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The former Moderator and Moderation. Dr. Ian Paisley (for it is he) step forward… meanwhile you have to have a Party (Conference) when you’re in a state like this *… November 7, 2007

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Democratic Unionist Party, Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin, The North, Ulster, Unionism.


As reported in the Irish Times on Monday:

Dr Paisley was guest of honour at [an international conference on dispute resolution organised by the Irish branch of the Chartered Institute of Arbitrators in Dublin] which focused on commercial dispute resolution including arbitration, mediation, conciliation and adjudication. Joe Behan, chairman of the Institute said it was a great honour to have Dr Paisley present, “whose election to the post of First Minister is due to the resolution of what was once seen as an intractable dispute”.

“In the past when we thought of Northern Ireland we thought of conflict. Now we think of resolution, hope and a bright future. Dr Paisley’s commitment, determination and unfaltering negotiation skills played a significant role in bringing about resolution,” Mr Behan said.

Yes indeed, that commitment, determination and unfaltering negotiation skills… No, that doesn’t scan quite right. Perhaps we should ask the good Doctor just how was this exemplar of mediation and conciliation achieved?

Dr Paisley said he could have chosen not to enter into Government with Sinn Féin until all issues in relation to the future of Northern Ireland were resolved, but he decided to compromise and focus on the issues which were an “absolute necessity”.

Which were…

“That everyone must accept the police service of Northern Ireland as the legal law enforcement force; everyone must accept the fact that we as a people must obey the law; and everybody must support the law.”

And so the Gordian knot was cut.

However, Dr Paisley told the conference, he was still surprised at the speed at which a deal was done once these core principles were accepted.

Indeed, and he’s not the only one.

“I agreed I would move and we did move. I didn’t think we were going to move at such speed but we did. I don’t know what happened. The vehicle went faster than ever before and I am here today as proof positive that Northern Ireland has a Government, Northern Ireland has an Assembly, and Northern Ireland is going to go down further and further the road of peace and prosperity.”

It’s an anodyne sort of vision isn’t it? Good, but not exactly heady stuff.

Actually one of the most interesting aspects of the Paisley’s speeches at the moment is how secular the language is. He said that he:

…looked forward to the day when everyone on the island shared a common denominator.

“To see that the people on both parts of this island have fair play, live with the protection of law and order and go forward to give their children a better place in this island, and I believe we should dedicate ourselves to this task.”

Who, who on earth, could disagree with any of that? From left to right, nationalist to Unionist, Dissenter and otherwise. No one. That old time religion has been parked – at least for the moment. It’s a business like attention to detail. Which is fair enough.

Some are suggesting – particularly on the wilder shores of Unionism (and within the UUP, which sometimes appear to amount to much the same thing these days) that Paisley is now an Ulster nationalist. Perhaps. But I suspect that this is simply a mark of his ability to pitch towards audiences the sort of message that he wants them to hear. And yet, the DUP has always presented a somewhat un-ideological attachment to order and the rule of law as part of its political ‘myth’, a ‘myth’ that has flown perilously close to a rather different reality on occasion. That can lead to a pragmatism of sorts when the necessity to fulfill previous political declarations becomes necessary in order to avoid charges of hypocrisy. I’m not ignoring the amount of self-serving or wishful thinking in all this, something common to all political projects, but… the inextricable logic of the situation led to the DUP having to deal at some point. And on a slightly different tangent, there is something of the Ulster nationalist (small or large ‘n’) about a project which wrestles back power from the ‘elitist’ English in London and in a firmly populist manner relocates it to Stormont. It’s not Irish Republicanism, but there is at least a hint of the old Dissenter spirit there. Whether there is enough petrol in the tank for the ‘vehicle’ Paisley talks about to keep running smoothly is another intriguing question. Certainly there must be quite a few who wonder what the future will be in a world where his personality is no longer around to keep the show on the road. And I’ll bet some of those few might be in the most unlikely of places.

