Establishing trust is necessary for moving beyond protests and violence

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That loyalists continue to protest at the decision to remove the Union flag from Belfast City Hall is unfortunate, but not surprising. At risk of sounding like some sort of revanchist throw-back, it was a fuse looking for a spark. I, like other dispassionate analysts of the ‘peace process’, have repeatedly warned that there has been a general malaise about confronting and debating outstanding issues, such as the real meaning of reconciliation between unionists and nationalists, ‘dealing with the past’, and the development of an underclass, particularly in Protestant working class areas.

A protestor on Castlereagh Street.

 

The failure to face up to the imperfect realities of the ‘peace process’ has undoubtedly stoked the flames of frustration, anger and suspicion in marginalised communities and continues to act as an accelerant on an open fire of disenfranchisement, sectarianism and violence.

Yet, one must ask the question: why was nothing done to prevent such a destructive turn of events? Why do loyalists, in particular, feel out of sorts with the ‘peace process’ in this ‘New Northern Ireland’?

One plausible explanation has come from Billy Hutchinson and the PUP, who maintain that this is a natural consequence of republicans acting outside both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. Hutchinson sees the flags protest as a by-product of ‘people’s frustrations that Sinn Fein are allowed to carry out a “Brits Out” campaign in Northern Ireland’.

But is it really a surprise that Sinn Fein has been pursuing a policy of ‘de-Britification’ in Northern Ireland?

The evidence for their political campaign is certainly there for those who care to look for it.

For instance, the end of the Provisional IRA’s armed campaign in 2005 may have seemed like a magnanimous gesture, but it did not lessen the group’s determination to continue their struggle for Irish unity in another, political form.

In a statement released in 2007, which backed Sinn Fein’s position on policing, the Provos stated that ‘Irish republicanism is stronger, more united and more confident than at any time since partition and that we can achieve an end to the partition of our country and the establishment of a free and independent Ireland’.

Though by now signed up to ‘purely peaceful and democratic means’, republicans remained unbowed in their zealous commitment to realise their objectives at the expense of all else, including reconciliation with their unionist counterparts. Ostensibly, they were simply reaffirming the self-appointed goals of those who signed the proclamation of 1916, as well as those who formed the First Dail in 1918, by reassuring supporters that they could deliver on promises by way of the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland. With the ‘dissidents’ carping from the side-lines, Sinn Fein soon found its room for manoeuvre even further restricted; they had become prisoners of their own rhetoric.

So, where’s the problem, I hear you ask? Surely loyalists were smart enough to understand where republicans were coming from?

Well, the problem lies in the confusing narrative continually trumpeted by Sinn Fein (and their awkward partners in the DUP) since 2007, which claims to be moving everyone towards a ‘shared future’. It is a narrative that is attracting an ever-more hollow ring to it, especially given the evidence to the contrary that appears to be emerging on a nightly basis in Belfast, not to mention the failed attempts to publish the blueprint for the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) ‘strategy’.

As more and more people are beginning to suspect, rather than advancing towards a ‘shared future’, where tolerance for diversity flourishes, we seem to be destined to repeat the mistakes of the past. And for those familiar with George Santayana’s oft-quoted aphorism, “those who forget the past are condemned to repeat it”, these words seem to be an apt description for the crisis unfolding on the streets.

In reality, as some critics have argued, we are moving headlong into something akin to ‘benign apartheid’, wherein both communities agree to disagree on constitutional issues and simply tolerate each other. As an experienced conflict mediator in Derry/Londonderry once confided in me a few years ago, ‘it’s not a “shared future”; it’s just plain co-existence’!

That is not to deny that individual Sinn Fein activists have engaged in community relations work. Some activists have worked with loyalists at the grassroots, addressing interface issues and promoting the work of ex-prisoner groups, but this is in danger of being drowned out by the forward march of ‘zero-sum’ ethnic politics.

The other tragedy in all of this is that Provisional republicans have been able to make their political agenda totally indivisible with the forward march of the ‘peace process’. Anyone who dares to criticise it, consequently, is labelled a ‘drug pusher’, ‘mentally ill’, or, simply, and perhaps most conveniently of all, a ‘sectarian bigot’. No attempt is made to try and understand the ‘non-criminal’, identity, issues behind the protests, or, for that matter, the violence that has followed suit.

