Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
SDLP Conference on Sectarianism. Belfast 24th April 2006
Facing the challenges of sharing the future.
Duncan Morrow, CEO, Community Relations Council
Before starting today, I would like to thank the SDLP for this invitation. It has long been a goal of CRC's to develop closer dialogue with all of the political parties on these issues. For political parties to engage actively during Community Relations week both enhances the value of the week and gives an opportunity for key issues to be aired by political leaders. I would like to salute the SDLP for taking this initiative and hope that all parties will see it as a model to be followed, each from their own perspective.
One of the most insightful remarks about the difficulties of peace building in Northern Ireland was made to me by a community activist from North Belfast. The trouble, he said, is that sharing is nobody's aspiration. Sharing is not what people have died for, nor killed for, nor suffered for, nor campaigned for, nor resisted for, nor dreamed of. Success, as a business person might have it, does not look like sharing. The problem of course, is that in our aspirations, real success still looks like victory, like winning. For all the rhetoric, sharing is, at best, a soft landing for failure or, at worst, a Trojan horse of nobility disguising a dastardly plan to destroy us.
The difficulty in a place like Northern Ireland (or the north of Ireland, or the six counties or the province or our wee Ulster or the failed statelet) is that 'us' winning looks, inevitably, like 'them' losing. It is our predicament to live in a place where the opposition to our aspirations comes from our neighbours. Victory and defeat live a street or a field or a house away. Struggling to reach our aspirations means attacking our neighbours and them attacking us. And we have been at that sort of game for a long time here, at some cost to too many.
Before anyone accuses me of a simplistic 'community relations' analysis which does not take account the history of empires and states, there is no doubt that contrasting attitudes to and experiences of the state, or at least to the question of 'which state', have been the pivot around which much of this has turned. Writing in 1919, Max Weber the German father of sociology observed 'A state is a power relationship of people dominating people supported by means of legitimate violence (or at least seen to be legitimate).' What matters about 'the state' in this view is not the specific flag or imagery of any single state, but the fact that states, all states, claim the right to enforce, and the right to use violence to enforce if necessary. What matters in our view of states, may be a question of which side of the state's violence we find ourselves on: do we find it protective and legitimate, or offensive and illegitimate?
The crisis comes, as Weber hints, when some people do not see the state's enforcement as legitimate, while others do. And the crisis gets even deeper when those who want an alternative state use violence to achieve it without any widespread legitimacy for that either. Without wanting to go into this too deeply, it is our predicament in this part of Ireland, this part of the United Kingdom, to live side by side with one another with very different experiences of what state action is legitimate, what counts as violence and what counts as legitimate force. As a result, we can talk about justice and mean very different things in practice, we can talk about liberty and mean very different things in practice and we can talk about democracy and have very different ideas of who are the people or what democracy looks like.
The legacy of all of this is very deep indeed. If we do not share the sense of where violence comes from, we will tend to disagree about where the problem to be solved lies, and who has to do what about it. Is peace a question of British withdrawal from Ireland or of an end to IRA insurgency? If we believe that our community is the community which, all things taken together, has suffered injustice, then making peace with the enemy before the injustice is acknowledged and paid for is betrayal and too much to ask. Willie Frazer and Alec Reid's exchange last October spoke volumes for the chasm which is between us: for Willie the IRA are unrepentant murderers prepared to commit genocide, for Alec, the Unionist people are in denial about their own abuse of power in the past, making them comparable to Nazis. We may not like the tone, but there is something to what each man said that draws on more commonly held presumptions than we might wish to be known publicly and they cannot simply be expunged from the record for the sake of politeness. Do the events of 1916 represent liberty or a threat to our liberty? Or to put the question in a way which might solicit a different answer; was the Larne gun running in 1914 a legitimate Unionist precaution or an act of terror? And when we talk about self-determination, who is the self who gets to vote: the Irish people, the British and Irish peoples, the majority of Northern Ireland?
What I am edging towards is this: sectarianism cannot be reduced to a single event, or a religious attitude or a political party or a lax moment when drunk. Sectarianism of course has roots in specifically religious competition. And there is an important sense in which churches provided respectability and shelter for sectarianism in Ireland. But, for my money at least, sectarianism has long developed wings of its own. John Hume was much closer to right when he said it was a mindset. Even deeper, it is a way of seeing the world and coming to political judgements which is all the more pernicious because we can only distinguish it from common sense or 'normality' when somebody else reacts or takes offence. And paradoxically, that is exactly what we have developed rules to avoid doing in public, never mentioning anything that matters in this line, for fear of causing offence. Which is why most of our stories of sectarianism, seem to focus on what happened to us, not on what we did to them. And because the sectarians are usually the others, everyone is always against it and we never have to do anything about it. The real trouble starts when someone says that what we call common sense to them excludes or demeans others and we react with anger or try to balance the account with 'what about-ery' or when our sectarianism, like the racism meted out to Stephen Lawrence, is so deeply embedded in us, so taken for granted, that it is institutionalised in everything we do; the really pernicious sectarianism is not in the overt bigotry of wall slogans and football chants but in the unselfconscious, unchallenged presumptions of we the decent people. But in avoiding this challenge, in persisting with the notion that the problems of Ireland lie with the madmen on the interface, we seem to have arrived at a new cold war: we don't want to go back and we can't go forward. We want to stop, but we don't want to share, meanwhile the silence is festering not golden.
