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Post-Nationalism 3 – The Cadogan Group – or just why is that Unionism doesn’t believe itself to be British Nationalism? November 23, 2006

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democratic Unionist Party, Ireland, Northern Ireland, Republicans, Unionism.

Every once in a while I cast an eye across The Cadogan Group website. And highly educational it is too. The Group was established in 1991:   “by a small number of academics and others in Belfast unhappy with overall government policy on Northern Ireland, and with the broad analysis of the problem shared by the United Kingdom and Irish governments and by many commentators”. And what is the source of their unhappiness? Why the Peace Process. Or more specifically the inclusion of Republicans within that process over the past fifteen or so years.

Some interesting members it has too. Dennis Kennedy, late of the Irish Times (and author by the by of a fantastic history of the early years of the state based on IT and reports and the situation of Unionists within it), Paul Bew the historian and so on and so forth. The great and the good from the non-fundamentalist Unionist camp so to speak. As it says itself: “The Group operates as an independent forum and is not linked to any political party. Its earlier pamphlets emerged from exhaustive discussion and represented the consensus view of the membership. This involved extended editing and re-editing, and a great deal of time. Group publications are now attributed to named authors who are responsible for the content.”

I should like these guys. I really should. Their civic Unionism isn’t without worth. They are reasonably progressive on social issues. They think about the issues and they treat them seriously.

And yet, and yet, and yet.

Despite thinking about the issues deeply their thoughts always seem to arrive at a rather familiar destination. And the name of that destination appears to be the retention of the traditional Union and a sorta kinda diluted majority rule. Okay, they sugar the pill somewhat in that they seem willing to countenance reaching out to moderate Nationalists such as the SDLP. But in effect their solution is the same solution as was presented by successive British Governments in the 1970s and early 1980s. A local assembly which would attempt to bring the more ‘reasonable’ elements together and exclude the wild men (aka Republicans). Now history hasn’t served them well with the rise and rise of Sinn Féin to the point of eclipsing and surpassing the SDLP. Their document ‘Beyond Belfast’ written last year appeared to be unable to countenance the idea that PIRA would disband, or rather it appears to have been written at two different times. In one part it was predicated on a stalemate lasting into the future (and reiterating the idea that it was impossible and immoral for Unionists to sit in government with former PIRA members) since PIRA wouldn’t disband. Then at the end it implicitly notes PIRA disbandment but again claims that it’s impossible for Unionists to work with SF in the absence of any expression of guilt over the past or a renunciation of violence in the future.

A key problem is that the justification for continued Unionist sovereignty is majoritarian, and that majoritarianism may well be whittled away in the future. Then all the arguments arrayed at great length to explain why NI must remain British flip into why NI must be subsumed into an RoI. The document recognises this and hedging somewhat argues that “The principle of consent entered the local political lexicon in the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 which declared that any change in the status of Northern Ireland could happen only with the a majority of the people of Northern Irelandlauded as a guarantee to the unionist majority that it would not be forced into Irish unity against its will. But it also meant, and this was made explicit in the Agreement, that the current status was conditional on that majority, and that it could and would be changed if a different majority emerged.”

The Cadogan Group argues that -ahem – “This whole question of consent needs to be re-examined.” and that “As we have argued, what is needed is a clarification of nationalist aims short of demanding that unionists be absorbed into a united Ireland against their will.” Now this isn’t explicit in the text but it appears to move towards a position where any nationalist ambitions in that direction must be stymied.

Indeed in the precis at the end of the document they note:

The Agreement is beyond repair. Two lessons should be gleaned from the experience of the past decade.

[from] concessions to the men of violence resulting in a worsening polarisation of political life, and rampant paramilitary criminality.

…temporary accommodation. Under the Belfast Agreement the fundamental divide over the existence of Northern Ireland was papered over by complex institutional arrangements and formulations intended to please both sides but in reality serving only to heighten expectations on one side and fears on the other.

A settlement is possible. Even today people from both communities in many parts of Northern Ireland live and work side-by-side without acrimony. It is only in the sphere of politics, and in the working-class ghetto areas, that the constitutional issue dominates, and corrupts both public life and community relations. Remove that issue and much becomes possible.

Nationalists, including Republicans, say they accept Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom by virtue of majority will. In other words the issue is settled, at least for the foreseeable future. Yet nationalists continue to make the elimination of Northern Ireland their primary aim, the focal point of their politics. So long as that continues, there will be no normality and little prospect of cross-community power-sharing. A change of focus which would give priority to making Northern Ireland a better place for those they represent, rather than pursuing the unachievable aim of making it disappear, would be a start.

Well to respond to the individual points, their ‘peace of a sort’ is actually a considerable measure of peace – certainly the largest measure in the six counties since the late 1960s. The concessions paid off, one of the most intractable paramilitary organisations in the world disbanded. Polarisation of political life was there before and remains, and only the most dreamy eyed idealists in Unionism could possibly believe otherwise. Paramilitary criminality does of course exist, but largely PIRAs disbandment has not led to any increase – the opposite if we are to believe the IMC.