It is little wonder that loyalism finds itself in a perpetual crisis.

On the one hand, we have a community that sees itself as having advanced its objectives, while on the other hand we have another that perceives itself to have ‘lost out’ and, lacking in clear political leadership, finds itself forced to take to the streets in an even more regressive way.

 

Loyalists at the protest at Belfast City Hall

 

As we have seen from media coverage, the unfortunate net result is that Northern Ireland does not look like it is at peace – a travesty considering that we are almost 20 years on from the paramilitary ceasefires.

As people in this part of the world know only too well, peace is a highly politicised concept that has to be constantly negotiated and re-negotiated between ardent opponents to make it stick.

In divided societies across the world, particularly those ravaged by armed conflict, ‘peace processes’ are an unhappy equilibrium that must be constantly maintained so as to avoid slippage back into war.

In the end, the Agreement only served to copper-fasten a compromise that could enable all parties in conflict to draw back from the brink honourably. The fine details on how to move on to the next phase of reconciling ideological differences for the benefit of all the people of these islands were left to posterity.

Many thought that the billions of pounds invested in the ‘peace process industry’ by the British and Irish governments – not to mention multiple donors in the United States and Europe – would help build our ‘new Jerusalem’.  They were wrong.

Indeed, it is difficult to comprehend how successful the throwing of money at the problem has actually been. So-called peace-walls are increasing in number, sectarianism is rampant and the parties to the conflict cannot even agree on a shared view of the past; or, as the flag vote shows, on the present.

So what? What is the sum total of this bleak assessment?

Well, it is clear that Northern Ireland will continue to remain divided, with little prospect of meaningful reconciliation, unless political representatives are honest about where they are leading their voters and supporters. They must reaffirm their commitment to accommodate one another in a way that fosters mutual respect and, above all, shows an understanding of the ‘other view’.

In other words, until trust is established at all levels of society, on all sides of this conflict, from the grassroots upwards, it is unlikely that a ‘shared future’ will ever be realised in Northern Ireland.

Building and rebuilding trust within and between communities, therefore, is what is required.


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About Author

Dr Aaron Edwards is a Visiting Research Fellow at the University of Huddersfield. He has worked closely with progressive loyalists for over a decade on their internal conflict transformation initiatives. A former journalist with The Other View magazine, his articles have appeared in Fortnight Magazine, the Belfast Newsletter and the Sunday Life. He is the author of Defending the Realm? The Politics of Britain’s Small Wars since 1945 (Manchester University Press, 2012) and The Northern Ireland Troubles: Operation Banner, 1969-2007 (Osprey, 2011), co-author (with Cillian McGrattan) of The Northern Ireland Conflict: A Beginner’s Guide (Oneworld, 2010), author of A History of the Northern Ireland Labour Party: Democratic Socialism and Sectarianism (Manchester University Press, 2009; 2011) and co-editor (with Stephen Bloomer) of Transforming the Peace Process in Northern Ireland: From Terrorism to Democratic Politics (Irish Academic Press, 2008).

4 Comments

  1. Aaron, interesting if somewhat one sided article IMHO. If you don’t mind, I’ll go over some of the points:

    i) ‘One plausible explanation has come from Billy Hutchinson and the PUP, who maintain that this is a natural consequence of republicans acting outside both the spirit and the letter of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement.’

    You have not actually detailed how what SF has done is outside the spirit and letter of the GFA, it would help all here if you did.

    ii) ‘Well, the problem lies in the confusing narrative continually trumpeted by Sinn Fein (and their awkward partners in the DUP) since 2007, which claims to be moving everyone towards a ‘shared future’. It is a narrative that is attracting an ever-more hollow ring to it, especially given the evidence to the contrary that appears to be emerging on a nightly basis in Belfast, not to mention the failed attempts to publish the blueprint for the Cohesion, Sharing and Integration (CSI) ‘strategy’.’

    This is something trumpeted by all parties, not just SF, but hey, that would make this article somewhat balanced and based in the real world. We have discovered that unionism doesn’t know what is or want a ‘shared future’ if this whole debacle serves as an insight to anything. I think what would be interesting is if you would actually detail what you believe would be a ‘shared future’ otherwise it is hard to judge what is happening as being counter to the outworkings of creating a ‘shared future’.

    iii) ‘The other tragedy in all of this is that Provisional republicans have been able to make their political agenda totally indivisible with the forward march of the ‘peace process’. Anyone who dares to criticise it, consequently, is labelled a ‘drug pusher’, ‘mentally ill’, or, simply, and perhaps most conveniently of all, a ‘sectarian bigot’. No attempt is made to try and understand the ‘non-criminal’, identity, issues behind the protests, or, for that matter, the violence that has followed suit.’

