Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
A Shared future- the democratic imperative
USIP Seminar, Washington DC, 15 March 2006
Coming to Washington, what is remarkable is that anyone can still raise themselves to be interested in Northern Ireland. It is all reminiscent of the apocryphal story of the distinction between a Prussian and an Austrian during World War I, where the Prussians, raised on efficiency and outcomes cabled that 'The situation is serious but not hopeless', to which the Austrian, resigned to the impossibility of order replied ' And ours is hopeless, but not serious'.
Comparing Northern Ireland to late Habsburg Austria however may be apposite. In the years leading up to World War One, the Austrian monarchy administered a perpetual political stalemate on the national question. The empire had left messy internal frontiers where people of different language and religion did not live in conveniently separate territorial units but in a kaleidoscope of different combinations. Elections became national headcounts, and democracy a question of competing claims to be the legitimate owners and rulers of specific and overlapping pieces of territory. As a result, the monarchy continued to directly administer Austria through a bureaucratic class without specific political purpose other than survival. So administration became the pragmatic response to the absence of a functioning democratic political order. Secondly, it was on former Habsburg territories that Woodrow Wilson applied his doctrine of national self-determination most comprehensively. With a touching faith in the power of democratic political order to create peace and freedom, Wilson sponsored the national dreams of the Czechs, Poles, Slovaks, Romanians and, through Yugoslavia, of the Serbs. What he underestimated was the degree to which their national liberty came at the expense of Germans, Hungarians Italians and, ultimately of Croats and Slovenes. Instead of creating a democratic continent, Wilson's Europe became a seething hotbed of national resentment, which had mostly degenerated into authoritarianism within 15 years.
Voting without a transcendent sense of citizenship does not equate to democracy. Nationalism became the overarching theme of politics, and proved incapable of incorporating others, despite the rhetoric, preferring instead to concentrate on political and territorial control. Finally, when poison took hold of Germany, the Habsburg territories became the scene of the great European catastrophe. Auschwitz, Theresianstadt, and Mauthausen were all on former Habsburg lands as were Lidice, where an entire Czech village was massacred in revenge for the killing of Reinhard Heydrich and Jasenovac, where Hitler's Croat puppets massacred tens maybe hundreds of thousands of Serbs. It became, if you like, the place where nationalism became both hopeless and serious.
Northern Ireland is faced with some of the same dilemmas, albeit in miniaturised form. It inherits from empire a complex demographic composition which has crystallised as permanent political polarisation around legitimacy and nationality, and turns the theory of democratic participation and decision making into an exercise in ethnic head-counting. Politics never gets past the founding question-to be or not to be. As a result, Northern Ireland has been administered for most of the last 35 years. For most of those years a brutal proxy war was fought between paramilitaries of different sorts and low level operations of the state which both compromised democracy and left a legacy of killing and fear. When Alec Reid accuses Willie Fraser's people of acting like Nazi's and Willie Fraser insists that the IRA is a genocidal conspiracy against him and his sort, we can abhor the exaggeration, but we need to recognise the types of fears which drive many.
Which takes us, at last to A Shared Future. I have been exercised for some time by the absence of a question mark, arguing that it confronts us with the reality that the only question we have to resolve is the quality of our sharing not whether it will happen or not. In this forum I want to acknowledge that it ain't necessarily so. But for us to avoid sharing requires us to contemplate our equivalent of Auschwitz, Lidice and Srebrenica. M More than political advantage is at stake in this policy. If we are not prepared to commit to a shared future, we are implicitly including expulsion and murder with in the legitimate reach of politics in western Europe.
In this light, A Shared Future becomes the project, not simply one among many. It is a question of a shared future or a scared future, or potentially of a shared failure. It is, if you like the working through of a fundamental decision taken by sufficient numbers across the political spectrum that a peaceful, just and truthful society cannot be achieved except through a building down of enmity and a political choice to welcome rather than resist the other, by which I mean an irrevocable decision to enter into a political project in which we are committed to making space for the other and to allowing hybrids to emerge.
This is, of course the challenge of our time beyond Northern Ireland. Events in Denmark, Holland and France have shown the crisis of social cohesion across Europe, and the discovery that the London bombers last July were home grown has been a profound shock to Britain. Yesterday's Irish Times carried an editorial in which they estimated that there are unofficially 750,000 foreign workers in the 26 counties at this moment, out of a population of about 4m. A pure backward looking territorial nationalism can only deal with this scale of challenge through violence. A romantic naïve democracy which does not recognise the challenge to the fundamental contract underlying the state which such a challenge poses, is, however, not its opposite, but its twin, provoking the very spectre that it abhors. What all of this requires, is a seriousness of purpose about sharing, relationship and citizenship.
Above all it requires leaders and agents, not just policies and documents. At a recent conference in Enniskillen, Melanie Verwoerd, former South African ambassador to Ireland commented that Mandela's great achievement was to make people believe that peace was possible. The question for us is who steps up to the plate. At the moment, the absence of political drive behind A Shared Future can only be put down to ambivalence. We have, it seems, agreed after thirty years to stop, but not to share. Or at least, we are not prepared or able to take the really hard decisions. And for me there are really only two left: Firstly that violence outside the law is over, credibly and permanently, which means the effective end to paramilitary organisations and their rhetoric of community defence and secondly that the notion of a political community which draws support only from one side of the community is equally over for good, both in intention and in fact.
