Equity Diversity Interdependence
Promoting a Peaceful and Fair
Society based on Reconciliation
and Mutual Trust.
On the far side of revenge?
Speech by Duncan Morrow
Shared Future Conference 27 January 2004
Today Belfast is hosting the United Kingdom's formal commemoration Holocaust Memorial Day. What we do and say here, like everything else since its discovery, takes place in the shadow of Auschwitz. In the face of the Holocaust, all of our cheap platitudes about inevitable civilisation and the ascent of man fall apart. For in the heart of one of the most technically and culturally advanced nations in the world, violence seized power and determined to use it to eliminate its enemies using all of the technology at its disposal while citing the superiority of its culture. We know already that the catastrophe of the 1930s and 40s has not stopped mass murder in the name of nation or class, culture or politics continuing apace.
It is good that this commemoration is taking place in Belfast on the same day as this meeting. Because the question of what a shared future in Northern Ireland might be like has something to do with refusing the road towards Auschwitz. After 1945, the distance from the gates of Auschwitz became the moral compass, explicitly or implicitly defining our progress towards or distance from a human society. The election of Hitler destroyed any certainty that elections and democratic constitutions alone would secure an inclusive political future. We had to do more than just agree structures. Alongside the institutions came values: Civic equality not racial superiority, the rule of law, international co-operation not national segregation and freedom of expression, religion and mobility became the definition of a humane society.
To live in Northern Ireland is to live in a place haunted by its own memories of violence and discrimination or fears of destruction or massacre to come. We know too much about each other, or perhaps more dangerously, they know too much about us for us to rest easily in our beds at the thought that they might control the apparatus of state. Conflict in Northern Ireland has always been about communities and their relationship to each other and to the state. Controlling the state meant controlling its instruments for defence and force to our advantage. And so we have narrowed all of our public life to the question of control of the identity of the state. In doing so, we have compromised the very agencies of peace and security – civic equality, the rule of law and trust and co-operation. In our fight to defend or eliminate existing political arrangements all manner of cruelty and death has been justified, each twist making trust between them and us less and less plausible.
When we talk about the legacy of conflict in Ireland, we usually mean this complex residue of antagonism, threat, political action and violence which continues to poison any notion of sharing. Political communities, each seeking the shelter of their own state, have grown up in antagonism to one another. The struggle against each other has defined public life. Too often common sense meant preparing for war, even at times of peace. But for as long as we prepare to wage war against each other, the concept of a shared future is always likely to appear ever so slightly naïve. Our first aspiration is to protect ourselves, ultimately by achieving our political goals. Good relations could wait, nobody's aspiration.
And yet the problem of our shared predicament continues to return. Because, as the last thirty five years in Northern Ireland have proved, every attempt to deny our mutual interdependence locks us into a cycle of violence in which others are sacrificed to our aspirations while our own people are sacrificed to theirs. The predicament – that we are here in one place together – has not yet disappeared, and if we are to stay on this side of a holocaust or mass expulsion, this will continue to be the case, no matter what state we belong to.
The predicament of Northern Ireland is that we will share the future: the only question is what kind future we will share. The challenge is to reconcile the pursuit of our aspirations with this underlying fact: failure to resolve it leads us back down the road of killing and expulsion. And the pace of change depends to a large extent on the degree to which we accept or resist this shared predicament.
The historic fact that our political communities have grown up in opposition to one another has left us with a deep legacy of segregation and organised defence. In the face of threat, special laws suspending basic rights have been justified, culture was competitive not inclusive, discriminations large and small became common sense, paramilitaries gained support and sympathy while everything from politics, policing, housing and schooling to social life, friendship and love became infected with the virus of violent self-protection which goes by the name of sectarianism.
Even people arriving in Northern Ireland with none of this history got caught in its wake. New minorities found and find their concerns marginalised by the obsessive dominance of one question in politics, obliged to identify with one side or the other or, even worse, forced to hide and conform by the presence of paramilitary activity and a culture which has grown too tired to be shocked by violence and tolerant of ideas that protection means excluding those who are different rather than looking for renewal to those who bring fresh perspectives. In recent weeks, all of this has come tragically to the fore.