    How is this a ‘tragedy’? You do appear to be condoning the violence to a certain extent and the tone of your piece is how this is all SF’s fault, they don’t want a ‘shared future’ and they are acting outside of the ‘spirit’ of the GFA, however, it could also be equally noted that if the North is to have a ‘shared future’ it will mean that there will be changes in the public realm and that some symbols will be taken down or erected accordingly.

    Aside from the criminality behind the protests, political unionism has never explained to the working class what the outworkings of the GFA would be, how this would effect symbols and opportunities and investment. I don’t see how this can be laid at the feet of SF.

    In all honesty, your piece comes across as someone who didn’t read the fine print of the GFA or SAA and like many, you are suffering from buyers remorse. You need to detail what you believe was supposed to be the outcome and what a ‘shared future’ actually means in all reality. Will we see more Irish Nationalist and cultural symbols about side by side with unionist symbols or if that’s not going to happen will we see fewer unionist symbols about where shared spaces are made to be neutral for all?

    Further, you appear to be overlooking the fact that what Nationalism is doing (lest we forget the SDLP supported and backed this motion too) is the outworkings of a ‘shared future’; it will be equality or neutrality in the future and unfortunately, your piece seems to be trying to dump most of this trouble on SF as opposed to where it should lie, at the foot of political unionism who has not bothered to engage with their working class electorate and who has not bothered to prepare them for what a shared future actually entails.

    It is the typical line of ‘SF laid a trap for us and we fell for it’ which is plain nonsense. Also, working class unionism’s mopery about how their culture is being eroded is that, mopery. As Jude Collins has quite rightly noted, City Hall and elsewhere in the North is quite literally coming down in unionist and ‘British’ symbols. It is difficult to take serious their cries of cultural vandalism when they go bugaloo over placing an Irish sign for Christmas in the window of City Hall, further it is just as difficult to work with those who are unwilling to compromise or, as you have put it, ‘show an understanding of the ‘other view’’

    • Thank-you for your comments. Let me deal with them each in turn.

      i. This is a good point and one that, I appreciate, I did not fully explore in the article. Here, I simply restated what the PUP has said in relation to where they see the problem resting. But I realise that in electing not to elaborate on this criticism (theirs, not mine), I left others to make a judgement on whether they think that is a ‘plausible’ explanation or not. in fact, the PUP themselves have not spelt out in detail what they actually mean.

      What I think they mean is that Sinn Fein have in some ways reneged on their commitment under the Agreement to ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.’ Perhaps the PUP view the flag issue as symptomatic of an attempt to advance their political agenda of ‘Brits Out’ at the expense of the wider goal of reconciliation, which, I intimate in the article, seems to be their point. I must stress that this, amongst other things, only appears to be what the PUP is saying; we would need to ask them for further clarification.

      Note, however, that I deliberately said ‘one plausible explanation’. I did not mean it was the only one out there. You have advanced another, implicit perhaps, if I am reading your article correctly, which is that Sinn Fein has not acted outside the ‘spirit or the letter of the Agreement’. Again, we would need to ask them for their view, which is bound to be that they are not doing so. For the record, though, as everyone who has studied the Agreement and the political negotiations leading up to it will know, the document fudged a whole range of issues, several of which, including reconciliation, I detail further along in my article.

      Just to reiterate, I am not only blaming Sinn Fein for these problems. Other parties have to share responsibility. Having worked in the areas of community relations and conflict transformation on the ground in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, I would be the first to admit that loyalists should also take responsibility for the lack of debate, discussion and leadership on moving us towards a ‘shared future’.

      My article is merely designed to open up debate and to invite people to discuss these issues much more honestly than they have been doing.

      ii. It is fairly obvious that Unionism has been deeply uncomfortable about articulating what it means by a ‘shared future’. Like Sinn Fein, the problem is that this is a highly politicised term for them. In theory it means tolerating diversity, establishing trust and feeling empowered to discuss and debate the hard issues without the fear or threat of
      violence. In practice, however, it appears that what it really means is maximising singular ethnic, political, religious and socio-economic positions at the expense of fostering new relationships in a ‘post-conflict society’. The jury is still out on this conclusion.