Still, having said that I can’t say I entirely disagree with the assessment of David Ford, leader of Alliance (and one has to say that it was strange to read about Alliance in yesterday’s paper. What a strange party that is really) when he noted at their party Conference that:

“Mr Paisley and Mr McGuinness will appear at nearly anything, state the obvious in a neatly crafted sound-bite, smile for the cameras, look serious or light-hearted as appropriate. But they haven’t done anything. And anytime we have questioned them, they have failed to answer questions.

One very striking aspect of the Alliance conference was the emphasis on anti-sectarianism. It had a refreshing robustness (and is it me, but is this most gentle of parties, whose very raison d’etre is based on…well conciliation… getting a dig in at the St. Andrews Agreement?), although with only seven MLAs and since it operates along with two others as the effective ‘opposition’ there are distinct limitations. In a way, and as a party of the centre ground it represents just how that centre ground has narrowed as the big battalions of the DUP and SF have squeezed both it and the SDLP and UUP. Yet it survives, perhaps even very slightly prospers.

Meanwhile, over at the SDLP Conference all is angst and gloom about a future where they might be the Northern franchise of Fianna Fáil, or perhaps not.

Mark Durkan said that…

…his party had transformed politics across Ireland through co-operation with the main parties in the Republic and forecast that new political associations would form over time.

“Ireland would not have got to this new dispensation without the SDLP,” he said, “and the SDLP could not have succeeded in that enterprise without our strategic collaboration with all southern parties.”

He said the new dispensation “would create new possibilities for political realignment, both within the North and across the island”.

“We are very comfortable that other parties, not least some of the southern parties, are now recognising this too,” he added. “They have – or will be – establishing their own channels for considering these questions. The SDLP have been – and will be – engaging with them.”

Which leaves everything nice and open. Particularly since he refers to ‘all southern parties’. But then, seeing as Ruairi Quinn was on site at the Conference and reminding the SDLP of the assistance given by the Labour party over the years perhaps it was merely politic to keep it as inclusive as possible.

Now, I’m all for whipping up enthusiasm amongst the troops, but really, he made the unusual assertion that:

“In some ways, we are the most powerful party in Irish politics”

His justification?

Because we have changed the policies of every other party on the island. Without changing a single principle of our own or sacrificing a single value.” The party was “proud both of our roots in the North and of our role in the life of the nation”.

Well yes, if one measures power by influence on the existential issue. But beyond that? Surely not.

Still, the SDLP should in fairness be proud of the part it played. And indeed the opportunity was taken to note that:

Founded out of the non-violent civil rights movement, he said his party did not have to apologise for having been formed in the North. “We challenged and changed the conditions that led to our foundation and attitudes that opposed us for so long. From our station in the North, the SDLP set the compass for all the main parties in the South through the darkness and turbulence of the troubles.”

Announcing a detailed examination of the potential of all-Ireland associations with other parties, he said: “We will engage with each other and with others on the basis that we have always been and always will be constitutional nationalists and democratic republicans.”

Unlike some others he could name… no doubt.


Mr Durkan criticised both Sinn Féin and the DUP over their role in government since devolution on May 8th, portraying both parties as inconsistent, complacent and guilty of policy U-turns.

But here is the problem in political terms. Having right on ones side is all very well. But…as something more akin to political business as usual takes root in the North the actual mundane nature of that business is difficult to actually get to grips with. The SDLP, like the UUP (who sent observers for the first time to the Conference – such a pity that this fellow feeling didn’t break out…oh, picking a date entirely at random… thirty years earlier or so…), are stuck halfway between government and opposition. It’s a difficult place to be, both in and out of the government and hence note the complete absence of an ideological charge and instead a process based critique. That’s fine, but it’s not really the dark red meat of political argument. Nor does it play to anything other than a rather vague dissatisfaction. We’ve had an object example of how that sort of dissatisfaction doesn’t appear to have any real traction… at least when times are reasonably good. I’d certainly change the tune if I were they. And another thought strikes me. The talk from Fianna Fáil has clearly been utterly destabilising on the SDLP. And how could it be otherwise when only FF ‘match’ with the SDLP. One wonders how seriously all this has been thought through, particularly from the Dublin side.

