requirement, no border controls. His literary heritage can be the same as the southerner, including Shakespeare and Joyce, Milton and Heaney, Yeats and the writers of the Gaelic revival. The National Gallery in Merrion Square will be of as much relevance to him as that in Trafalgar Square, and a lot closer. He can read a Dublin daily newspaper and watch RTE.
He cannot, admittedly, vote in a Dail election, nor does he pay his taxes to the Dublin Government, nor live under its jurisdiction. But to suggest that diminishes his Irishness is to fall into the trap of equating identity with citizenship, or nationality with place of residence. The New Ireland Forum in 1984 tried to blur these distinctions when it asserted that Northern nationalists were ‘denied the right to political expression of their Irish identity’. In the absence of any explanation of what that right might be it can only be assumed that the Forum was trying to present the demand for unity in the guise of fundamental rights, not the traditional territorial nationalist claim it is.
But the Irishman in Northern Ireland does live in, vote in, and pay his taxes to a state which is partly Irish – the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.
The question facing nationalism in Northern Ireland now is what policy best serves the interests of those in Northern Ireland up to now identified as nationalists. Is it one which insists its primary aim is something it knows is not going to happen – Irish unification? Or is it one which promotes the economic, social and cultural interests of those same people, which seeks to preserve and develop their Irish identity within the existing constitutional framework, and which perhaps seeks to persuade others in Northern Ireland of their Irishness.
This latter task is made infinitely more difficult if not impossible while that Irishness is constantly linked to the existing Irish state, and to the demand for union with it.
Politics here are locked into the unionist-nationalist divide, and cemented into it by the provisions of the Belfast Agreement. This is not going to change easily or rapidly, and nationalist parties will continue to command the bulk of the votes of the minority Catholic-nationalist community. As the struggle between Sinn Fein and the SDLP for such votes is a competition between declaredly nationalist parties, the SDLP is obviously eager to show that its different approach to current issues involves no weakening of its fundamental commitment to Irish unity.
These circumstances, with Assembly elections still an imminent possibility, are not conducive to a soul-searching debate on the nature of nationalism, but such a debate is essential, whether led by the parties or by questioning voices in the nationalist community. The SDLP in particular could bear in mind the persistently significant numbers of Catholics who regularly tells the pollsters that they do not favour Irish unity. Many of these must nevertheless be regular SDLP voters – voting for moderate nationalism, but not actually in favour of the party’s fundamental aim of Irish unity.
Increasing numbers of prominent Catholics, presumably SDLP supporters, are comfortable enough as citizens of the UK to accept awards, including knighthoods, under an honours system rich in monarchical and imperial symbolism. Presumably neither they, nor eminent citizens of the Republic such as Tony O’Reilly and Bob Geldorf see their Irishness in any way diminished by accepting such awards. The numbers of such recipients must surely increase as Catholics, or ‘perceived Catholics’ occupy more and more key posts in the political, administrative, commercial and cultural life of the province.
If such a scenario has no appeal to today’s nationalists, then they must articulate much more clearly what they see as alternatives. Mr Durkan has to put forward real arguments to persuade unionists that their historic objections to incorporation in an Irish state are groundless, and that detaching themselves from the British state will be harmful to neither their economic nor social and cultural interests. He has also to address the very real issue of whether unification based on a small overall Northern majority would offer any hope, let alone guarantee, of peace and stability.
Crucially, all nationalists, both SDLP and Sinn Fein, really have to contemplate the possibility that unionists will neither be outbred, nor persuaded into a united Ireland. What then? Will re-partition, with or without transfer of population, become the only logical option? Or will we be back to discussion of joint-authority – an arrangement which has never worked anywhere else, and which all parties up to now agree could not work here?
Northern nationalists’ insistence on making Irish unification the central goal of their organised political activity is the core of the problem. This gives them a large responsibility for moving to a solution.
For most of the past 30 years governments in Dublin have enjoyed much power with little responsibility as regards Northern Ireland. Their role has not entirely been that of Baldwin’s harlot through the ages, for events in the North have cost the South both economic loss and human tragedy. But Dublin has had an increasing input into policy in Northern Ireland, amounting virtually to a veto after 1985, without having to take anything like a comparable share of responsibility for the province.