Their proposition that a long term settlement cannot be built on a temporary accommodation is simply an opinion – nothing more. The divide exists, attempts are still being made to bring about some sort of engagement. Perhaps they’ll succeed, perhaps they won’t, but the current situation is on almost every scale better than it was ten years ago.

The idea that a settlement is possible is correct. But the idea that constitutional issues are the only ones that actually cause the ‘pain’ in the North is facile. Cultural and socio-political baggage on both sides is another stumbling block which even a comprehensive agreement will not ameliorate in the short term.

Moreover it’s ludicrous to suppose that only nationalists place the constitutional issue at the heart of their politics. The same charge can be made with equal validity against Unionism. Worse, they deny the legitimacy of Sinn Féin at every step, even in the context of the disbandment of PIRA.

I want to give some of the questions that they raise quite validly in their document, because these are crucial for Republicans and Nationalists to consider and give some of my thoughts first on them.

Is an unrealistic adherence to Irish Unity worth more decades of communal antagonism?

Naturally not. But unrealistic in what sense, is it any more realistic to propose that Nationalists will somehow stop being Nationalists and how then does community antagonism subside?

Is it time that more discussion was held on the linkages between the aspiration to Irish unity and communal mistrust and the street level sectarian outrages practised by extremists on both sides but particularly by loyalist paramilitaries and their supporters?

A very good question that works both ways.

Does ‘Irishness’ have to be linked to an independent Irish political entity? Many Irish people remain thoroughly Irish while living in Great Britain or other parts of Europe, or America or elsewhere. How much easier could it be to be Irish in that part of the island called Northern Ireland, linked culturally and in a thousand other ways with the rest of the island, just as many, including Protestants and even unionists, have already found?

Again, more good points. Yet evading a central issue. The relationship is not simply one located within the island, or NI, but one that Unionism sees as being linked to the rest of the UK. That’s entirely understandable, but to ignore that relationship is to ignore a central aspect of the dispute. And of course one could ask why is it impossible for British people to feel any less thoroughly British outside of Britain? Does Britishness have to be linked to a Union between the UK and NI?

If it is felt to be impossible to be fully Irish without being able to give full allegiance to an Irish state, the same would be true of unionists if they were forced against their will to be part of a non-British state. What answer do nationalists have to the charge that this would merely substitute one injustice for another?

Here again I’m in complete agreement. A traditional UI would indeed simply replace one injustice with another.

If Northern Ireland exists by virtue of the will of a majority, as the Belfast Agreement says, then its existence is legitimate. Can an argument based on the injustice of Partition remain valid? If it is not, then what is the basis of a demand for unity?

Well, even if we agree that NI can exist on the basis of the will of the majority in NI, that alone doesn’t predicate against lobbying for a UI, or indeed an NI linked into the UK. The basis of a demand for unity can be made for numerous reasons – such as logic, economic development, historical continuity etc etc. These reasons may be of varying substance, but they can clearly be made. And again, turn it around, why not ask what is the case for Union with the UK? Let’s be honest, both are in some respects simply preferences, where logic can be utilised to argue in favour of one or other outcome.

All nationalist politicians continue to insist that if 50% plus one voted for unity in a referendum, it should happen. What would be the moral argument for incorporating, without their consent, the 50% minus one opposed to it in an Irish Republic at some future date?

Another good point.

Would the action of exchanging a disaffected nationalist minority in one jurisdiction, the UK, for a disaffected unionist minority in another (the Republic) solve anything? Would not a demand for re-partition of Northern Ireland have a stronger moral base? Is the aspiration really territorial rather than a wish for a culturally Irish people to live in an Irish state?

Who knows? It’s no doubt a mixture of both. But no more or less rational in it’s own way as the Unionist argument.

Could it be that the policies of both nationalist parties put short-term triumphalism based on unionist discomfiture above the real interests of the nationalist community?

Well now, that is a charge that could as easily be directed right back at Unionism. But implicit is an idea that Nationalism has lesser validity than Unionism as a concept.

So while I think these are important questions I’m not a certain as the Cadogan Group as to the answers to them, or even if they’ve framed them in a sufficiently flexible way. Later in the same document they describe the idea of involuntary coalitions in the following terms (yet again raising the issue of Ministers drawn from parties associated with violence) “It may be years before the continuing failure of the Agreementto the general realisation that there are better ways to provide devolved government on a power-sharing basis. Our belief is that voluntary coalition is a more flexible and sustainable way forward, but until the SDLP demotes the priority it gives to Irish unity, and hence to solidarity between moderate nationalists and republicans, there is unlikely to be much progress.”