      On what I personally think a ‘shared future’ should look like – this may seem purely academic, as you imply in your response, which would look neat and tidy, ‘balanced’ and rooted in the ‘real world’. I think that what can certainly help is to create the conditions in which tolerance is observed for those with differing political, religious and national allegiances feel that they can ascribe to their identities without fear.
      Perhaps the best place to start in aiding our move towards a ‘shared future’ is in the wording of the Agreement itself, which states that, despite the fact that lives were lost in the ‘troubles’, ‘we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’.

      That would be an obvious point of departure. However, grounding my analysis in the ‘real world’, unfortunately, tells a very different story.

      What we have, whether you take my word for it, or not, seems to be a society where negative emotional responses dictate political attitudes more than positive choices for all the people of Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland/the Six Counties* (*delete as appropriate). And, in this rather overused but under-elaborated term ‘the people’, I mean Catholics, nationalists, republicans, Protestants, unionists, loyalists, everybody in between and those who do not ascribe at all to any local ethnic-based
      identity.

      This is a sign of ‘negative peace’, in which people agree to disagree on the constitutional issue, amongst other things, and must be transformed into ‘positive peace’, where social justice, tolerance, respect and trust flourish between people who ascribe to different identities.

      iii. Firstly, on your point about me ‘condoning violence to a certain extent’ – that is simply wrong. Violence from whatever quarter should not only be condemned but also challenged, pure and simple. In the Agreement itself it states that the parties reaffirm their ‘total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise’.

      I happen to believe that is a key principle that we should all abide by.
      On my point about the ‘tragedy’ of Sinn Fein having equated the ‘peace process’ with their own agenda. Let me just clarify that the same goes for any other party. They are advocates for the peace process, not only its custodians and interpreters, and they must be prepared to engage people who feel marginalised by its ‘forward march’. They must also articulate the positive reasons for maintaining peace, including the diversity ought to be respected. That may include building consensus; it might also be about a whole host of other things, including, admittedly, establishing ‘neutral’ spaces, where everyone feels safe to celebrate their political and cultural diversity.

      If anything, what I meant was that people who do not agree with the direction this ‘peace process’ is taking them should be entitled to raise questions and discuss the merits of that transition peacefully. After all, was it not the Good Friday Agreement which stated that its signatories were acting in a ‘spirit of concord’? In my view, this means that in a democracy, even one configured along consociational (i.e. powersharing) lines, people must be prepared to voice their opinion. If the flags issue has told us anything, it is that when you do not permit that to happen then human beings, unfortunately, may feel frustrated and aggrieved.

      Again, for the record, and on a purely personal level, I support the peace process. Of course I do. Anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I took risks for peace and was prepared to ask hard questions of paramilitaries, while challenging them to give the people of Northern Ireland (note: everyone) the peace that was rightfully theirs.

      In this article I am merely trying to demonstrate that academics, especially, should display at least a modicum of ‘balance’ in analysing these issues; however difficult that may be. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate that than by playing ‘devil’s advocate’.

      To repeat, while I accept that it seems like I am laying the blame at the door of Sinn Fein – I do not think it is just Sinn Fein that got us into this crisis. In my other writings I have repeatedly challenged ‘mainstream unionism’, loyalists and others. Though I do accept that by being implicit about the failure of political leadership, I may not have made myself entirely clear.

      • Aaron, many thanks for coming back to me on this matter and for the detailed reply. If you don’t mind, I will go over it in some detail also:

        ‘What I think they mean is that Sinn Fein have in some ways reneged on their commitment under the Agreement to ‘partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands.’ Perhaps the PUP view the flag issue as symptomatic of an attempt to advance their (Sinn Fein’s) political agenda of ‘Brits Out’ at the expense of the wider goal of reconciliation, which, I intimate in the article, seems to be their point. I must stress that this, amongst other things, only appears to be what the PUP is saying; we would need to ask them for further clarification.’

