Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
Nobody's aspiration, everybody's predicament.
Duncan Morrow, Chief Executive Officer
NI Community Relations Council
Oriel College Oxford, 11 September 2004
The impossibility of self-determination
In 1919, Woodrow Wilson, US President of Ulster-Scots stock (his homestead is near Strabane), arrived for the Peace Conference in Paris to huge and cheering crowds. What they were cheering was Wilson's vision of a peace based on principle, after the war to end all wars. Everyone in the defeated nations pinned their hopes on the principles of Wilson's fourteen points. But many in victorious nations saluted Wilson's endeavour to replace Armageddon with international law. Among the most attractive principles was Wilson's desire to replace conquering empires with free nations, free on the basis of the principle of national self-determination. For Wilson, at least in principle, national self-determination on the basis of free choice for all, was the American dream for the world. The choice was between tyranny and imposition, empire and liberty.
Within six months, the demands of making real decisions had turned hope into disillusion across much of Europe. While Poles, Czechs, Serbs and Rumanians celebrated self-determination and the destruction of imperial rule, many Germans, Hungarians, Croats and Turks saw only the hypocrisy of power politics. Self-determination, the doctrine of national liberty, stumbled on the reality that territorial demands did not coincide with the wishes of populations in many of the critical interfaces of Europe. The dream of the pure free nation collapsed on the reality of majority-minority antagonism.
Since 1919, the vision of self-determination has struggled with the complexities posed when self-determination can only be gained by denying it to others. Liberation becomes not the opposite of domination, but its partner. The justifiable force of escape can only be achieved by the (ultimately violent) denial of the same rights to others. Liberty precludes equality and certainly fraternity. Freedom understood as personal choice, at the heart of liberalism, stumbled on the reality that no choice takes place without implications for others.
As personal and group liberty stumbled against the reality of inter-relationship and interdependence, so Wilson's instrument of liberation – the democratic franchise, became the vehicle for bitter competition. Legitimate rule was equated with the capacity to construct a majority. It therefore became critical to construct territories to ensure permanent majorities: the politics of borders and national solidarity had arrived, a solidarity cemented by endemic national antagonism in the frontier.
Ireland was not part of Woodrow Wilson's scheme. To the chagrin of Irish-America, Wilson abandoned previous congressional support for Irish national self-determination to focus his attention on the defeated powers of Europe. But the politics of Ireland was very much part of the maelstrom that was Europe in 1919. The general election of 1918 had radicalised the debates about Home Rule unresolved since before the outbreak of war. The irresistible force of Sinn Fein's insistence on Irish self-determination met the immovable object of Unionist determination to resist most forcefully in the north-east. Partition in many ways represents the balance of forces that prevailed in Ireland at that time, and the line of least resistance for the decisive power, which in this case was the United Kingdom, in contrast to Germany where the victorious powers could dictate terms. Whereas the abandoned Unionist minority in the twenty six counties had no prospect of recovering their position and could choose to assimilate or depart, the much more substantial Irish national minority in Northern Ireland were capable of continuing resistance, alternating between aggression and passivity. Critically, in Northern Ireland self-determination and democracy for Unionists was simultaneously ongoing British rule and the betrayal of democracy to nationalists, and in particular to Sinn Fein.
Everything that depended for majorities for legitimacy was also dependent on the legitimacy of the border. Self-determination for both meant the potential violent oppression of their neighbours. The free choice so breezily discussed in metropolitan capitals was only possible on the back of the suppression of that free choice in others. The disastrous equation of patriotism and liberty with power seized through the barrel of a gun was made. Under the logic of the pre-eminence of self-determination, violence was justice, peace was betrayal. Most importantly, the only 'crime' of each group was merely to seek, in an impossible context, the rights which Wilson had expounded as the basis of sustainable peace. The difficulty was not wishing for self-determination but doing so in a place where its contradictions were exposed. Endless elections maintained the façade that the aspiration to a pure nation was valid, but ensured frustration when the predicament of its non-viability was inevitably demonstrated by reality. The factory of grievances was built.
Trying to 'do democracy' in contested societies
Liberal democracy, as understood in societies where the identity of the state is uncontested, is a matter of constructing a majority from constantly changing groups of citizens. In contested societies, the issue of the identity of the state itself – to be or not to be – both stems from and stokes the contest. In other words, there is no shared citizenship, but almost impermeable groups. Instead of parties, elections seeking majorities tend to produce 'sides' whose relationship is altered by differential fertility and emigration rather than persuasion. Elections equate to headcounts on the issue of the border.