Garret FitzGerald, in his Reflections on the Irish State (2002) asserts that after 1972 Dublin Government policy was directed primarily towards seeking peace and stability in Northern Ireland, rather than pursuing nationalist dreams. But as the New Ireland Forum made clear in 1984 it was still Dublin’s belief that peace and stability could be achieved only in some form of Irish unity. There was no abandoning of the old nationalist goal, nor of the belief that partition itself was an injustice, or that the core of the problem was the unfair treatment of the minority in the North. Today Fianna Fail still lists as its first aim Irish unity, and its commitment to a settlement under the Belfast Agreement is made explicitly ‘without prejudice to the ultimate goal of achieving a united Ireland’ (Fianna Fail manifesto, 2002).
This is not to assert that successive Dublin governments, whatever their rhetoric, have been actively pursuing the goal of Irish unification. As a real policy objective it has demonstrably little appeal to the Republic’s electorate, and only the most fervent conspiracy theorists among unionists could believe that everything from Sunningdale to the Belfast Agreement has been part of a coherent Dublin master plan to end partition.
Rather the objective seems to have been to contain the problem, minimising the harmful impact on the Republic, while at the same time preserving the rhetoric of nationalism, and, wherever possible, enlarging the ‘Irish dimension’. This had the double objective of increasing Dublin influence over UK Government policy, and of assuaging Northern nationalists by promoting their interests inside Northern Ireland and affording them access to all-Ireland institutions and involvement. In the context of the South’s ‘national question’ it had the merit for Dublin of being capable of being presented as movement, however modest, towards rather than away from unification. Increasingly, southern political leaders have looked to demography and an eventual Catholic majority in the North as a means of resolving the problem in the long term, and meanwhile of avoiding hard policy choices.
This approach may not seem all that unhelpful, but we would argue that certain elements in it have contributed significantly to the prolongation of the crisis in the North, and still today constitute obstacles to progress.
The Republic’s constitutional claim over the North has long been an irritant, modified only after almost 30 years of conflict, and then as a bargaining counter in the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement. Such a claim over the territory of a neighbouring friendly state, manifestly contrary to the wishes of a majority in the territory claimed, was hardly the action of a modern European state actively participating in the European integration enterprise. Nor was it consistent with the Republic’s own constitutional undertaking to make ‘the generally accepted principles of international law’ the basis of its relations with other states.
But it was more than an irritant; implying as it did the illegality of partition it was useful to those arguing that armed struggle against it was justified. It also helped sustain a nationalist sense of grievance, particularly inside Northern Ireland, as it also did unionist resentment and mistrust. The question of changing this claim was under active consideration in the 1960s, and Dublin was well aware from the onset of the Troubles of its negative impact on the Northern situation. But nothing was done for three decades, decades which saw appalling violence in the North.
The belated changes in 1998 did remove the explicit assertion that the whole island was ‘the national territory’, and recognised that unification would require majority consent in both parts. But unification is still envisaged in the Constitution and declared to be ‘the firm will of the Irish nation’. The nation is defined as anyone born in the island. There remains, therefore a strong implicit claim to the whole island, particularly in the light of the unaltered Article 4, which declares the name of the state to be Ireland. In all international forums the Republic strenuously insists that the name of the country is ‘Ireland’ and refuses to accept designations such as ‘Republic of Ireland’ or ‘Irish Republic’.
There are other manifestations, petty in themselves, of Dublin’s reluctance to give full recognition to Northern Ireland’s status. Why does the Department of Foreign Affairs prevent the Irish Ambassador in London from paying routine visits to Northern Ireland, as is normal practice for London-based ambassadors, particularly of EU-member states?
Why is there no Irish consulate in Belfast, as there is in Edinburgh and Cardiff? There is an Irish presence in the joint secretariat of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Belfast’s Windsor House, and in the British-Irish Council Secretariat in Armagh, but no Consulate, despite the much greater demands in Belfast for consular services, such as Irish passports, than in Edinburgh or Cardiff.