        Perhaps they do, and until we hear someone from the PUP cogently and rationally argue it we can merely clutch at straws as to what they think. I would note that perhaps there should be some nuance in relation to the SF ‘Brits Out’ strategy, that there is a difference between wanting a UI and Dublin rule and wanting some form or equality or neutrality within the North. They (PUP and unionism in general) have conflated 2 issues into 1 and in this instance are not on the winning side whether it is with the vote or in the cauldron of public opinion. Further, until the learn to pick their battles and the response required we could see events such as this becoming a regular occurrence.

        ‘Note, however, that I deliberately said ‘one plausible explanation’. I did not mean it was the only one out there. You have advanced another, implicit perhaps, if I am reading your article correctly, which is that Sinn Fein has not acted outside the ‘spirit or the letter of the Agreement’. Again, we would need to ask them for their view, which is bound to be that they are not doing so. For the record, though, as everyone who has studied the Agreement and the political negotiations leading up to it will know, the document fudged a whole range of issues, several of which, including reconciliation, I detail further along in my article.’

        My problem is that you didn’t advance any others Aaron, hence why I advanced my own or that of many Nats in general. As a lawyer myself, I am wary of people talking about the ‘spirit’ of a contract, in fact there is no such thing, further, I wanted to note how your explanation is not in fact ‘plausible’. I know that the parties signed up to acting ‘in the spirit of the Agreement’ but what does this actually mean? This is akin to accepting favours, it is something i don’t do as they can never be weighed and any favour I may give in return may not carry the same weight (in the eyes of the other) as the one I originally received.

        Likewise, ‘spirit’ is such an awful term, but even if we work with it I have to ask, how do these actions fall outside the ‘spirit’ of the GFA? We judge this by facts, using the terms of the GFA as our guidance. That’s my rather simple test, others may want to use something different, but in my test the flags decision would pass the test.

        ‘Just to reiterate, I am not only blaming Sinn Fein for these problems. Other parties have to share responsibility. Having worked in the areas of community relations and conflict transformation on the ground in Belfast and Derry/Londonderry, I would be the first to admit that unionists, loyalists and others should also take responsibility for the lack of debate, discussion and leadership on moving us towards a ‘shared future’.’

        That’s fair enough, but lets be honest here, this issue at hand (flags) is a problem mainly within unionism where it did not prepare the ground with its grassroots on what a shared future would be. In the main we have instead had intransigence and what appears to be a political version of a Mexican stand off in the Assembly for years.

        ‘My article is merely designed to open up debate and to invite people to discuss these issues much more honestly than they have been doing.’

        And I hope it does Aaron, however, if you are going to play devils advocate you are best giving some of us an idea that this is what you are doing, otherwise by stating this after the fact may come across, if I were to be unfair, as covering one’s back side from some of the points I have raised including a) selectively blaming a certain party that everyone loves to hate, b) ignoring what’s going on, and even c) de facto condoning some of what we have seen on the streets.

        ‘ii. It is fairly obvious that Unionism has been deeply uncomfortable about articulating what it means by a ‘shared future’. Like Sinn Fein, the problem is that this is a highly politicised term for them. In theory it means tolerating diversity, establishing trust and feeling empowered to discuss and debate the hard issues without the fear or threat of
        violence. In practice, however, it appears that what it really means is maximising singular ethnic, political, religious and socio-economic positions at the expense of fostering new relationships in a ‘post-conflict society’. The jury is still out on this conclusion.’

        This is perhaps one of the best insights I have seen to date on the problems we face in regard to a ‘shared future’. I think unionism has largely set out its stall in such a way where they are liable to pull defeat from the jaws of victory going forward. If we look at the flags decision for instance, Nats voted to fly the union flag! This should be a victory for unionism but alas look at what we see. Further, if your leadership is constantly telling you are ‘losing’ as opposed to changing then we should not be too surprised when people come out and incoherently note that there ‘culture’ is being eroded. I have noted elsewhere that IMHO I believe that unionism is going through some akin to bereavement. I believe they see what is happening as some way of ‘losing’ whether it is the use of the Irish language or the implementation of equality legislation (see the PSNI for instance) when their political leaders could spin this a whole different, that Irish Nats are making a go of normalising the North and have signed up en masse to a British police service.

        ‘On what I personally think a ‘shared future’ should look like – this may seem purely academic, as you imply in your response, which would look neat and tidy, ‘balanced’ and rooted in the ‘real world’. I think that what can certainly help is to create the conditions in which tolerance is observed for those with differing political, religious and national allegiances feel that they can ascribe to their identities without fear.’

