Confronting the legacy of conflict: Othering and the Spirit of the Agreement…  By Dr Cathal McManus

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 Nineteen years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the political institutions it established in Northern Ireland are once again in crisis. 

This stems from Sinn Féin’s decision to resign its position within the Office of First Minister/Deputy First Minister in response to an alleged ‘Cash for Ash’ scandal involving its partner in government the DUP.

It quickly became apparent, however, that Sinn Féin’s decision to bring down the Executive was also a response to wider ‘legacy’ issues causing frustration within their grassroots. In his resignation statement in January, the late Martin McGuinness stressed:

“The equality, mutual respect and all-Ireland approaches enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement have never been fully embraced by the DUP. Apart from the negative attitude to nationalism and to the Irish identity and culture, there has been a shameful disrespect towards many other sections of our community. Women, the LGBT community and ethnic minorities have all felt this prejudice. And for those who wish to live their lives through the medium of Irish, elements in the DUP have exhibited the most crude and crass bigotry.

This statement draws attention to a significant failing of the peace process over the past nineteen years – the inability of both groups to confront the processes of Othering that have helped to generate and sustain political division over long periods of time and which continue to prevent progress on outstanding issues contained within the various peace accords since 1998.

Othering is a process of identification that enables us to define who we are and to differentiate us from the Other/s.

As Anthony Marsella describesconflict can emerge from this when our differentiation process is grounded in a perception that “we” are ‘self-righteous, moral, justified, and “good” by virtue of religion, history [and] identity’ whilst the Other is deemed ‘evil, dangerous [or]threatening’.

This is reinforced by the fact that Othering is a two-way process wherein all groups in any conflict will come to see themselves as being the superior group and their Other as being lesser and threatening. In Northern Ireland, for example, the Other is always deemed the sectarian whilst “we” best represent the values of tolerance and inclusivity

Such perceptions are augmented by narrow analysis of history that depicts “our” ideological attachment to such values whilst highlighting the bigotry and sectarianism of the Other. As such, neither group will easily accept dissenting interpretations of history that might question “our” analysis or highlight complexities.

 Each group will find it difficult to accept that it may have fallen short of the ideals for which it claims to stand, or, that it may have had a role to play in creating the conditions for conflict.

These processes of Othering have been a characteristic of modern Irish and Northern Irish history and have ensured that nation-building efforts since the nineteenth century – both British and Irish – have repeatedly fallen short through an inability to incorporate the Other.

Irish Unionism, despite its claims to represent ‘British values’ and constitutional democracy, failed to build an inclusive Union as a result of a sense of superiority over Irish Catholicism but also because of long-held fears that the majority population were determined to destroy Protestantism on the island. 

The ‘collective memories’ of massacres in 1641 and 1798 provided the historical basis for such insecurities whilst the development of an ultramontane Catholicism during the nineteenth century (and which influenced for much of the twentieth) merely “confirmed” their beliefs.

An important consequence of these processes is that the fears and insecurities held in relation to the Other help to mask their own sectarianism. Any actions taken to exclude the Other is deemed purely a measure of self-defense rather than a symptom of their own sense of superiority. 

The result, of course, was the creation of an exclusive and chauvinistic Unionism that looked down upon the Irish Gaelic identity and which, ultimately, served to alienate many Catholics from the Union.

These views/fears have continued to dictate the nature of Unionism following the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921, despite the added security of majority status. 

Anything ‘Irish’ continues to be deemed a threat to the Britishness of the state (the fear factor) whilst the Irish language was also deemed valueless (the superiority/sectarian factor).  


If Irish Unionism failed to construct a Union capable of representing its diverse populations, Irish nationalism has similarly failed to construct a vision for the nation that reassures Ulster Protestants and allays the fears they continue to hold. 

Republicans for example, like their Unionist counterparts, argue that they stand for inclusivity and equality and point to a celebrated line from the 1916 Proclamation which proclaims:

religious and civil liberty, equal rights and equal opportunities to all its citizenscherishing all of the children of the nation equally...

Yet, there remains a fundamental issue in regards to how republicanism approaches this commitment and which is evident from the concluding part of the above statement:

cherishing all of the children of the nation equally and oblivious of the differences carefully fostered by an alien Government, which have divided a minority from the majority in the past.

This draws attention to the fact that Irish nationalism and republicanism have historically questioned the legitimacy of the British identity of Ulster Protestants; a questioning that is often manifested in the belief that Protestants are Irish, they just haven’t realized it yet. 

The failure to accept this Britishness has led to an inability to recognize how republicanism, in words and actions, has helped to reinforce unionist fears and insecurities rather than forge the inclusivity that republicanism claims to espouse.

When, therefore, republicans argue for ‘Brits Out’ or ending ‘British influence’ in Ireland, they do not fully appreciate the symbolism of this or how it is interpreted by unionists

Quite simply, it is seen as an attack on their British heritage and identity – a view reinforced by disputes over Orange Order parades and the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

Republicans tend to explain this as part of an equality agenda that requires a dismantling of a ‘sectarian state’. In so doing, however, they fail to acknowledge their role in feeding the sectarian divisions that continue to blight our society. 

In particular, in labelling their Other as the sectarian they contribute to the Othering process by generating their own sense of superiority. Moreover, they fail to recognize their own inherent anti-British sentiments.

The 1998 Agreement represented an opportunity for both nationalism and unionism to reflect on the historic causes of the conflict here and to reframe their ideals in a way that better includes their Other. 

Instead, there has been a tendency to recreate the old themes of the conflict within the peace.

If we are to have a genuine peace – as opposed to a ‘relative peace’ – we need to confront our Othering processes and recognize ‘our’ own failings in building the inclusive society we claim to espouse. 

This piece is based on a paper entitled ‘Dealing with the Legacy of Ethnic Conflict: Confronting ‘Othering’ through Transformative Adult Education—A Northern Ireland Case Study’ to be published in Ethnopolitics. The author would like to thank the publishers and editors for providing free online access to the paper until the end of July.        

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I am a regular contributor to discussion programmes on TV and radio both at home and abroad. An experienced political editor and author specialising in Politics, Security and 20th Century Art.

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