In political science terms, the critical issue is not the specific allegiance (nationality, religion, language, culture or whatever) that matters but the fact that the groups have a permanently unequal relationship to the power of state. Instead of equal citizens, the mythical but essential basis of democracy, we have groups of state supporters (loyal citizens) and state opponents (disloyal rebels). Rebels and citizens cannot be understood in the same way by any state. The rationale for unequal experience of public life is already laid in this relationship. What looks like endemic discrimination by the state to state opponents looks like wise precaution on the part of citizens, as homeland security takes precedence over equality in civil liberties. Likewise, what looks like justified rebellion against injustice on one side, looks like endless insurgency on the other. Antagonism, the politics of endless opposition becomes the norm of daily life. Most importantly, violence becomes what 'they' do and justifiable force is what 'we' resort to. Our own violence is disguised to us as self-defence and cannot be recognised without the impossible admission that the cause itself was unjust. Paradoxically there is universal agreement on the source of the problem – them. The tragic corollary is that we can do nothing, or if we do it is tantamount to injustice and defeat. The result can only be a balance of forces, which in an increasingly balanced context promises an endless struggle.
The implications of all of this are enormous. First of all, trying to generate equal citizenship against a backdrop of endemic and real antagonism (in the course of which thousands have died) is extremely difficult. The courage of political leadership is the courage to assert that peacemaking is not injustice, but about reaching for the possibility of justice. The really big leaps will be made against a suspicion that peace really disguises a sell-out to evil. But without the leap beyond antagonism we are condemned to the hopeless struggle for victory where it is not available or available only by turning us into murderers and ethnic cleansers. The task of doing democratic politics in Northern Ireland is harder than doing it elsewhere. The social cohesion around the nation which is the basis of integrity in the rest of these islands is a point of constant social division. Social cohesion in Northern Ireland has to be arrived at not presumed from the past and imposed.
Secondly, if the leap from antagonism is not made, then antagonism remains even when there is surface peace. Deterrence and the balance of forces create cold war and the absence of surface violence. But what peace is available is held together by the promise of mutually assured destruction rather than by equal citizenship, the presumption of the rule of law or mutual trust. Thirdly, the goal of the peace process is ending antagonism not balancing forces precariously. It is the hard part of the peace process because it involves peace with the 'unjust', the recognition of the ambivalent content of our self-defensive actions and a willingness to dissolve existing solidarities in an embrace of people who have abused us. Throwing money at the problem may buy time, but it is only useful time if it is also a breathing space to change the underlying relationship. The choice we face, have faced and will face is to go on with antagonism or to stop it.
Northern Ireland is world leader in what is called in business jargon 'adaptive learning'. We have been world leaders at adapting to adversity, keeping the show on the road. The emblem of this is surely the peace lines which have evolved from makeshift barriers into planned and designed award-winning features. What we need is generative learning, opportunities to do things differently. What this involves is a fragile learning based on risk-taking to learn to do what we don't know how to do.
What makes Northern Ireland interesting is not conflict as such, but the degree to which space has been generated to continue to try to resolve the problem. Northern Ireland exhausts classical sociological 'reasons' given for conflict: we are neither poor nor uneducated, we have an (albeit supported) market economy, we have widespread private ownership, we speak English and have access to global markets, and we are well-versed in liberal democracy.
Instead we have a unique context in which the dynamic of antagonism and the choices it generates become perhaps more visible to the naked eye than ever before. Northern Ireland's unending conflict has taken place within the West. This has meant that resources are available to attenuate conflict, to adapt and limit it in such a way that some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time can go about their business 'as if' there was no conflict.
But I want to assert that the endlessness is not ultimately a question of resources but a question of the limits on the final solutions of military and political power which have thankfully become the self-imposed definition of democratic nations since 1945, however imperfectly. Sean Farren yesterday reminded us of Parnell's famous remark which every citizen of Dublin can read on his statue in O'Connell Street of how no man can impose limits on the march of a nation. Taken literally, and no doubt anachronistically (as Paul Bew once pointed out to me), I want to disagree with Parnell. In 1930s and 1940s Europe, the western world saw in Auschwitz what it means when someone takes literally the notion that nations can know no limits. At Nuremberg and in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, democratic states declared that there is indeed a limit and that the limit was the extent to which states could apply violence and still remain civilised. Furthermore, this recognition became the overwhelming retrospective justification for World War II.
