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The Democratic Convention opens. Meanwhile, what of the North of Ireland? August 26, 2008

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Northern Ireland, US Politics.

Okay, so it’s Democratic Convention time. And so far so good. Michelle Obama gave an effective speech. Not least when as reported in today’s Guardian…

One of the biggest cheers of the night came when she offered an olive branch to the Clinton camp, praising her for her success in advancing the women’s movement. Clinton had “put those 18 million cracks in the glass ceiling so that our daughters and sons can dream a little bigger and aim a little higher”.

A bit of a cleft stick there I suppose. Particularly when Clinton (or her more vociferous supporters) might believe that the reason she didn’t manage to shatter that ceiling was the man Michelle Obama is married to. But then in a way perhaps the latter saying what she did will bring home to people that this wasn’t simple gender politics that stymied Clinton’s rise, but a much more complicated brew. And perhaps one or two of those supporters might note that race operates (as perhaps we’re seeing now in the national polls) in a way not dissimilar to gender and that the two fights are inextricably linked (which incidentally, like, loathe or whatever the Democrats is why this contest has progressive ramifications above and beyond the policy/party political – and isn’t just a spectator sport akin to the Olympics).

Anyhow, it seems to be going well, and I’m particularly impressed – in terms of convention management/presentation – by how the much trumpeted video from Ted Kennedy was upstaged by the man himself. Expect more along those lines.

Mind you, while we’re talking about seemingly intractable conflicts reading the July/August issue of Fortnight there is a piece by former editor Robin Wilson entitled Can Northern Ireland become normal?

Wilson argues that opinion polling in Northern Ireland has tended to produce ‘positive messages’ that however divided the population there was an appetite for power-sharing. Still, in a gloomy analysis, the central argument is that the brevity of power-sharing in practice ‘suggests its foundations remain fragile’.

Wilson continues:

‘… this is borne out by the continuing lack of consensus on what, precisely, was wrong about the ‘troubles’: Unionist portray the period as a ‘terrorist’ assault, and by implication only significantly a republican assault, on the the rule of law; nationalists, meanwhile present it as the product of the denial of human rights by first unionists and later the British states, often operating in collusion with loyalist paramilitaries.

The ‘peace process’ delicately skirted these questions of political morality, like unexploded ordnance, in pursuit of the Realpolitik of a deal. ‘Inclusiveness’, it was argue, required that every political and paramilitary faction be kept ‘on board’ and the message from May’s celbratory conference at Queen’s University, 10 years on from the GFA, was that this was a model to export around the world.

Hmmm. Not quite ‘every’ paramilitary faction. Indeed arguably only one paramilitary faction was of any great importance. And for self-evident reasons. The bonus that there were faint stirrings of progressive thinking in some small fractions of the Loyalist paramilitaries was – just that, a bonus. It allowed for a certain political cover for Trimble come 1998.

That no country has imported it, in the intervening period, tells, however, its own story – and a markedly different international approach to ‘terrorist’ was adopted at the Club of Madrid conference in 2005… there the consensus – albeit in the absence of the British and the Americans – was that sub-state political violence was best dealt with by upholding human rights and the rule of law, rather than by creating an atmosphere of moral hazard, whether this be by declaring a military ‘war on terror’ or by encouraging paramilitaries to anticipate political rewards if they turn violence into a bargaining chip.

Of course that works both ways, doesn’t it? How many of the conflicts addressed in 2005 have been resolved even partially? Or what of an alternative view, and one I’d share, is that there is no single road to conflict resolution and attempting to determine absolutes, particularly those that involve terms such as ‘moral hazard’, is unlikely to be helpful. After all, consider the template that Wilson implicitly supports, ‘upholding human rights and the rule of law’. Already we see in the current phase of the so-called War on Terror that both of those elements are subject to considerable pressure, not least – it must be admitted – from general populations. Indeed it is this latter pressure in the localised context of the North which was arguably key to the lack of progress. Not that people wanted to prolong the conflict, but that public pressure and perception on one side was that the state functioned essentially to support their viewpoint. Now this was a varnished view with many different strands to it, but at root it served to functionally act as a barrier to any sort of reconciliation – or indeed discourse. And then there is the issue of the guarantor (or more often sponsor) of a population in the conflict being neither neutral nor disinterested resulting in the establishment and continuation of bonds of loyalty (and consider how even now that dynamic can be seen within the Conservative party) which can also assist in prolonging the situation. And the obvious corollary of this is a rule of law which is fundamentally deformed or distorted through its application by a partisan to the conflict.