The difficulties do not lie only in a failure to generate devolution, although they are clearly manifest there, but also in the unwillingness of the British and Irish governments to take their full and final responsibilities in Northern Ireland. Expecting Northern Ireland's fearful communities to believe in the bona fides of their enemies has echoes of Turkeys voting for Christmas. In the end, Northern Ireland is irreducibly part of the wider British-Irish picture in which the legacy of colony and empire and of the violent response to it have left the six counties of the North as a giant unresolved interface, while the rest of the formerly active participants have walked off. What is required in both London and Dublin is increased clarity that the unselfconscious and uncontested Britishness or Irishness of the rest of the islands is not achievable in this place under any jurisdiction without a degree of violence which cannot be contemplated. What Britain and Ireland have done well is find alternatives to internationalised territorial conflict. However, this has, from within Northern Ireland tended to look more like a desire to abandon rather than an active commitment to co-produce shared solutions on the ground. Without clear permission and protection from Britain and Ireland and where possible from Europe and America, the fears of Northern Ireland will almost certainly preclude the commitment to sharing and engagement that is required.
Specifically, it is time for the both governments and their international allies to underline that the only game in town is the search for a shared future and its realisation in practice. At one level this is given, but it has been weak and faltering and too often appears to compete with the short term political imperative to be rid of the problem. Most problematically it has not yet shaped the policy choices sufficiently for fear, it appears, of upsetting shorter term political projects. To be clear: devolution which fudges the issue of our common predicament and interdependence is doomed. Conceptually at least, the notion of a common future, based on mutual recognition as citizens and equality and human rights for all comes prior to institutional design.
So we need clear and unambiguous leadership from the international sponsors of the peace process, which has given such legitimacy to the whole task. We also need clarity about the primacy of the rule of law. By that I mean, not just law and order, but also the reality of equality and human rights and of access to political participation. Homeland security - an over-reliance on the 'knowledge' of intelligence, a willingness to go beyond the law to save the law and the establishment of system of suspicion in relation to certain types of citizens – was tried in Northern Ireland and did not work. It did not work because it eroded the fundamental distinction between force and violence without which all legitimacy is lost. It compromised the police, it tarnished the state and it embedded alienation. Most importantly, and this is increasingly clear across the globe, it was visible as violence to a huge international audience and acted as the key justifying evidence for the legitimacy of terror –also, in the Irish case, for many Americans. But there is a security dimension to this. The Northern Ireland conflict has been managed by allowing large parts of the territory to be all but officially designated as 'Protestant' or Catholic'. The housing authority produces leaflets which proclaim the 'right' to live in a single identity community, which is in practice a right to exclude other citizens on the basis of their origins or perceived political affiliations. And, in effect, this right is maintained by 'common sense' – you'd be mad to live there – and by paramilitary control through threat or intimidation. This has to stop. The housing problem is simultaneously a policing problem. It is unfair to target the housing authorities demanding change unless we are also wiling to look at what safe, integrated public housing space requires: and it requires a rule of law – equal access by need, no guarantee according to origin and the writ of human rights everywhere.
If this cannot be turned around instantly, it is critical that government integrate it into all regeneration plans for the future. There can be no question of protestant or catholic areas, except as a temporary reflection of current patterns and not a claim of permanent territorial ownership. There are a series of key redevelopment plans, in Belfast , Derry/Londonderry and in rural areas all of which need to factor this in up front. In all of this local government, as the most pragmatic and still elected level of government has a critical civic leadership function. The Review of Public Administration must ensure that services are open, that power is clearly shared and that flags and emblems do not obstruct civic co-operation. All of these are real current practical possibilities.
The great question mark hanging over A Shared Future, leaving aside political difficulties is a nagging sense that there has been a failure to get real inter-departmental buy-in across all government departments. As we move from policy to implementation, this gap will become ever more glaring. Housing, local government and regeneration are critical, as too is the consistent voice of business arguing for stability and free labour markets. Equally important, for example is education. Until now, integration has been led by parental initiative and softer interventions with other schools. It strikes me that economics and politics have conspired to change this agenda somewhat. The first step that needs to be taken is that educating children for a diverse society needs to be defined as a purpose of education across Northern Ireland and integrated into the curriculum, structure and calendar or every child at each appropriate level. The second is the opportunities which have now emerged for collaboration including shared resources, buildings and institutions. It is absolutely essential that the priority of A Shared Future shines through the changes in education. A generic commitment to 'collaboration' cannot be allowed to disguise the imperative for inter-sectoral sharing which must result.
What becomes clear is that an unambiguous decision to share the future in Northern Ireland is a profound political choice with ramifications for the entire system. Perhaps that is the ultimate reason why it is instinctively resisted. While we need to accept this and find ways to take practical steps which generate confidence rather than provoke immediate fears, the degree of investment in managed segregation and in cultural antagonism mean that sometimes the hard decisions cannot be avoided and the signals have to be given and political battles have to be fought and won.
I am not myself an undiluted advocate of the consociation or of full integration. It strikes me that the precise balance to be struck between these things can to be allowed to be negotiated, albeit within a framework that recognises common humanity rather than a framework which emphasises eternal enmity. What Northern Ireland has had is the resources and international support to indulge in a long term experiment towards this end. What it also shows is that stable peace requires clear moral leadership, the establishment of legitimacy around force and the delegitimisation of all other violence and clear rules to guarantee human rights and equality. Beyond that it requires a commitment to detail, to government action and to the long term.
As we go more and more global, it is clear that defeating the enemy at the cost of creating a vacuum does not work. Battlefield victory does not deliver security. The framework of Á Shared future offers a potential coherence to policy and action, which, over time, could become the new common sense. But it requires a priority from politics which goes beyond the simple notion that this is the soft stuff of cucumber sandwiches set against the hard stuff of economics, but is in fact the software without which the hardware is only a pile of unwanted junk. Perhaps Northern Ireland still might have something to share with the rest of the world.