Northern Ireland's historic Good Friday agreement must overcome the failures of 1798, 1916 and 1968. Demography may not end partition but a "third tradition" could transcend itby Fred Halliday / May 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
Before all else must come the recognition of something amazing: for the first time since the beginning of the conflict between Britain and Ireland some eight centuries ago, an agreement, fragile in basis and complex in content, but to which all significant parties have given their assent, has been achieved. It will be challenged, it may even be arrested, but it cannot easily be destroyed as many other Irish agreements have been. Whatever follows, the accord has drawn a line under the antagonistic history that preceded it: in all future disputes it is to this agreement that the protagonists will have to return.
Credit must go to politics in its high, and low, forms: a chink of vision, international pressure, weariness in both communities. There will never be a complete explanation of why it has happened now, but the fact is that—through politics at its best—a deal was done.
Good Friday 1998 connects to three momentous anniversaries that resonate through Irish history. This deal will succeed only if it overcomes the negative outcomes of all three anniversaries. The first took place 30 years ago in 1968, the year of worldwide student upheaval. The English 1968 was a placid event compared to its French, German, American and Czech variants. But the Irish 1968 was explosive-a transposition to the northern Irish communal tinderbox of the tactics and slogans of the US civil rights movement. The degeneration of that movement from its non-violent, non-sectarian beginnings into the violence of 1969 has been recounted many times: its original agenda-full civil rights within a legitimate Northern Ireland-is still at the core of the Good Friday deal.
In 1798, 200 years ago, another uprising in Ireland was inspired by events abroad, this time the French revolution. In some towns protestants and catholics rose together, but elsewhere violence was sectarian. The result was not only defeat, but the acceleration of the split between protestant and catholic Ireland and, two years later, the abolition of Grattan’s devolved assembly in Dublin. Some see in the new council of Britain and Ireland a return to that time, a neo-Grattanite reincorporation of the south. This will not happen: what can happen, as a result of this deal and devolution in Scotland and Wales, is a saner, richer, less antagonistic relation between England-itself a rather changed land-and all three Celtic peoples in these islands.
Above all, Easter in Ireland is the time to remember 1916, the defeated, unrepresentative revolt that subsequent republicanism has canonised. It, too, was a product of an international context: the first world war and the illusion that Britain was so weakened that insurrection in Dublin could achieve independence. The 1916 uprising was not a precondition for southern Ireland independence: as the interwar years showed in Canada, Australia and South Africa, the turn of history in all the white dominions was moving in that direction.
A pre-1914 deal limiting Ireland to home rule would not have held into the 1930s. Yet 1916 did create a myth: it gave credit for Irish independence to those who had little right to claim it. Irish nationalism has remained a prisoner of that event, not least in the predominance of the gun over the ballot box as a symbol of legitimacy. To this day Irish republicanism has never respected democracy: the elected parliament of the south ratified the partition of Ireland in 1922, as did, subsequently, the southern electorate, but this mattered little to the mystical lads and lasses of the IRA. The test, for them, in the Stormont deal is whether they can now accept the constraints of democratic politics.
Good Friday 1998 should also be looked at in the broader international context. International factors played an important part in shifting attitudes in Ireland. The rise of southern confidence and prosperity, thanks in part to the EU, has helped remove the obsession with England. The Celtic Tiger can more easily face its old oppressor across the Irish Sea and, as Bertie Ahern has courageously done, abandon its outdated and illegal claim to the north. US pressure, and enticement, have given Gerry Adams a status he has turned to purpose at home, while also reassuring David Trimble that his interests are respected. In the person of Senator George Mitchell, a man brought up as a Lebanese Maronite, and so with some sensitivity to quarrelling communities, Washington offered its best.
The deal struck on Ireland may be part of a set of agreements that have become possible in the 1990s, as cold war paralysis, and the illusions of autarchy, have ceded to the somewhat more tolerant world of globalisation. Pessimistic observers associate the 1990s with a rise in ethnic and nationalist conflict-a new ungovernability; but, on a global scale, this is far from being the case. The record of post-1989 agreements is, none the less, mixed. Some have stuck: in Namibia, South Africa, Mozambique, Nicaragua and El Salvador.
