Can the source of failure in Ulster be traced to a conflict within democracy itself?by Arthur Aughey / February 20, 2004 / Leave a comment
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…