Can the source of failure in Ulster be traced to a conflict within democracy itself?by Arthur Aughey / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
Published in February 2004 issue of Prospect Magazine
Book: Peace in Ireland: the war of ideas Author: Richard Bourke Price: Pimlico, £10 As Montesquieu observed in The Persian Letters, “If triangles had a god, he’d have three sides.” Intellectual reflection on Northern Ireland tends to reveal that sort of coincidence. When the god of reason speaks, it often speaks in the accent of a particular political passion. Richard Bourke’s book has no “side”; its passion is purely intellectual. It tells a familiar story, but in a manner that will stimulate the most jaded student of Northern Ireland politics. The book challenges those fashionable interpretations of Northern Ireland based on identity and ethnicity, and provides a penetrating criticism of one policy option suggested by those interpretations, joint sovereignty between London and Dublin. This is an option that has re-emerged in response to the recent crisis in devolution. But joint sovereignty, Bourke argues, would be “a hydra-headed constitutional monster with all the potential for ineliminable conflict that implies.” It is frequently claimed that the “abnormality” of Northern Ireland’s society inevitably produced terror and mayhem. Bourke’s examination of the “war of ideas” shows that the issues in the conflict have not been peculiar to Northern Ireland but are part of the common inheritance of democratic politics. The Troubles were not a residue of ancient history but “very much a product of specifically modern conditions.” The present hope is that as conditions change so too will the relationships of the protagonists. The owl of Minerva, as we know, spreads its wings only with the falling of dusk. We come to a fuller understanding of a political era once it is fading away. While there is a broad consensus that one political era is indeed now over, commentators are reluctant to conclude that what that era meant – systematic political violence – cannot be rejuvenated. Bourke, too, does not rule out the old militant solidarities undermining the appetite for peace. But the contest that gave this era its character can be traced, he believes, to the ambivalence of democratic principles themselves. In Northern Ireland, “the democratic expectation of political equality was actually thwarted by the mechanisms of democratic government.” The conflict “was the product of a fundamental misunderstanding about the organising principles of modern politics.” Republican and unionist populists engaged in a war of position but their assumptions were “radically misconceived.” To call it a misconception may be a rare example of hubris on Bourke’s part. When in 1932 Northern Ireland’s first prime minister, James Craig, remarked that he was glad to preside over a Protestant parliament and a Protestant state, he was speaking in response to the claim by ?mon de Valera, then prime minister in the south, that Ireland was a Catholic state. Craig argued that while the government of southern Ireland should be carried on along lines which were appropriate to its Catholic majority, it was surely right that the government of Northern Ireland be conducted in a manner appropriate to its Protestant majority. The 1920s settlement had divided Ireland into zones of majoritarian democracy that meant that the southern parliament in Dublin would express Catholic majoritarianism, which it did, while the northern parliament in Belfast would express Protestant majoritarianism, which it also did. That was the deal, there was no misconception and the objective was peace in Ireland. It proved to be remarkably successful, delivering, as the historian JC Beckett observed, the longest period of stability since the first half of the 18th century. Catholics in Northern Ireland bore the brunt of the deal’s majoritarianism while in the south Protestants were displaced or marginalised. Events since 1969 have shattered the assumptions of the unionist half of the deal and all subsequent political initiatives have been designed precisely to prevent Protestant majoritarianism. The difficulty delivering on those initiatives can be traced in part to the determination of republicans to reverse the original defeat of the 1920s and by the determination of unionists not to be on the losing side this time around. Winning and losing is a serious business, which is why politics has been conducted with such religious fervour. Unionists have feared the apocalypse and nationalists have looked upon partition as a sin against the Irish people. The final judgement is read in the scripture of demography. That demographic politics is only another invocation of fate and not a justification of policy is something Bourke clearly grasps. The way to a rational peace is the abandonment of the implicit or explicit majoritarian war of all against all. Like most thoughtful people, he has an intellectual investment in the success of the Belfast agreement of 1998. That agreement was supposed to provide the means of transcending the majoritarian impulse. It implied a balanced settlement under which the democratic expectation of political equality would no longer be thwarted by the mechanisms of democratic government. The “new beginning” proposed by the agreement meant a shift from politics defined by winning and losing to politics defined by sharing risks. This would be the historic compromise, the stable modus vivendi, and it appeared to respond to a popular mood, a mood journalists called “war weariness.” David Trimble, with conscious reference to Craig, proposed that here was the opportunity to create “a pluralist parliament for a pluralist people,” here was the possibility “to raise up a new Northern Ireland in which unionists and nationalists work in partnership.” Unfortunately, popular attitudes were ambiguous and the wish for peace was not unqualified. Bourke is aware of this and intimations of the present crisis are there in the book’s epilogue. He predicted that if Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionists were to emerge as the largest parties after the elections in November 2003 – as they did – “the struggle for advantage will continue.” The reason for the swing of unionist support towards the DUP is the perception that the agreement’s implementation has been unequal in its effects. As Peter Robinson put it, this has meant the “erosion of British culture with an equality agenda which discriminates against the unionist community.” The failure of the IRA’s project of Irish unification required a politics of compensation, and republicans have been successful at incrementally raising its value. Their demographic message is that Northern Ireland is going to get greener and unionists must accept that reality on nationalist terms. The swing of nationalist support to Sinn Fein reflects the perception that democratic assertiveness is more likely to bring communal gains. Northern Ireland’s present condition, then, is an equally balanced trial by democratic mandate. The DUP demands changes to the agreement because that represents the wish of a majority of unionists. Sinn Fein resists change because that represents the wish of nationalists. The agreement is now technically in review. There is an optimistic view that its logic will compel co-operation between Sinn Fein and the DUP. However, so long as republicans interpret their mandate to mean that they can ignore unionist anxieties about the IRA, and the DUP interpret their mandate to mean that they can ignore Sinn Fein, there is little hope of success. It is a measure of progress, however, that no one now expects either a Bloody Friday or a workers’ council strike to enforce these interpretations. An extended period of direct rule beckons.