I could continue, but this is all obvious stuff, which is why Wilson’s apparent implicit support of such an approach is unusual. And it’s not as if Wilson is entirely immune to that analysis. Because the article notes that:

The unprecedented longevity of the NI ‘struggle’, by international standards, was a failure to regret, not a success to trumpet – and a failure which arguably arose because of the inconsistent oscillation of the British state over the years between repression of Catholic working-class communities and the appeasement of paramilitaries of various hues.

But the problem remains, the British state was not an indifferent or disinterested party. It had a direct role within the conflict, one that directly led to inconsistency. The inconsistency therefore was symptom, as much – if not more so, than cause. And therefore the next statement is built on shaky foundations.

These inconsistent signals have left a disturbing legacy in the public mind. It is evident in the answers, now available, from the 2007 Northern Ireland Life and Times Survey, to questions about politically motivated violence and civil liberties.

Let’s consider the survey.

“when asked ‘do you have sympathy with the reasons for violence from loyalist/republican groups even if you don’t condone the violence itself?’, 29% expressed some sympathy vis-a-vis loyalist violence and 30% with regard to its republic counterpart.

Now I regard that as a not surprising answer to the question. And my reasons for that I’ll develop further on, but Wilson is not so sanguine.

Only small minorities expressed ‘a lot of sympathy’ (3% and 5% respectively) and there was that qualifying clause in the question. it is still remarkable, though – given that violence has been so generally (and effectively) stigmatised in western Europe since the horrors of Nazism – that such large proportions of the population would be prepared to volunteer ‘sympathy with the reasons for violence’, a question focused essentially on is perceived legitimacy.

I think that it’s a serious misreading of the situation to consider that the near-equivalent figures within both community represent some sort of near-fascistic attachment to violence. Firstly the question is ambiguous. To have sympathy for the ‘reasons for violence’ is an odd sort of a phrase. Is one being asked does one support the violence? No. This seems closer to being asked whether one ‘understands’ the motivations that might lead a person to use violence, and that – surely – is vastly less contentious. For example, I can entirely understand why Republicans or Loyalists might use violence. There are a myriad of reasons. A relative or close friend murdered by an opposing grouping, machismo, a particularly brutal encounter with state forces. I can even, perhaps slightly, in the first instance have ‘sympathy’ with someone caught up in that process. But that doesn’t mean that I necessarily ‘condone’ the use of violence. And neither do those asked the question in the survey.

And to then point to violence in Europe since 1933 seems a little exaggerated. Few conflicts, in the abstract, are going to appear meaningful in that context. Yet in the local context every conflict is going to seem more significant on a day to day basis. And particularly, and this is something Wilson addresses not at all, in Northern Ireland where this is not something that arrived fully formed, as it were, in 1968, but in an historical sense was an expression of much older socio-political tensions and on occasion conflict.

And this, I feel, leads to further misinterpretations.

Particularly noticeable is that 11% of Catholics expressed ‘a lot of sympathy’ when it comes to republican violence. The ‘constructive ambiguity’ of the ‘peace process’ has had its consequences – including the capacity of republican ministers in the devolved administration to criticise those seeking to kill Catholic police officer only in terms of their lack of ‘strategy’.

Well, yes. But to criticise on that level is to ignore the sea change in approach by those same Republican Ministers to the overall context and to ignore the political space open to them and their perception of that space. Moreover it is to ignore that that ‘strategy’ has been central to Republicans interpretation of the events of the past decade. So it works as both explanation and as justification. There are many counter-critiques of this as explanation and justification – obviously – as to its effectivity, sincerity and validity, but that’s largely irrelevant to the way in which it operates in the context of Republicanism.