At Auschwitz it became clear that humanity itself was at stake unless the limits of legitimate force in politics were defined. Afterwards, no democratic state could claim to be democratic if it could not acknowledge those considerations. The outcome, for Northern Ireland, was not 'peaceful' states, but states with limits, and a recognition that more important things than material interests or victory might be at stake in the application of force. Both Britain and Ireland resolved that Northern Ireland could not be grounds for full-scale territorial war and the need to achieve peace on a basis compatible with human rights became not only a pious desire but a national interest. The result was not peace or instant solutions but an attenuated 'long conflict', in which most of the violence was paramilitary not inter-state. This is not to say that states were not complicit in going beyond what was lawful (with implications for the future viability of justice), but that going beyond was always a step beyond the sustainable.
The resulting 'law and disorder' was imperfect, but represented, in the phrase, 'the acceptable level of violence' acceptable only in relation to the alternatives available. The outcome was:
Thirty years of daily violent antagonism and still talking is, in this lens, not a question of failure but a remarkable political success. But it will only be a lasting success if it also generates the space to take the big decisions. Choosing to make a new relationship with an enemy after the decisive defeat of one side is one thing. Doing it voluntarily when there has been no defeat is quite another.
The context of a peace process
The language of a peace 'process' is undoubtedly correct for what we are experiencing. Unlike peacemaking after a decisive victory, the definitive end of violence and the establishment of a working legitimate politics is the goal not the premise in Northern Ireland. Without decisive victory and with no clear mechanism for enforcement, peace in a democratic context is a 'dropping slow' activity, requiring change and discomfort in complex micro-changes, as well as in high profile political decisions. Reconciliation, as the saying goes, is not an event.
What binds it together, however, is the notion of a common destination – a peaceful stability in which the violence of antagonism is replaced by the civility of dialogue, disagreement, mechanisms for resolution and equal rights for all. Thirty years of daily violence proved a negative: trying to prevail by escalating violence in Northern Ireland is hopeless. What it did not do is generate trust. Instead it generated parallel (or maybe perpendicular) 'communities' each of which felt itself the victim of violence at a macro level rather than its perpetrator - whatever the details of micro behaviour. It also generated a legal and policing system which was understandably fixated on defending itself against some of those who it purportedly served and an infrastructure of paramilitarism which drew its legitimacy from the need to provide communal defence.
For as long as the outcome, the certainty of arrival, is in the future, this process is characterised by deep ambivalence. The wish to reach something new competes with the wish to defend the integrity of historically defined national (whether British or Irish or any variant) models of social cohesion. Paradoxically the maintenance of these national modes of social cohesion has become more deeply embedded by the clinging together caused by violence and the losses shed in their name. The experience of ambivalence is probably inevitable in societies like Northern Ireland. But a constant refocus on the goal is also essential, however, if process is not to turn into its own acceptable level of violence.
The result after ten years of ambivalence and ambiguity is contradictory. To those with no stake in the existing national points of social cohesion in Northern Ireland, (largely those living outside) the necessity of sharing a territory divided so evenly is rationally obvious. From the inside, where peace quickly looks like delivery to the wolves who are your enemy, sharing can be uncomfortably caricatured as we (the abused) being asked to embrace our abuser (them). It is hard to overestimate the weight of past injury on this process: Whatever the truth of the matter many Unionists believe that current Sinn Fein leadership has colluded in crimes against humanity while nationalists call for inquiries in to the war crimes of human rights abuse and collusion of the state with terror. This is available combustible material, easily put into use by anyone with an interest in destroying fragile accommodation.
And the ambivalence spreads wider. In a report to be formally published next month, 82% of politicians in a survey declared that good community relations was one of their political purposes, contrasting sharply with the experience of many in communities that politicians are the guardians and generators of antagonistic interface. The yes-no-maybe of the peace process is a condition which can only be resolved by mutual decisions to resolve it at political level. It is the absence of this decisive break which characterises the present impasse.
