(Address given at the BIA Cambridge)
These observations are but that – observations from one who has been a part of the life of Northern Ireland for twelve years.
They make no claim to being definitive but they convey a sense of feeling about how matters stand.
From my earliest days in Belfast, I identified two syndromes. The first I called the Looking Glass Syndrome. If you look into a mirror, you see only what is behind you. You cannot see through to the other side. Your expectation of the world, then, is that it resembles yourself and those around you.
The second is the See Saw Syndrome. If I am down, it is because you are up. The only way for me to get up is to bring you down. These operate against the background of three interrelated realities.
The first is that unrealistic expectations can make success seem like failure-and problems can appear to be greater just as they are being resolved.
The second, linked to the first, is that proper and laudable ambition for greater progress can sometimes make us unable, even unwilling, to see what has actually ben realised.
And the third is what I call the paradox of peace. Prejudice is more easily transmitted in its undiluted form when the reality of peace means that there is no daily or nightly evidence of its deadly consequences.
There is a further element in the context that seems to me to be of significance. We speak of Northern Ireland and its people as ‘emerging from conflict’ but I think that the truer statement is that we are emerging from violence and living with conflict. This is no mere semantic distinction. There is a deep and fundamental difference between both conditions and they require entirely different policy responses.
They pose a real challenge for politicians in terms of how to recognise, acknowledge, respect, manage and live with difference while being able to respond creatively to those elements of difference that are more deeply contested and so reduce the consequences of the enduring conflict – whether of aspiration, of history or of identity.
Add to this the almost universal preference for the Politics of Prevention over the Politics of Possibility, for saying ‘this is what we stopped the other side from doing’ rather than saying ‘this is what we could do together without diluting any fundamental principle’. This has real consequences.
It seems also to be necessary to refer to the current state of Tumble Dryer Politics where everything spins so rapidly that all are pushed to the outer margins and almost nothing is left in the centre. As Donald Trump might say, ‘not good, believe me’.
Let me also add a further syndrome, the Mirror Image Syndrome. This is different from the Looking Glass syndrome and resembles a modified form of Whataboutery. It is where each side attacks the other for doing what it has itself previously done (or would like to have done). Thus, having over the decades preached of the dangers of Rome Rule and confessionalism, the DUP explains its opposition to same sex marriage and abortion as ‘matters of faith’ which, naturally and unconfessionally, determine matters of politics.
On the other side, Sinn Féin attacks the UK Government for having a confidence and supply arrangement with the DUP when that is where Sinn Féin would dearly like to find itself – being essential to government formation in the state of which it wishes to be part. Thus, it would be part of the government of Northern Ireland and part of the Irish government that is a co-guarantor of the Agreements that sustain the Executive. It can aspire to this while, without any apparent blush, raising major opposition to the DUP’s role which it considers deprives the Westminster government of its ability to deal fairly. The Irish government may be suppressing a blush in this department as well.
One might add the Belfast Agreement and the Book of Leviticus to this list. In both, people focus on the bits they like and ignore the rest. Thus the Good Friday Agreement is Holy Grail for Sinn Féin but they cannot bring themselves to refer to Northern Ireland by its name although it is referred to in no other way in the Agreement.
Some members and supporters of the DUP invoke Leviticus to inveigh against homosexuality, and by extension, marriage equality while ignoring most of the rest of it.
It will soon be the case that there won’t be a kettle or a pot in Northern Ireland that isn’t poring over a colour card searching for the correct shade of black.
None of this is helped by the willingness of all sides to articulate as principles issues that are but aspirations that can be amended when confronted by convenience in which case the principle is no more than a slogan.
Perhaps none of this is terribly new. All of it is made much more complicated and risky by the reality of Brexit. The absence of devolved institutions for the best part of a year is, in itself, scandalous. There is little virtue in proclaiming the values of democracy while denying people the full fruits of democracy – a properly functioning Assembly and Executive.
This at precisely the time when the ar- ticulation of a clear, shared view of the arrangements that can best serve the interests of Northern Ireland and its people in the context of new UK/EU relationships is vitally needed.
Let me identify a number of issues that are relevant and, to a greater or lesser extent, potent. Culture is much spoken of in Northern Ireland and forms the background – and sometimes the foreground – of many debates.
It is usually spoken of as attaching to a community, as involving sacred entitlements, as being primary but threatened. It is rarely, if ever, interrogated and is to be passed on to the next and subsequent generations intact, unchanged, immutable. This is not culture. Culture is alive, dynamic, vibrant, responsive, open to new influences, shaping and being shaped by its environment, reflecting the changing times in which the people them- selves live and change.
The very word culture is drained of all oxygen and potential by this approach.
Speaking of culture, there is a staggering ignorance and ignoring of the richness of the artistic achievements of generations of creative minds and hands in Northern Ireland and a ludicrous turning away from the arts as if they had no relevance or linkage to the lives of all the people.
The elected representatives of the Protestant community seem to be particularly prone to this amnesia. Language is much in the current discourse and deserves some comments.
– Language is central to all our lives. - Languages enrich our communities, our understanding of our traditions, and our cultural lives. - Northern Ireland has for centuries been home to those who have spoken, or speak, Irish, English and Scots (in probable chronological order) - These languages are the inheritance of all and none can claim ownership of any. - The languages have helped to shape the place in which we live.
– Languages are means of communication - They are vehicles for cultural expression - They can and do contribute to a sense of identity.