Wilson considers the pernicious effects of internment on the situation in the North, and notes that:

The Life and Times question on this issue, however, found a clear majority of 58% in Northern Ireland sympathetic to the notion that ‘the authorities’ should definitely or probably be allowed to detain people for as long as they wanted. This was mainly due to the support of 66% of Protestant respondents (only 40% of Catholics concurred) – even though the question offered no limitation whatsoever to the period of potential detention or indeed any restriction to ‘terrorist’ offences.

And this plays out in practical terms…

Even the modest quesiton as to whether protest marches – such as characterised the early civil-rights movement – should be allowed attracted striking differences. This is a fundamental human right in a democratic society, yet one third of respondents, rising to 36% among Protestants, said such demonstrations should probably or definitely not be permitted. No wonder the DUP has expressed such hostility – baffling to many Catholics – to the proposed Northern Ireland bill of rights.

Yet even here one wonders. Since the nature and function of marches is so strikingly different and distinct dependent upon who is marching it is hardly odd that these should manifest in ‘striking differences’ as regards the perception of ‘protest marches’ in such a question. Validations and legitimations of state power, and their converse are unlikely to lead to a similar perception. And the sense that one or other community might gain some sort of ‘upper hand’ is more than likely at the root of these perceptions too.

Underpinning all these responses is a significantly embedded culture of intolerance – hardly surprising, after so many have been so traumatised… the lack of a broader consensus on the fundamental norms of a civic society does not, however, bode well for the stability of power-sharing, now that the two governments have removed the political equivalent of a baby harness…

Hmmm, well, I guess if one were more cynical than me it is possible to argue that there is actually no reason why the first proposition, that a culture of intolerance exists, should per definition lead to the second, a lack of stability of power-sharing. No reason at all. Indeed one might suggest that regrettable or not the existence of such a culture might curiously lead to more stability, particularly in the context of the current dispensation.

But again, one might reasonably ask, why ignore the roots of conflict and trauma that long pre-dated the most recent conflict. What about the role of the Stormont governments post 1920 in this? What too of the British government whose inconsistencies as regards its approach to Nationalists merely echoed their inconsistency towards Unionism in the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century. An inconsistency which eventually expressed itself in a blithe ignorance and aversion to the realities of Northern Ireland post-partition.

And that this should result in a prolonged ‘hot’ war is not so unusual, although the length of that war is. That the nature of that war can be questioned with considerable justification – as it now is from a variety of quarters, some quite unusual – doesn’t detract from a basic aspect of it. This was a dynamic embedded within broader processes that long predated the late 1960s. And it is curious that Wilson eschews engaging with that in favour of a very short-term view of the conflict and a limited analysis of motivations which seeks to criticise people for emotional responses that appear linked to the short term but which are more clearly a further expression of the long term process and history.

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1. ejh - August 26, 2008

You can see how the Clinonites are going to play this, though, can’t you? If Obama loses, it’s because he wasn’t Clinton. If he wins – well, he was screwing it up until she reluctantly agreed to save his ass for him.

Incidentally, can anybody give me any god reason why this should all go on for so long? Christ, I thought correspondence chess was a longwinded affair until I started following the US Presidental election. I can see that a hundred years ago, it might have been necessary to take months and months in a big country so that the voters in Cheyenne, Wyoming could actually get to see the candidates for an hour or so. But now, what’s the point? Does any other country drag it out like this?


2. Hugh Green - August 26, 2008

Nearly everyone in Northern Ireland supports politically-motivated violence. Contra Robin Wilson, there is a culture of tolerance in Northern Ireland, whereas there hardly any culture of tolerance in the Republic of Ireland. For example, I do not tolerate people living in other estates near where I live here in the RoI, because the question of tolerating them on account of the fact that they are different simply does not arise. Whereas in Northern Ireland, many if not most people tolerate the fact that they have to share territory and institutions with people whose cultural identity they do not share. It is precisely the culture of tolerance for the other that creates the power-sharing instability.


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