A properly accredited Irish consulate in Belfast could handle BIIC work, issue passports and look after distressed citizens of the Republic. The only reason there is no consulate, or that the Ambassador is confined to mainland Britain, is that Dublin cannot yet bring itself formally to acknowledge that Northern Ireland is legitimately part of the United Kingdom, despite the democratic endorsement of the consent principle by the Irish people. Why else should there be any reluctance in the Republic to fly the flag of the United Kingdom, or play its national anthem? Or indeed to erect signs at the border signifying the limits of its territory. And why has there still been no State visit by a United Kingdom Head of State?
Political leaders in Dublin, as in London, repeatedly insist that mutual trust is essential to any successful implementation of the Belfast Agreement, yet the Dublin approach to these matters is destructive of trust. To assert, on the one hand, that Northern Ireland is part of the UK by the will of the majority, yet on the other refuse to relinquish the implicit claim to it or to treat it with correct formality as part of the UK, devalues the sincerity of the endorsement of consent.
Still greater mistrust is generated by the apparent double standards applied by Dublin Governments to the renunciation of violence required by all participants in the Belfast Agreement. Dublin has resolutely resisted any suggestion that Sinn Fein should be excluded from the Executive because of its links with the Provisional IRA, yet prior to the last election the Taoiseach explicitly ruled out any Sinn Fein participation in Government in Dublin for precisely that reason. Double standards towards terrorist violence were again displayed when Dublin refused to release, under the Agreement, those convicted in connection with the killing of Garda McCabe.
The potentially fatal flaw in the Belfast Agreement has always been the combination of a mechanism guaranteeing Sinn Fein a place in the Executive with a requirement that all parties are totally and absolutely committed to exclusively democratic and peaceful means. Tony Blair appeared to recognise that with his written pledge at Coleraine in 1998, that there would be no place in government in Northern Ireland for anyone associated with violence. Many believed that meant no place for Sinn Fein, and voted for the Agreement on that basis, but Mr Blair’s Government, under urgent pressure from Dublin, nevertheless triggered the mechanism that put Sinn Fein into the Executive despite its close links, and overlapping leadership, with a still active Provisional IRA.
That factor has provoked the crises that have dogged the Agreement, and resulted in suspension of the institutions. While primary responsibility lies with London, Irish Governments have shown no willingness to apply any real sanctions on Sinn Fein for failing to fulfil its obligations. Instead they have passively watched the eroding of unionist support for the Agreement and the weakening of David Trimble’s position, both stemming directly from the Republican movement’s failure to give substance to Sinn Fein’s supposedly total and absolute rejection of force.
In its indirect dealings with the Provisional IRA through the agency of General de Chastelain’s Commission, and its tacit acceptance of IRA arms dumps in its territory, the Irish Government has contravened the spirit and probably the letter of the 1937 Constitution which forbids the raising or maintaining of any armed force not under Parliamentary authority. This ambiguity towards violence is in contrast with the Irish State’s resolute rejection of political violence from the Civil War of 1922-23 on, through IRA campaigns from the 30s to the 80s up to the the present ‘peace process’.
One of the key objectives of Dublin policy for many years, related to its firm rejection of violence, was the bolstering of moderate nationalism in the shape of the SDLP and the marginalisation of physical force Republicanism led by Sinn Fein. This is a policy which has now not just failed, but seems to have been abandoned even before it failed, in the rush for an ‘inclusive settlement’ launched, originally and ironically, by the SDLP leader John Hume, whose party has now been overtaken by Sinn Fein.
The Irish state has played a significant role in the moral rehabilitation of Sinn Fein, going right back to President Mary Robinson’s ground-breaking handshake with Gerry Adams in 1993 before the first IRA cease-fire, and the highly stage-managed reception of Adams by Albert Reynolds at the Taoiseach’s office in Dublin within a week of the cease-fire. At various crisis points Dublin has almost invariably supported Sinn Fein in its demands for fuller and speedier implementation of its interpretation of the Belfast Agreement, while decrying unionist demands for IRA disarming and disbandment, deeming them ‘unrealistic’ or even deliberately obstructionist.