Instead of moralising about all of this, maybe the first essential step is beginning to acknowledge that decades and centuries of violence and antagonism in Northern Ireland ( and the very name is a power struggle) have left us with a relationship in which it is easier to be suspicious than trusting. Periods without violence did not gradually melt into trust but kept antagonism intact. No political community has cherished all of the children equally, and often out of well-grounded fears that such woolly-mindedness would lead to further defeat or injustice. Change in this relationship does not mean that we settle for some overly sentimental middle ground where injustice cannot be named for fear of upset. But it does mean approaching the table with the presumption that we will not escape without learning some painful truths about ourselves. The challenge of having our presumptions challenged as prejudice will not be a comfortable process, but over time, it is the sine qua non of defusing the legacy of a violent past and turning it into the building block of the future.
The second essential step is to recognise that while we can acknowledge sectarianism in ourselves at a level of non-specific generality, we need to engage with one another in a spirit of mutual learning if we are to break its grip. Trust and equal citizenship will not easily be built on winners and losers – as we know from the history of Northern Ireland since partition. Sectarianism is not just a series of unconnected events but a chain of actions and reactions which will require some acknowledgement that pain and injustice is not the single preserve of on party or group. The task is to prioritise the search for a different future, which draws a clear distinction between justice and revenge, as the political project for this generation in this place. And that I suppose is what we mean by reconciliation in practice.
Which brings me A Shared Future. I have remarked many times before on the absence of a question mark in the title of the policy. And there is an important truth here; for unless we are really contemplating expulsion or annihilation, our future will be shared and inter-dependent, no matter what the jurisdiction. So if sharing is nobody's aspiration, it is everyone's predicament, and there will be no successful aspiration which does not take account of it. If there is a task for the British and Irish governments and the international community to continue to lead on, it is in the continuing and repeated emphasis that all and any solutions in this part of the world must be shared beyond traditional camps or sides.
And if we are serious about sharing the future together, then it strikes me that there are a series of key steps which might be taken now. The first is the continued attempt to find shared governance. It is not for the CRC to determine the form or shape of any government, but whatever its shape it must be capable of commanding legitimacy from a wide spectrum. What is certain is that we cannot bemoan the violence of interfaces, if we will not work to end the antagonism of political communities which makes interfaces so volatile. Secondly, that governance must be rooted in values that transcend nation or creed. Killing and intimidation cannot generate shared citizenship. It is for that reason, that human rights and equality are so significant as ethics for a shared future. While we can legitimately debate the practical means and mechanisms, a principled commitment to equality for all and to human dignity in practice belongs to a shared future. Thirdly, we will have to grapple with difficult and complex questions of culture and cultural expression. We can attack and defend all of our cultural institutions, but there is no doubt in my mind that many of our most loved bonding institutions, institutions that have nourished generations, have grown up infected by sectarian antagonism. Unpicking all of this will be extremely painful for many. In the jargon we have built bonds to prevent bridges. Across Europe, politicians are using the national flag as their chosen symbol of social cohesion – Gordon Brown has his Union Jack and Bertie Ahern has 1916. But so do the Dutch and the Germans and the French. The United States is not a great place for the neutral working environment. We live in a space where flags have polarised not united, where none of us like to be told that our cherished symbol of liberty is someone else's butcher's apron. I have no easy answers to this, and solutions seem a long time off. But we have to recognise that this is an agenda which will not disappear simply by putting it into the 'too hard' box. Which takes us on to the fourth issue which is political leadership. Leadership means being the first to take a step, which others then mimic and follow. The hard message, I suspect, is that change will be required of us as well as them. Even more difficult, can political leaders risk the emergence of complex inter-group relationships, if it threatens the coherence of their own voter base, or can we find ways to make complexity the friend of political success and not the definition of political failure?
Finally, there is a policy agenda which is critical. Five areas stand out above all others: the rule of law in all its dimensions is critical to any real shared society. Then there is housing. The notion that areas belong to current residents, or that other people cannot move in because they are different from the current majority must be seriously challenged. At present it is simply considered normal, and 'choice'. I am not so sure; I don't know that not considering moving to one area because your children might be beaten up, your property attacked and your life threatened can really be called choice. Thirdly there is education. Diversity in education cannot be confused with the right to educate sides which show no sign of softening. This does not mean a one-size fits all policy or an overly cheap idea of integration, but it does mean real efforts on behalf of all education providers to prepare young people for a peaceful and shared future at the heart of our schools. Fourthly, there is planning. Future developments should plan in open access and shared space from the beginning. We cannot build more segregated spaces or pretend that sectarianism is not an issue in Northern Ireland. All of these are issue for the fifth area of concentration – local government. Whether we have seven, eleven or fifteen Councils, the principles of shared access and civic leadership should be part of the building blocks of the RPA and not some additional after thought.
CRC is often asked what community relations is. As time has gone by, I have come to the conclusion, that it is a commitment to working for a future with others. I have focussed entirely on sectarianism today. But there is no doubt that the challenge of the global economy will force us to address the issue or building a different future to the world we have known in the past in ever more complex patterns. Just as there were once Irish-Americans, so we may be seeing the birth of the Polish-and Nigerian-Irish.
Working for a future with others is not the same as having a constitutional aspiration, but is instead a commitment to ensuring that certain core values are built into any constitutional project. There is no finally right answer to issues of justice and fairness, the fact of distinctiveness and difference and our need for social cohesion. It is right and necessary for democratic politics to debate them. But if these three questions shape our debate, they will at least force us into dialogue and negotiation with one another and maybe even generate an acceptance that success in aspiration and sharing are not opposites but inseparable partners.