Perhaps Alliance have it right. Pick on a genuine problem, sectarianism. Run with it as best as is possible and remain in an oppositional mode for as long as it takes. I can’t see them supplanting any other group, but who is to say that in combine with the less than enthralled ‘centre’ ground parties, the SDLP and UUP, they might not forge a coalition that would make even our newly moderate former Moderator seem…well, just that bit extreme again. But then again, the good Doctor is a wily operator and I suspect no one will outdo him… even in moderation.

* apologies to the Psychedelic Furs…


1. sonofstan - November 7, 2007

Have to say, I agreed completely with what I saw of David Ford’s speech. My problem with the GFA since the beginning has been the way it institutionalises division, and proof of that particular pudding has been the hardening of the sectarian arteries – there has been virutually no progress whatever towards integration in education of housing. It’s no surprise that the logic of the GFA worked to the benefit of the two parties most adept at banging the tribal drums; proclaiming the North as a normal society and ‘a good place to do business’ when these divisions remain and when its in the interests of the two parties who effectively govern the place (the UUP and the SDLP, as the Margaret Ritchie affair shows, are already an opposition at the cabinet table) is grotesque -and, just as the pre 1972 Stormont was immovable through the ballot box, so will the the DUP/ SF one, which is exactly why its in both those parties interests not to work to break down sectarianism.


2. Garibaldy - November 7, 2007

Ford is of course correct to point out the problems with the GFA, and the Executive and the way it operates. The lack of extra integrated edcuation (the only ones Martin McGuinnes approved had already been promised funding and Ruane has approved none AFAIK) is a case in point.

However, I supported the GFA and worked to make sure the Yes campaign was successful. And I remain convinced it was the right decision. Ordinary people were getting murdered by terrorists in their homes and workplaces, and this had to be stopped. The GFA offered a way to stop that. And we can’t deny that a lot of progress has been made.

However, there has been deliberate neglect of what should have been two of the most progressive aspects of the Agreement. The first is the Bill of Rights. Nearly a decade later, we still haven’t got one. And the one we have may well enshrine the poisonous principle of nationalist rights and unionists rights. I’m a republican, a socialist. That means I believe in the equal rights of all the citizens of the polity. We have those rights as individuals, not as members of groups.

The other has been the Civic Forum. The Civic Forum could have been a powerful and important voice for the interests of NI’s citizens. Trade unions, voluntary groups, and other cross-community and progressive elements would have been much more able to articulate an alternative vision, and to pressurise the Assembly had the Forum worked as envisaged. Instead we got a toothless talking shop made up of the usual quangocrats that died a quick and quiet death. Therefore two of the main potential elements for growing civil society and a communal identity have been thwarted by politicians jealous of their own power and eager to continue the nationalist and unionist identity game.

But the GFA still potentially offers the space for the development of class politics. Already we have seen issues that have the potential to divide unionism and nationalism on class grounds – the classroom strike, water etc. When the British Treasury finally gets the chance to make the cuts it wants in a few years, more opportunities will be opened up. Without the dynamic of open and constant sectarian violence, or the communal tension of the marching season, we may well find some light ahead in the tunnel if we are ready to take advantage.

Of course having said that, running with anti-sectarianism, as WBS put it, hasn’t done The WP as much good as it has Alliance.


3. Garibaldy - November 7, 2007

Right on cue, Slugger has this story from the Belfast Telegraph:


It suggests that PSF is preventing the publication of an offically-commissioned report on A Shared Future because it doesn’t seem to fit the narrative being promoted of recent events and success in tackling sectarianism. This may or may not be true. But worth thinking about.


4. WorldbyStorm - November 7, 2007

sonofstan, I share your concerns, however I’d also think Garibaldy has it about right in that a space can potentially develop in the North for class politics. The problem is that we are forced by circumstance to ascribe religious signifiers to political parties which is of greater or lesser help in the situation. For example, are the parties more manifestations of identity or generators or perpetuators of that identity? This is where it gets tricky, because while we can argue that the working class requires a representative party the reality is that although various formations are actually on offer no-one – again as G notes – votes for entirely non-sectarian groups in any great number (to be honest I don’t really consider the DUP/SDLP/UUP/SF to be ‘sectarian’ per se – there are elements of it again in greater or lesser quantities in all, although let’s be clear about this, their party programmes wouldn’t really make you think so if you read them, which again returns us to the issue of representation or perpetuator?). But the other problem is that there are good sound political reasons for being a Unionist or a Nationalist or a Republican which transcend ‘sectarianism’.