The beauty of the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement was concurrency. Ambivalence about specific dimensions of specific measures could be balanced by other parts of the package. But while concurrency was applied to the constitutional strands and superstructure at the heart of the Agreement, the most difficult issues about the instruments of force and violence were deferred. Everything was not agreed. The result was a series of consecutive issues which again allowed for the ambivalences of loss and defeat to be reintroduced.
Here I want to make some objection to the oft repeated phrase that the goal is to remove the gun from Irish politics for good. It is harder than that. Such a wonderful goal has not yet been achieved in world politics. The best we have been able to do is to devise laws and clearly distinguish between the guns to defend the laws (force) and those which break them (violence). The task is to remove all illegal guns and to establish, as Max Weber the German sociologist said 'the monopoly of legitimate violence' in the hands of a stable legal state. The task is therefore not just to abolish but to agree to consolidate legitimacy and submit to a legitimate rule of law. For as long as weapons are held 'just in case', the same weapons are evidence of bad faith to those outside.
The persistent issues of force and violence have destabilised relationships, eating into the heart of the executive and precluding any real sense of common purpose. At times over the last few years, the executive reflected the nervousness of an unstable interface rather than the apex of agreement and the centre of political and social cohesion.
Every action continues to be read through the suspicion of antagonism: Protestants demanding guns before government and many nationalists insisting on proof of good government before guns would go away. As it was we got neither. The result was the transfiguration of hope into disillusion and an intensifying sense of bad faith: Unionists saw their country being handed to unreconstructed criminals as Nationalists saw Protestants continuing to resist anything that was decent including sharing power, human rights and equality. To reverse John Hume: Because everything was not agreed, so nothing was agreed. The suspicion that fuelled and fuels and antagonism was not ended. Paradoxically, international events intervened to put an unstable floor below the process: after 9/11 2001, the political opportunity costs of violence rose to infinity in the west. The result in Northern Ireland is the curious anomaly of more antagonism and less violence.
Community Relations between peace and conflict.
There has been a lot of recent talk about segregation. But it all depends, as ever, on how you read statistics. For politicians segregation at estate level, which has certainly nor reversed, does not translate into an ability to avoid one another at political level. Political life is ever more integrated because, taken as a single unit, Northern Ireland is more integrated than ever, according to the last census (if closeness to 50/50 is taken as the measure). Furthermore, 24 of 26 local councils are political interfaces between Nationalist and Unionists. Public life and all who act in it takes place in a shared not a segregated space. All institutions must inevitably follow. Just because people agree to ever more restricted areas of residence does not mean that the issue is going away you know.
And at the micro-level too, there have never been more catholic-protestant mixed relationships since the 1920s. The conclusion, paradoxically, is that the drive to apartheid exists in parts, but it is simultaneously more impossible than ever without mass murder, the destruction of families and expulsion. What it is certainly not is benign at the point of enforcement, as anyone from any of the new communities of colour in Northern Ireland can testify.
And alongside progressive interdependence in many areas, the last ten years have in fact seen considerable practical change. The lack of direct violence has allowed an explosion of 'central business district' development in Belfast, Derry/Londonderry, Newry. Lisburn and many smaller towns as well as a huge growth in drive-in out-of-town shopping centres. Where shared space can be protected by law or incentivised with cash it has become normal in a way that would have been unthinkable in the 1970s. Cash and compliance have created mixed workplaces, economic partnerships at many levels, functioning professional and community networks, changed policing, communication across interfaces and functioning local government. In confined spaces, we have got used to one another. There have also been slow but significant changes in education, where inter-community links in institutions and curriculum have developed alongside integrated schooling and even substantial proportions of Catholics in certain state schools and even vice versa. The difficulties come in the 'unreserved' spaces where the politics of antagonism continues to shape choices: housing, arterial routes, public service provision, cultural expression.
The result is that ambivalence and ambiguity characterise not only political life but community and individual life as well. On the one hand there is a real experience of stabilisation in many aspects of life. On the other the logic of deterrence and 'just in case' leaves a deep sense of fragility and hampers the dynamic of normalisation dramatically in certain areas. Politics appears to be frozen forward and frozen backward with the consequence that people go about their business 'as if' they have no connection to the political impasse. After all, life is certainly better for most in the 'noughties' than it was in the seventies or eighties. The exception of course is in local interfaces where small disputes can quickly escalate into major riots, and where the frontline of community antagonism is revitalised.