In the context of the Belfast Agreement it ought to be the task of the Irish state to specify clearly what are the limits and boundaries of nationalist expectation. (Talk of the SDLP uniting with Fianna Fail, or of Fianna Fail organizing inside Northern Ireland are not helpful.) The Irish state should indicate precisely what it expects from political parties professing ‘total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means’.
Guardians of the Minority
It is time for government in Dublin to reappraise its relationship with the people of Northern Ireland as well as with the political parties here. Dublin’s insistence on cementing its relationship with one side in a bitterly divided Northern Ireland suggests more concern with nationalist objectives than with achieving peace and stability. Certainly the overall impact of this approach has been greatly to enhance northern nationalists’ expectations of constitutional movement in the direction of unity, and equally to inflame unionist fears. The changes in how Northern Ireland is governed brought about first by the Anglo-Irish Agreement and then by the Belfast Agreement have been radical, to say the least, and have been seen, by both nationalist and unionist though from very different perspectives, as moving towards Irish unification, and undermining the union with Great Britain. Whether or not these perceptions have been correct, the effect has been and continues to be destabilising.
The Belfast Agreement effectively removed Dublin’s role as guardian of the Northern minority. It was in 1972 that Dublin’s claim to be ‘the second guarantor’ began to be accepted by London in recognition of Dublin’s legitimate interest in Northern Ireland, and its right to be consulted. That right was explicitly endorsed by the Anglo-Irish Agreement, and Dublin was given a specific role in representing minority interests.
This approach had been tried briefly in 1922, and rapidly abandoned, with the warning in the Tallents Report that it should not be tried again. Its justification in 1970, when re-launched by Dublin, was that London, particularly with the Tories in power, would not be even-handed as regards unionist and nationalist. By the time the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed in 1985, there was a blithe assumption that unionists could look to London, and nationalists to Dublin, and, with the two governments cooperating closely, solid foundations of a settlement were laid. Ironically that Agreement confirmed just how little trust unionists placed in London, and just how unbalanced the ‘second guarantor’ equation had become.
The Belfast Agreement makes no mention of a role for Dublin as guarantor of the Northern minority. The unique relationship between the peoples of both countries is noted, but the specific acceptance in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of Dublin’s right to intervene on behalf of the Northern minority is dropped. That profoundly undemocratic element in the AIA so vigorously resented by unionists no longer operates, and this ought be reflected in the actions and policies of Dublin.
London has effectively conceded an equal role to Dublin in the long-term search for a settlement in Northern Ireland, a role symbolised in the joint chairmanship of the current round-table talks aimed at ending the suspension of the institutions. While it can claim some credit for the progress made in reduction of violence and the partial operation of the Belfast Agreement, Dublin needs to recognise far more openly the problems that continue. Divisions in society have increased, there is an almost total lack of the trust between the two political communities essential to a settlement, and terrorist armies are stronger than ever, if not so active. Northern Ireland is a more rigidly divided society.
The problem is not solved; it is unhelpful, to say the least, to maintain that the Belfast Agreement is the only answer. Both government and public opinion in the South have been guilty of hypocrisy. They have demanded that unionists depart hugely from accepted principles of democracy by sharing power with representatives of a still violent private army, but have been unwilling to do much themselves that would seriously trouble public opinion. The extent to which both southern government and southern public perception of the situation in the North is obscured by a fog of ambiguity towards violence, and of unreconstructed nationalism, was evident at the time of the suspension of the Stormont institutions in October 2002. A poll of southern opinion found 40% blamed unionist politicians for the crisis, and only 28% blamed Sinn Fein and the IRA. To almost anyone else any assertion that unionist intransigence, rather than continued IRA activity in Belfast, Colombia, Florida and elsewhere had caused the crisis, was straightforward Republican propaganda.
What is urgently needed is a thorough review by Dublin of its relations with and attitude towards a Northern Ireland likely to remain indefinitely within the United Kingdom, and of its relations with both unionists and nationalists. Up to now the Dublin Government's policy of leading Republicans away from violence under cover of support for long-term unification has effectively prevented it making any meaningful overtures towards unionists. While this approach may have helped diminish violence, the elements of appeasement that it contains have inflamed rather than calmed community relations within Northern Ireland. If the Republic wishes to do more than damp down violence while maintaining its traditional links with northern nationalists, it needs to make a radical change in direction. It has a vital role to play, but without a much more even-handed approach to both communities in the North it will become increasingly ineffective.