As means of communication, they are entirely neutral. As vehicles for cultural expression, they are a source of enrichment; of enjoy- ment; of creativity; of intermingling when they co-exist in the same place; and of shared emotions or experiences as when they celebrate love or place.
As contributors to a sense of identity, the same language can do different things in different places. Thus, to speak English in Northern Ireland or Wales or South Africa or Canada will have the ability to reflect or to shape quite different identities. By the same token, to speak Irish in Northern Ireland or Welsh in Wales or Afrikaans in Sth Africa or French in Canada can say something else about a sense of identity which brings us to Irish.
It is as much the cultural inheritance of any unionist as of any nationalist, of any person in Northern Ireland who is British as of any who is Irish. All have been part of it. The Book of Common Prayer was translated into Irish at the insistence of Sir Arthur Chichester, Governor of Carrickfergus during the Nine Years War; the Presbyterian Church had a close involvement. Place names abound that have Irish roots and that define the home places of people from all community backgrounds.
A key way to depoliticising the Irish language – and there are those who have actively politicised it – is to cease to allow it to be the cause of ‘one side’ or to be a bone of contention in a divided society. It makes no sense to oppose a language just because some use it to express sentiments with which we would disagree.
It makes no sense to oppose a language in any event, neither does it make any sense to use a language as a kind of hostage taker, to make of it a weapon of political advancement, to deprive it of its communicative power and its rich cultural tradition in favour of its political usefulness.
These approaches are to disrespect language, to disrespect those who speak and value them. It is nonsensical, and simply ignorant, to dismiss the richness of a language simply because one does not speak it and does not like those who may advocate for it.
I say these things as an Irish speaker and one who may not much like some of its advocates and who deprecates those who abuse it for political purpose. I also say this as one who believes that if you want to encourage people to swim you do not begin by building a pool that is three metres deep at all sides. Is de réir a céile a tógtar an caisleán.
Unification of Ireland has also been on the lips of some. The achievement of a united Ireland is a respectable political and constitutional objective. It is recognised as such in the Belfast Agreement. People who advocate for it are quite entitled to do so as, equally, as those who oppose it. However, those who speak as if it can be achieved by some kind of technical knock-out as a collateral benefit of Brexit do themselves and their cause no benefit at all.
The then Taoiseach made a set of clear and considered statements on the question of the implications of any eventual decision to opt for unity for Northern Ireland’s membership of the EU in his remarks to last year’s BIA conference, having made some earlier less clear remarks on the same topic.
The Irish government has seemed to situate some of its positions on the post-Brexit possibilities in a united Ireland context.
Other parties promise future policy positions on the topic and the leader of Sinn Féin has said that a 50% plus 1 majority will do the trick in any future referendum.
It seems to me that if there is anything that is more likely to push reunification even further away than it is at present it is the facile assumption that it can somehow fall out of some current or future negotiation process or that it can be magicked into existence without regard to the people who may be expected to live in it.
For those nationalists in the Republic (and not everyone in the Republic is a nationalist) who desire a united Ireland the first step on any road that may conceivably lead to the achievement of their goal is to get to know unionists, to come to understand their Britishness, to recognise and value their traditions and, gradually, to seek to persuade them, by their words and by their deeds, that they have in mind a future democracy that would respect and protect Britishness with the same fervour and commitment as they would respect and protect Irishness. That is not the work of a referendum campaign, nor of five years leading up to a referendum. It is the work of at least a generation. That is only the beginning. Not to realise that is not to want a united Ireland that would be worth having.
Separateness is a real threat in current circumstances. The depth of the gap between the parties in Northern Ireland should not surprise us even though it may shock us.
The inability to put the interests of the people first at this crucial time, to sublimate all, ALL, other issues to that essential priority is discouraging. It is also dangerous. It runs the risk of going beyond political theatre to moving the people farther apart when the objective should be to bring them closer together.
There is a real risk that when there may be a drift to the past within Northern Ireland, between north and south and between Ireland and the UK there was distance and detachment. I have no doubt that the shared membership of the EU was a crucial part of the growing together of the two states – understanding fostered by regular and frequent contacts through the various institutions of the EU.
That easy contact facilitated increasing contact and shared engagement between the administrations in Dublin and Belfast. It will require enormous effort on all sides to promote and to sustain engagement and good neighbourliness. It will be more difficult when Ireland and the UK are orbiting different stars with no indication of how those orbits may intersect.
For Northern Ireland, there is the risk that current animosity will permit a resurgence of sectarian difference. Foucault said of sur- veillance that it is ‘permanent in its effect even if discontinuous in its action’. The same can be said of sectarian animosity.
Finally, consequence needs to be mentioned. Everything has a consequence whether we wish it so or not. All that is being done or left undone now will have consequences for the future. It is not clear, however, whether there is a real appreciation of that deeply significant reality.
All is not gloom and there are, of course, opportunities and some positive signs and we will touch upon them, I am sure, in this session.
A friend of mine, now approaching the age of 90, says that our weaknesses are shadows of our strengths. That is reassuring. It also prompts the thought that we have converted reality into a photographic image of itself and we live contentedly within it – having, and presenting to others, a distorted view of ourselves.
What we need now is the alchemy that will enable us to step out from the negative shadows of our weaknesses and step into the positive light of our strengths.
Remembering with Louis McNeice that ‘There is no time to doubt if the puzzle really has an answer.’