        It is somewhat academic and to be fair to you Aaron, you are an academic and not a pol, so I cannot have a go at you for that, however, I do think that like much of what is said by all parties (not just in the political sense) it is hard to disagree with. I think most parties are saying what you have said above, however, as has been the problem of late its the workings of it that interest me the most. Further, if one of the parties or sections of the community is unwilling to work ‘in the spirit of the GFA’ is it ok if another imposes it on them? Unfortunately, unionism has had the unique position of not being made to make too many compromises unless LDN decides to put some weight on them, they seem ill equipped to rationally debate their position and I wonder if the recent census results and changes in demographics will make them come out of their shell.

        ‘Perhaps the best place to start in aiding our move towards a ‘shared future’ is in the wording of the Agreement itself, which states that, despite the fact that lives were lost in the ‘troubles’, ‘we can best honour them through a fresh start, in which we firmly dedicate ourselves to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance, and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all’.’

        Yes, but what does this mean? If we drill down to the micro as opposed to focus on the macro, how has the actions of SF, SDLP and lest we forget, APNI, run contrary to that in relation to flags? I still have not heard a rational, cogent argument from unionism of any kind on this especially in the light of decisions taken by unionist controlled councils such as Lisburn and Craigavon.

        ‘That would be an obvious point of departure. However, grounding my analysis in the ‘real world’, unfortunately, tells a very different story.

        What we have, whether you take my word for it, or not, seems to be a society where negative emotional responses dictate political attitudes more than positive choices for all the people of Northern Ireland/the North of Ireland/the Six Counties* (*delete as appropriate). And, in this rather overused but under-elaborated term ‘the people’, I mean Catholics, nationalists, republicans, Protestants, unionists, loyalists, everybody in between and those who do not ascribe at all to any local ethnic-based identity.’

        I couldn’t agree more, but we have to weigh up which side is being more negative than the other as opposed to looking for ‘balance’ merely to come across as ‘fair’. What have Nats/Reps done of late aside from the decision in Newry. Met the Queen, given consent to Jubilee celebrations, stood down in BCC early to allow a unionist to take the mantel of Lord Mayor for the aforementioned celebrations, assisted in seeking funding for a ‘blood and thunder’ band in Tyrone. I look at the otherside, and yes, I am somewhat biased, but the first thing that leaps up at me is the Irish language sign in the window of City Hall and the mean-spirited response from unionism. I see intransigence in relation to an Irish Language Act, I see attempts to a) undermine the GAA at every opportunity and b) attempts to disingenuously make it the Nat equivalent of the OO. If we have one side that sees progress as loss and is more fixated on limiting the cultural expressions of its opponents and partners then they should expect this to be one of the areas that will become contentious.

        ‘This is a sign of ‘negative peace’, in which people agree to disagree on the constitutional issue, amongst other things, and must be transformed into ‘positive peace’, where social justice, tolerance, respect and trust flourish between people who ascribe to different identities.’

        Agreed, however, to reiterate, if one side believes a ‘shared future’ is something with only their cultural symbols and expressions about then we are going to have a problem when the other side (Nats) imposes a real shared future complete with either our own cultural symbols or one where we just rid the place of all cultural expressions.

        ‘iii. Firstly, on your point about me ‘condoning violence to a certain extent’ – that is simply wrong. Violence from whatever quarter should not only be condemned but also challenged, pure and simple. In the Agreement itself it states that the parties reaffirm their ‘total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving differences on political issues, and our opposition to any use or threat of force by others for any political purpose, whether in regard to this agreement or otherwise’.

        I happen to believe that is a key principle that we should all abide by.’

        Thank you for clarifying this, my apologies for assuming otherwise re condoning of violence.

        ‘On my point about the ‘tragedy’ of Sinn Fein having equated the ‘peace process’ with their own agenda. Let me just clarify that the same goes for any other party.’

        However, you never detailed this in your original piece Aaron, now did you? It did appear as some kind of ‘lets blame SF for all that has went wrong’ piece and as you had not noted any kind of desire during your piece for it to be treated as you playing devil’s advocate I think I was making a fair comment on your piece and that point in particular.

        ‘They are advocates for the peace process, not only its custodians and interpreters, and they must be prepared to engage people who feel marginalised by its ‘forward march’.’