Politics is the art of the possible, not the pursuit of the impossible. Does the postponement of Assembly elections offer to those political forces genuinely committed to a peaceful settlement in Northern Ireland, based on cross-community consent, an opportunity to think again?
The two governments and some parties still insist that there is no alternative to implementation of the Belfast Agreement. Tony Blair keeps telling us we are tantalisingly close to solving the problem. David Trimble says only a couple of hundred hard-men Republicans bar the way. Bertie Ahern insists we have made enormous progress over the past 20 years and must persevere. George Bush sees the process in Northern Ireland as an example to follow.
Announcing the postponement of the elections, Mr Blair said the Assembly could be restored only on the basis of trust, but could give no reason why, nor indicate how, such trust would be found by the Autumn. He may indeed hope that the IRA will, after a period of reflection in which they consider the unpalatable alternatives, finally agree to disband. He is aware that the world has changed since September 11, 2001 for the IRA as well as for everyone else. He is also aware that his policy has been one of appeasement but is presumably unworried about the long-term consequences of fudging the issue of political violence for society in Northern Ireland if it means an indefinite absence of most such violence.
The Agreement, like all such arrangements, makes provision for a review. In doing so it contemplates the possibility of difficulties across the range of institutions which could require amendment of the Agreement itself, and of legislation implementing it. Five years after the Agreement, with the institutions suspended and trust being eroded, such a fundamental review is urgently needed.
To say that is not to dismiss the Agreement as a sell-out of Northern Ireland, or to question the motives and sincerity of many of those who worked so hard to achieve it. In some ways it has worked well, and lives have been saved. For many, however, it has been too ambitious, and too far removed from normal democratic principle. If all parties had moved swiftly to restore the primacy of principle it might just have worked. But those linked to paramilitaries did not do so, and the Agreement was asked to bear too much weight. It has predictably buckled.
Those who invested years, even decades, in bringing Northern Ireland to the point reached five years ago will not easily let go. Many others fear a political vacuum and recoil from even discussing the possibility of an alternative. But there comes a time when the possibility of defeat has to be faced. At that point all concerned need to examine the weaknesses of the Agreement, the flaws in the policy that led to it, and the reliability of the analysis on which the policy was based. In particular they should also take full account of the significance of the 2001 census returns.
They should then consider how to retain the best and most workable features of the Agreement and how constructively to amend or replace the rest. At the same time they must examine their own political philosophies and stances and test their relevance and usefulness in today’s circumstances.
Is the policy embodied in the joint approach of the UK and Irish Governments since the Anglo-Irish Agreement fundamentally flawed? Or, as others suggest, has difficulty resulted from the manner of the implementation of that policy by the two governments, particularly since the Belfast Agreement of 1998, an implementation that has been inept and unfaithful to the principles of the Agreement itself? Has too high a price been paid for ‘inclusiveness’, too much principle sacrificed and trust betrayed to keep those associated with violence within the political process, and indeed within government?
There is manifestly now less trust than there was at the time of the 1998 referendum. People then ready to trust the Republican movement’s professed attachment to exclusively peaceful means now have good reason to do so no longer; people then ready to trust Mr Blair that the Agreement would not put those associated with violence into government can no longer do so. Overall the trust placed in the Belfast Agreement by a majority in the unionist community has been eroded in the five years of implementation of the Agreement. On the other side many nationalists regard the change in unionist attitude as itself a breach of trust.
The United Kingdom Government
It is this catastrophic loss of trust which the UK Government must now address. It will not be repaired by a rewording of IRA statements or reassurances from Sinn Fein. Mr Blair’s defence that ambiguity was acceptable in 1998, and that it was fine to have Sinn Fein in Government because the IRA was ‘in a period of transition’ makes a lie of his own assurances at the time, and makes it impossible to have much faith in his assurances today.