Against this backdrop, we have to acknowledge that learning to live with each other without thought of resort to force or threat against each other is something new in Northern Ireland. As TS Eliot wrote “the only wisdom is the wisdom of humility.” In a deep sense, it is learning to do what we don't know how to do. We already know that it means undoing the culture of keeping weapons 'just in case', it means committing to work with each other without certainty that our aspirations will be fulfilled, it means designing the political and security order in such a way that everyone trusts that government belongs to all of us, is committed to civic equality, justice and inclusion and itself subject to law.
Clearly, working for the goals of the Shared Future review is not a miracle cure but a long process. While we have a direction and a compass, the process of healing and mending will be a necessarily complex process. Working from antagonism to presumed trust will be a programme for decades not days. Perhaps the most difficult task of all will reconciling ourselves to the changes that will be demanded of us.
Arising out of the consultation, a number of issues are already clear.
Apartheid may be better than massacre, but it is no cost-free solution for a sustainable society. Nor does it eliminate antagonism, but institutionalises it. The difficult task will be to accommodate different speeds at once, dealing with the legacy of the past and reaching for a shared future.
While trust may remain elusive, all of these things can be measured. The lesson of the fixing broken windows experiment in the United States, is that in targeting small things, larger things begin to be possible. Furthermore if we wait to solve the large things before we move on the small things, we might be waiting for ever. If a shared future is to become more plausible, it is essential that we identify key areas for progress rather than simply expect to solve al the issues in one step.
What is clear from this consultation is that 'no change' is not an option. This exercise has confirmed that the issues of justice (equity), our right to be different (diversity) and our common predicament (interdependence) are the crucial issues which will define the progress of the peace process. Moving forward will require sustained courage and commitment over many years from many people. In all of this, we will need a culture which learns from failure rather than condemns experiment.
Political leadership is essential to the development of a society with stable institutions, agreed law and order and the ending of a culture of paramilitarism. The adjustment to all of this will require wide consensus and support. At policy level, there is a need for a coherent approach to promote this work. At government level, there is no doubt that this will require joining up, but it will also require real responsibility to be taken by individual departments to look at a huge range of issues: access to non-segregated housing, education for real relationships beyond institutional separation, planning for safe town centres, no-tolerance zones for sectarian graffiti, an embrace of cultural diversity, community safety which seeks safety in relationship not in excluding others, workplace policies to encourage learning and exchange beyond neutrality, social inclusion strategies which recognise the centrality of addressing the obstacles which community division puts in the way of inclusion, policies to ensure freedom of movement for all and an economic strategy which recognises and engages with the obstacles to sustainable development, legislation to deal with hate crime and a statistical service to back it up.
Nobody expects miracles but at community level, there is a need to change the culture of lazy acceptance of intimidation and violence. This applies to everyone of all backgrounds in Northern Ireland. Community relations work was only ever soft for people who didn't bother with it. Questions of partnership, of building bridging, bonding and linking relationships and of dialogue around the most difficult conversations must now become central to how we do business in Northern Ireland. Future funding strategies must facilitate change. The question of how safe minorities are in our communities is an urgent question for community and religious leaders across Northern Ireland, but especially for Protestants in Border areas, Catholics in East Antrim and members of minority ethnic groups across Northern Ireland.
Instead of expecting all change to come from the most difficult interfaces, we should perhaps invest in those areas where sharing and interface have happened without massive violence. In the workplace, the development of good relations approaches to staff and service provision are vital. All of this will require places to the organisations to develop new capacities to deal with emotive and difficult issues. The development of this capacity will be a key task in coming years. This too will throw us back on our reliance on learning and growth.
The sheer scale of the agenda can become intimidating. But we should also take stock of how far we have come. With our history, it is a kind of miracle that we are meeting in this setting today. Furthermore, and perhaps for the first time, the discussion of a shared future is now led by people who live here. When the Community Relations Council was established, there were not even talks about talks let alone conferences on sharing the future. It is the strong hope of the Council that this event marks a step change in the public emphasis on peacebuilding and we look forward to playing our part in future developments.