These had all reached heights of bloodiness and internationalisation unknown in Northern Ireland. Some, notoriously, have not: there is no peace in Afghanistan, precious little in Angola. Some agreements continue to hover between collapse and success: the Oslo peace process between Palestinians and Israelis, the UN-brokered deal on Cambodia. Yet for all the stops, there has been no reversion to the wars that preceded the agreements. Dayton holds, but only because of sustained international pressure: if you wanted a negative analogy for Northern Ireland, where the guns may be laid down but the heart does not melt, then Bosnia would be it. Better not to speak of Cyprus at all.
We can hope that the May referenda will ratify the deal with, in De Gaulle’s sonorous phrase, “Un oui, franc et massif.” There is opposition: we shall hear much of sellouts, perhaps more of the gun. But, unless the political leaderships of the signatory parties are overthrown or assassinated, elections and the other constitutional developments will follow.
Overcoming the legacy of those three anniversaries requires more than elections. The Stormont agreement promises measures to democratise the north. In the first place this means resolving differences through negotiation: it remains to be seen whether the parties can really work together and not fight over every detail like some unhappy, fractious family forced under one roof. Unionist concern at decommissioning promises to make this all the more difficult. On the nationalist side, the most intractable area has been referred to another commission: the RUC. Of the four areas of discrimination that underlay the explosion of the late 1960s-housing, elections, employment, police-the last one has remained the most enduring.
The legacy of 1798 is the division of Ireland into two peoples who do not want to live under the same political system. The Stormont agreement recognises this, but contains within it the possibility of change. At the moment, the text appears to allow for a change in Northern Ireland’s status once a simple majority demands it. This is no doubt how the republicans will want to keep it: unashamedly, they will deploy the worst of English constitutional traditions, the first-past-the-post simple majority, against the more widely recognised democratic principle that big constitutional changes require something more-either two thirds or a majority of each community.
Sinn Fein and the SDLP have been quietly reassuring their followers that the birth rate alone will deliver such a majority within a few decades. The code words are “Our time will come.” Adams talked on that Good Friday morning of the “direction” underlying the agreement. But even this may not be so: the catholic birth rate is falling, the emigration of the protestant middle class may decline with a peace deal, and not all catholics want to be part of the south. The change in the southern constitution could also have its effects: by abandoning articles 2 and 3 of the Irish constitutions, Ahern is openly saying something northern catholics do not want to hear, but is no secret in the south: “We don’t want you here.”
Overcoming the legacy of Easter 1916 demands something else. The reconciliatory initiatives of recent years have rested on an appeal for mutual respect of the two traditions, unionist and nationalist. This is the rhetoric of the middle, epitomised in the wordy (but now vindicated) statements of John Hume, and in the Good Friday deal itself. For republicans, 1916 is a landmark, just as for protestants it is the Battle of the Boyne and the siege of Derry of 1689-90.
But “parity of esteem,” as it is called, can turn into parity of indulgence and blether, a fossilising of Irish society and politics into two camps that are less and less critical of their own pasts and which concede power to the purported representatives of that tradition. For all who do not subscribe to the frozen definitions of tradition-free thinkers of all kinds and genders-this parity of esteem is a muzzle. And a grim index of what it means can be seen in Derry, where there has been relative peace and power-sharing since the 1980s, but at the expense of a partition of the town into the catholic majority in the centre, and a protestant suburb on the other side of the Foyle.
There is a conflict between short and long-term interests. The short-term interest is to get this agreement to stick. This requires, as it does in the Arab-Israeli context, an authoritarian control of political constituencies by their leaders, the better to deliver a lasting peace. But in the long run, the rhetoric of the two traditions may reveal itself to be what it is: undemocratic and illiberal.
What Ireland needs is not formalised equality of the two traditions, or deals between sectarian leaderships, but the development of a social and political space that draws on the Irish past while transcending these two traditions. This was the failure of 1798, 1916 and 1968.
Those who rejected the straightjacket of the two traditions were consumed. The fate of Yeats, protestant and nationalist, but spurned within the independent state, has a new relevance. A revitalised third tradition could supercede the two dungeons that have, along with an illiberal English domination, imprisoned the peoples of Ireland these few centuries past.