The first step towards restoring trust must be the absolute assertion at the highest level that there is no place in office in Northern Ireland for anyone associated in any way with violence. It is time to stop talking of ‘a transition to exclusively peaceful means’ and to stop behaving as if the IRA was a well-intentioned community organisation, acceptable if only it would stop most of its paramilitary activities. It is time to remember that the IRA is an illegal terrorist organisation, and that the only demands any democratic government can make of it are that it disarms and disbands.
It is time for the Government to stop congratulating itself on how well it has done, and along with Dublin and Washington embark on a genuinely serious policy review. This should not be restricted to the details of the institutions of the Belfast Agreement, nor to the ambiguities and principles of that agreement, but to the whole approach. Even if one believes the Agreement might have worked, the manner of its implementation and the behaviour of various parties to it since may have made it unworkable.
For Mr Blair to say in May that the Agreement will not be renegotiated, and that it remains the only option is at best whistling in the dark and at worst an abdication of responsibility. His May 1st statement postponing the elections was an embarrassingly frank admission that the Agreement can now work only if the voters favour certain parties and reject others, and that the IRA has a veto over the process. That is not the way democracy works, and is no basis for a settlement. If he really wants the key elements of the Agreement to survive – devolution with cross-community government and north-south co-operation – and to provide the basis for a peaceful and stable Northern Ireland he must face the reality that there is no alternative to a substantial review and possible renegotiation of the Agreement.
In its present form it either automatically puts into government people associated with violence, thereby betraying its whole supposed ethos, or it collapses. A way has to be found to allow those ready to work the key elements to do so, while at the same time excluding those unwilling or unable not just to break all ties with illegal armies, but to join whole heartedly in the eradication of all such criminal activity.
This must surely include the replacement of the d’Hondt system with a new mechanism to produce a cross-community coalition Executive on a voluntary basis, preferably by means of specifying a minimum level of support in the Assembly not achievable by unionist or nationalist parties alone. This would allow the discarding of the obnoxious requirement for members to designate themselves unionist or nationalist.
The UK Government, and the political establishment, must take on board the reality that Northern Ireland is going to remain part of the United Kingdom, and that London is and will remain primarily responsible for it. While recognising the distinctive character of the province, it must stop thinking of it, and treating it as a semi-detached region where normal UK practice does not apply. The Labour Party must quickly organise in Northern Ireland, to give the party a direct rather than distant understanding of what its people want. It should continue to liase closely with Dublin, but stop giving, or appearing to give Dublin a veto on almost every policy change.
London has a duty to ensure that civil and human rights in Northern Ireland are protected to the highest degree, but it should stop pandering to the nationalist conceit that continued partition is a denial of some such right. Everyone has a right to campaign for any political objective, but it is dishonest to assert that all political objectives deserve ‘parity of esteem’ or have equal validity.
The Dublin Government
The Dublin Government should apply its principles regarding violence and political participation in Northern Ireland as it does within its own jurisdiction. Republicans have still some way to go in their transition from violence to peaceful democratic means, if indeed that is their intended route, and it seems that at least some of them want to combine both, and have no intention of taking the ballot box in both hands, not one.
The transition, if it is happening, is certainly not aided by Dublin’s ambiguity, nor by both governments and moderate nationalism now turning blind eyes to the Republican campaign of terrorism over three decades. It was not an armed struggle for equality, or for any defensible goal. Those who carried it on were not victims of circumstance, to be treated in a manner similar to those who suffered from Republican violence. It was vicious terrorism in pursuit of an extreme nationalist goal, designed to subvert the majority population, and one which terrorised, killed and maimed many Catholics.
It may still be politic not to demand formal surrender from the IRA, but nothing less than its complete disarmament and disbandment can restore trust in Northern Ireland. The Dublin government should take the lead in making this abundantly clear to Republicans; until they get that message they are unlikely to contemplate seriously the real implications of the consent principle.