The temptation of course is to believe that pure apartheid is a benign option, minimising the need to change and negotiate. I want to warn against such complacency. First of all apartheid is premised not on peace but on its impossibility. It is always conflict by other means. In the context of dynamic interfaces, apartheid will always generate new border disputes, new Torrens estates where the pressure of one group ultimately generates the defeat of another - let alone territorial disputes about culture and marches along traditional routes. Secondly, the costs of separate service provision are enormous. The Alliance Party estimates that the cost of living apart in Northern Ireland amounts to at least £1bn per annum. Five medical centres where the population warrants two is bad housekeeping and cannot be sustained in the long run. Thirdly, apartheid requires that entry and exit be controlled. Without a Group Areas Act, the group areas fact on the ground will be patrolled by paramilitaries, no matter what the official status of the armies they belong to. For as long as people feel a need to defend themselves, paramilitaries will step into the breach. Fourthly, there is a clear relationship between poverty and violence. While poverty undoubtedly contributes to the propensity for violence, violence will ensure that investment dries up, those with get up and go will get up and go, mobility of labour will decline and the long run prospects of whole districts will dry up. Fifthly, the expulsion of the unwanted outsider does not stop with 'our traditional enemies' but extends to anyone unwanted by a violent minority. The rates of racial harassment and homophobic crime are not unrelated to a culture which tolerates violent defensive community infrastructure. In 2003/4, the housing executive spent £45m just moving intimidated people to new locations – 10 years after a ceasefire. Finally, the apartheid mentality not only cripples the poor but infects all of society: I recently spoke to a bank who found difficulty getting workers to make use of their state of the art computer suite because it was in (loyalist) Ballybeen. The Social Care Council has to register social workers and determine whether those with politically-related records for murder and other violent acts or a propensity for theft should be registered while those with child abuse convictions should not. Museums have to decide how they represent the antagonism of Northern Ireland to itself while remaining honest. The PSNI has to build a coherent police service from people with diametrically opposite experiences of policing. Apartheid will destroy all of them.
Where do we go from here?
Ending antagonism in Northern Ireland remains the only project compatible with democracy. The task is not only to end violence, but to build a platform of relationships on which the future can be embraced with confidence. The job is immense, but some of the steps are clear. First of all, some of the core principles of the Good Friday Agreement need restated: consent, exclusively peaceful means, power-sharing, North-South bodies and east-west institutions, equality and human rights. However we need to move from the period of transition, which is sustained by aspiration to one of completion which is sustained by institution, in which the core arrangements for government and agreement on force and violence are in place. The alternative is that as aspiration fades, there is a slow embedding of antagonism in which the failure to make progress is yet another grievance in a long list. If nothing else, the final transition must be based on a recognition that the predicament itself has not changed.
For me this means final agreement on an end to all paramilitarism, agreed arrangements for policing and an agreed way forward in dealing with the legacy of the past, designed for Northern Ireland. After that there is a long process of policy development which is characterised by incremental steps across a whole range of issues.
The task for this season must be moving from transition to completion and beginning to identify the policy agenda. The government's own Shared Future review offers a huge opportunity for joining up these issues, which should not be squandered. The policy agenda touches every department: from education, housing and culture, to community development, policing and the workplace. It also involves people at local level and internal change for institutions.
In this we in the Community Relations Council hope to play a part. The Council can never be a constitutional project, except in as far as we promote core values, which we believe have to be at the heart of every acceptable western society: equity (justice and fairness), diversity (variety and freedom of choice) and interdependence (a future with others). While the specific answers to every problem will vary, no peaceful society can avoid wrestling with the complex and inter-related aspects of each.
Ultimately, the task of working with each other is not an option. Sharing and our ability to do it, are the stuff of life. Nor will it go away either. The task of making a shared future is not about homogenisation, it is about integrating with difference. Indeed there is no peace to be had without difference. And the task of negotiating, embracing and enjoying diversity will increase as we move into the future. Successful economies in the modern attract labour, failing economies export it. Prosperity for us and our children demands that we should wish for, not resist, diversity, unless we want to export our children abroad where they become the very stiff of diversity in spite of our resistance- and the lifeblood of other cities and countries. It would be good to embrace it early. Of course there are problems, but, hey, what better problems to have?