        And as you have noted, they have made large inroads into engaging with working class unionist communities through out the North. This does not mean that they will always do what these communities want but it doesn’t mean they won’t listen and engage with them.

        ‘They must also articulate the positive reasons for maintaining peace, including that diversity ought to be respected. That may include building consensus; it might also be about a whole host of other things, including, admittedly, establishing ‘neutral’ spaces, where everyone feels safe to celebrate their political and cultural diversity.’

        I know I am being somewhat repetitive on this matter but if a section of society is unwilling for diversity to be respected, is it ok if the other side imposes it upon them? If you do not have someone who is willing to be a party to a compromise and where the status quo is no longer able to hold is it ok for a side to go it alone and do something unilaterally which all sane on lookers would see as being a fair outcome?

        ‘If anything, what I meant was that people who do not agree with the direction this ‘peace process’ is taking them should be entitled to raise questions and discuss the merits of that transition peacefully. After all, was it not the Good Friday Agreement which stated that its signatories were acting in a ‘spirit of concord’? In my view, this means that in a democracy, even one configured along consociational (i.e. powersharing) lines, people must be allowed to voice their opinion. If the flags issue has told us anything, it is that when you do not permit that to happen then human beings, unfortunately, may feel frustrated and aggrieved.’

        But that’s raised a whole host of questions. What weight should we allow to be given to the so called ‘marginalised’ in light of the fact that the people who would claim to act for them in politics (PUP for instance) receive no real support from their ‘community’. One of the few positives to be taken from this whole debacle is the numbers engaging in this rioting and disruption, they are few and far between compared to say the Drumcree unrest I saw when I lived in N. Armagh.

        Further, who says that these disaffected people are unable to raise questions about the direction of the peace process? I would argue that the North is an area that is coming down with chances for one to let their opinions be known whether it is at council level, Assembly, MP, MEP, a whole raft of media outlets (BT opinion section is just geared to criticism as opposed to analysis or thinking, Liam Clarke being a notable exception) and quangos that just love to know how we’re doing and what we are thinking. What the real problem here is not that people feel that they cannot raise any views that run contrary to the ‘narrative’ (whatever that is, I doubt we can even agree on that), it is that some people feel that their opinion is valid and want it acted upon even if the dynamic has changed. This may be a problem thanks to our old friend ‘creative ambiguity’ where everyone seemed to win something, but now in these straightened times it means that some will have to figure out what shibboleths they are willing to be killed.

        ‘Again, for the record, and on a purely personal level, I support the peace process. Of course I do. Anyone who knows me will vouch for the fact that I took risks for peace and was prepared to ask hard questions of paramilitaries, while challenging them to give the people of Northern Ireland (note: everyone) the peace that was rightfully theirs.

        In this article I am merely trying to demonstrate that academics, especially, should display at least a modicum of ‘balance’ in analysing these issues; however difficult that may be. I cannot think of a better way to illustrate that than by playing ‘devil’s advocate’.

        To repeat, while I accept that it seems like I am laying the blame at the door of Sinn Fein – I do not think it is just Sinn Fein that got us into this crisis. In my other writings I have repeatedly challenged ‘mainstream unionism’, loyalists and others. Though I do accept that by being implicit about the failure of political leadership, I may not have made myself entirely clear.’

        I don’t doubt it for a moment Aaron, and I wish you all the best of luck with your work and look forward to more thoughtful, well written and cogent pieces such as this, however, if you’re playing devil’s advocate, please let us know before hand 🙂 It makes my life a whole lot easier.

        I also feel that while many want to give some kind of ‘balance’ in their pieces and act as something like a ‘devils advocate’ it is best to do this based more in facts rather than emotions, however powerful the latter may be in shaping our actions. I felt that (and I do not wish to come across as being cheeky here or personal) you took an easy road by trying to have a go at SF. Why not write a piece where you tell us how the SDLP got us into this crisis, because no one is honestly suggesting this for a second.

        Further, while we all like ‘balance’ it should be noted that their is a rather large difference between looking for balance and either playing footsy with the truth, ignoring what has transpired or not articulating the logic of others so as to get a desired outcome.

        It begs the question of why did you bring SF into this discussion and not others? Hence my rather lengthy replies (sincerest apologies btw, we can do this by email correspondence if you would prefer btw).

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