Having signed up to the principle of consent, Dublin must acknowledge that a partitioned Ireland is as fully valid and legitimate as a united one, and, in the light of the census returns, the more likely state of affairs for the indefinite future. It should incorporate that fact into its policies and its rhetoric. It should be aware that its constitutional claim to the territory of Northern Ireland – unmodified during almost three decades of terrorist violence by extreme nationalists in pursuit of that same objective – was seen by many, at worst, as tacit complicity in that campaign, and at best, unhelpful in countering such violence.
Is the implicit claim, still retained in the constitution not least in the arrogation of the name of the island by the Southern state, compatible with consent, and does it promote trust within the North?
All political parties in the Republic should reconsider their avowed commitments to work for Irish unification in the light of the principle of consent and in the context of seeking an agreed settlement in Northern Ireland. Does adherence to an outdated rhetoric of nationalism take precedence over a real settlement? Do they still subscribe to the New Ireland Forum dictum that Irish unity offers ‘the best and most durable basis for peace and stability’ in the island? If so, why? Commitment to the Belfast Agreement as second best or even as an interim measure is not enough.
Dublin has a key role to play in redefining Irish nationalism in today’s circumstances, and has the ability to exert considerable influence over Northern nationalist thinking, even among Republicans who would historically have rejected such leadership. To date it has remained depressingly imprisoned within an outdated historical nationalism, fixated on the territorial unity of the island. It has shown growing awareness of the need to broaden the nature of nationalism in ways which might accommodate Northern protestants within a united Ireland, but it has yet to show any willingness to consider non-territorial concepts which could cater for expression of national identity without a single Irish state.
This is a real challenge facing northern nationalists. Mirroring to an extent the situation in unionism, the two main nationalist camps of Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been so busy shadowing each other in an exercise in competitive nationalism that they have not yet faced it. They may, as Mark Durkan said recently, remain one hundred per cent for a united Ireland and assert that they can persuade unionists to join them. But to date the SDLP has presented no serious arguments likely to change unionist minds, nor indeed has it spelled out the essence of its Irishness which can be accommodated only in an independent Irish state. The party, it would seem, has still to take on board the implications of the census returns.
Crucially, the policy of persuading unionists to consent to unity makes no allowance for the most probable eventuality – the refusal of that consent. Consequently that policy is most likely to lead to a perpetuation of tribal politics in Northern Ireland, with nationalists as a permanent minority. That cannot be responsible political leadership. At the very least the SDLP must confront the possibility of unionist refusal of consent and begin to articulate an alternative policy that takes account of that.
Many people in Scotland and Wales with a strong sense of national identity are content to express that identity within a UK context. Indeed the results of the 2003 elections to the devolved assemblies in those countries suggest a lessening of support for political independence. The SDLP was founded to give the minority in Northern Ireland a constructive political alternative to the sterility of traditional anti-partitionism; now is the time for the party to consider how best it can safeguard nationalist identity and interests within a United Kingdom settlement.
Republicans have still to confront the issue of the use of violence to achieve political ends in democratic society. Assurances of a commitment to exclusively peaceful means sit uneasily alongside continued justification, or indeed glorification of the use of violence in the immediate past. This ambivalence makes trust impossible among the broader community, and encourages those in the Republican tradition who still assert their right to continue the ‘armed struggle’.
Unionists desperately need to stop fighting each other and begin constructive dialogue on what they really mean by unionism, and how a new non-Orange unionism might make it not just possible, but even agreeable for Catholics and nationalists to accept a settlement within the United Kingdom, and to play a full part in the government and society of Northern Ireland.
The immediate issue of Sinn Fein and IRA arms is crucial; the approach to it has been and remains the sharpest divisive factor within unionism, both between the UUP and other unionist parties, and also within the UUP. At the time of the Belfast Agreement the arguments for and against taking Sinn Fein’s conversion to wholly peaceful means at its face value were finely balanced. After almost five years’ experience now is the time, not for mutual recriminations, but for a review of what that experience has shown, and consideration of what stance on the IRA and its arms is most likely to produce stability in Northern Ireland.
Beyond that hurdle, unionists have to accept, and convince others that they have done so, that things will never be the same. For the foreseeable future there will be cross-community government in Northern Ireland, and there will be significant and probably expanding cross-border cooperation and all-island institutions.