It’s difficult to see this as anything other than an explicit barrier to power sharing

In a way all this reminds me of the response of the WP and DL to Sinn Féin when it moved slowly towards a non-violent stance. The response was one of first incomprehension, then disbelief, then denial and finally – and as has been seen expressed in the attitude of many within Labour from a DL background – enduring suspicion. Rather than approval, or even support, that the right course has been taken, the approach is one that refuses to believe change is possible or that an engagement between those of sincerely held Republican views and those of sincerely held Unionist views is possible – or more likely desirable.

I don’t want to go into the enjoyably utopian proscriptions to the Unionist parties (inaccurately entitled Redefining Unionism) – other than noting that the DUP is advised to “place top priority on ridding itself of its Paisleyite image. Whether by persuasion or pressure, it should change its leader. A party still led and dominated by its founder after 35 years invites doubts as to its democratic nature. In the context of Northern Ireland its does not help to have the largest unionist party led by a Protestant clergyman known for his unremitting denunciation of the Catholic Church and its doctrines.” However, they do advise that the UUP: “Since Irish unity is no longer a practical danger, for demographic or any other reasons, should commit itself more fully and enthusiastically to cross-border cooperation, and to institutions which can be shown to serve a practical purpose in promoting and organising such cooperation”.

And, tellingly, that’s it on suggestions regarding the internal nature of this new Northern Ireland that strangely seems very like the old Northern Ireland. There’s no real sense that they have any ideas as to how NI would become more comfortable for the Nationalist/Republican population to live within in terms of symbols, structures and so on. There is no real mention of an all-island dimension and far too much emphasis on the Union.

Moreover they appear no more realistic in their pious hopes that non-constitutional centred politics can develop in the context of their posited transformation of Nationalism into something radically different, than successive generations of Republican Socialists who were always waiting for the millennial breakthrough that would herald a unity of the working class on the island and were always disappointed. History, their Unionist history, proves them wrong. Normal politics never developed in Stormont, not because of an IRA campaign that was largely dead from 1922 through to the early 1950s, but because ‘constitutional’ (albeit majoritarian) politics lay at the heart of Unionism itself, as much as Nationalism, as it had to – since Unionism is a nationalism – in such a way that even with a clear majority they sought to reinforce and supplement it to the detriment of the Nationalist population. And they’re remarkably introverted in that they entirely discount the experience within the broader United Kingdom where constitutional issues are not without a certain traction.

The real problem is that they’re blind – well I’m sure they’re not – to the reality that Unionism is a British Nationalism as much as Nationalism/Republicanism is an Irish Nationalism. Neither is valid or invalid. Both can be argued for within their own terms and without. The trick is to produce structures that provide the much vaunted ‘parity of esteem’ for both nationalisms, and that’s why the contemporary situation is so radically different to previous incarnations of Northern Ireland. A localised political entity with links south (while the representational link to the UK is retained) is a different class of animal from anything previously experienced on the island. But for such structures to work one has to engage with those who represent the people within the North.

And consider this, these are the ‘modernisers’, arguably the closest thing to post-nationalist that you’ll find in the Union camp. I don’t want to dismiss what they have to say. They do think about the situation. They are representative of a certain strain within Unionist thinking. Much of what they say is clearly easily integrated into any progressive program. But…they demonstrate the mountains to be climbed.

The DUP more advanced than the Cadogan Group? Sad, but very possibly true.


1. Donagh - November 24, 2006

Reading through some of that publication it struck me that their byline should be: “For Unionists to Stubborn to Quit” 😉
Considering that a report recently suggested that the ‘Irish Identity’ would have to change in the light of recent increases in immigration, their articles don’t seem to take into account that Northern Ireland is, or soon will be, under similar pressure to change, that is beyond the lines of a nationalist over unionist identity.

Judging by the level of violence against those in the immigrant community in Northern Ireland there is clearly going to be continued resistance to any such identity shift. The very vulnerability of the unionist identity in some quarters is clearly perpetuating that violence.

Curiously their use of the term ‘multiculturism’ in the rejoiner section (Multiculturalism goes out of fashion – but not here) completely ignores the fact that there are now other cultures in Northern Ireland:
“In Britain, Muslims resent western values and the foreign policies that flow from them. Here separate churches, schools, sports and cultural organizations, even newspapers, all maintain different cultural values, just as the mosques and schools do there.”


2. WorldbyStorm - November 24, 2006

Well, I think that’s at the heart of the matter Donagh. Notable how the Unionist version of civil society is running about a decade and a half behind what I would – with a huge generalisation – consider is the ‘British’ version. It’s not that it’s wrong, just not quite the state of the art. But then it’s also an object lesson in the danger of absolute identities. No more than an ‘Irish’ identity is fixed, but is instead built up of multiple, contradictory and overlapping aspects, so too is a ‘British’ one. I think your point about the nature of the society within NI must change as much due to the new dynamics, as the traditional political one, is correct. Modernisation, cultural change etc, are all going to push it in a certain direction.


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