5. Garibaldy - November 7, 2007

Depends how we define sectarianism. If we mean advocating the hatred of other religions, then nobody says that. If we mean giving us advantages over other religions, nobody says that any more either.
BUT if we mean I represent my community and you represent yours, and we’ll agree to be different but equal, then the 4 main parties are all sectarian, even if some of the people in them are not. That’s what I mean by sectarian. NI politics is predicated on an assumption that the people by virtue of birth are fundamentally different. That is sectarian as far as I’m concerned.


6. sonofstan - November 7, 2007

Really shouldn’t post before breakfast…..

I don’t really think that the majority of the electorate or politicians in the north hate the other side, or consider them individually dangerous to their own way of life by definition, and to that extent, there probably has been some advance. So in that way, the 4 main parties aren’t ‘sectarian’; I’m not even sure I agree with Garibaldy on the ‘assumption that the people by virtue of birth are fundamentally different’; i think the assumption is slightly less naturalistic than that – it is rather that there are, and will be in perpetuity, two ‘communities’ and, beyond certain basic points, their political interests are incommensurable; and further everyone in NI has, at the root of their political identity ‘a side’ from which they can never truly stray, and that this will always override any ideology; left, right or centre.

The issues of sovereignty and nationality are of course basic in one sense, but shared or multi – national states are not an impossibilty – or even a rarity; I may be a starry-eyed optimist in this, but I don’t see it as impossible that the contest about national status might, eventually, take a back seat to real politics in NI, as long as equality and the rule of law are inviolable. However, as long as the main 2 parties have an interest in maintaining the current semi- democratic dispensation, they have an interest in retarding anything that might aid progress away from that supposedly ‘fundamental’ division as an immovable condition of politics.


7. Garibaldy - November 7, 2007

Agree on it being in the interests of the DUP and PSF to continue things as they are. Given their dominance of votes in working class areas, I think they will be just populist enough. The water charges are a case in point. Having delayed them, we’ll see moves to get as many people as possible in the housing executive estates excluded next.

On the sectarian thing. I have to say that it is possible to overcome the ‘side’ from which one comes, and see the way what Ervine used to call the politics of commonality, though very difficult. Hopefully that will get easier.

On the hatred of the other side. I wouldn’t underestimate it, particularly at times of tension, even if it is smothered. I think we’re saying the same thing on the belief in two communities. My point is that to settle for that and not to try and build two communities is sectarian.


8. Garibaldy - November 7, 2007

Obviously that should be a single community at the end


9. WorldbyStorm - November 8, 2007

Here’s a question though. How does this populist/sectarianism differentiate from ordinary politics if the impacts are the same, i.e. Garibaldy is certain PSF will ultimately sell the pass and perhaps that true of you SoS? But my problem is that I can’t see how one can easily tell what is ‘communalist’ which is different from the sort of naked sectarianism we’ve seen and what is simply political. The hatred thing, as you say Garibaldy, does seem to be a repressed current that flares to life. But how do we persuade two communities (if not more) to adapt to being one community in political, cultural terms?

On a slightly different issue the Lebanon is a good example of a multi-communal state. And I’m a strong, if not indeed a fervent, believer in multi-national and over-lapping national identities which I’d hope is the route the North will take – perhaps (hopefully) on the way to a UI.


10. sonofstan - November 8, 2007

I’m not quite sure what you’re getting at WBS – is this what you’re asking; if the DUP and PSF work for the interests of their respective ‘communities’ in a way that would be indistinguishable from ordinary political actvity, and if their complementary efforts produce the same distributive justice that might be produced in a society not so divided then what’s the diference?

If that’s the question, then my answer would be the same as Garibaldy’s above; settling for this division and not working to end it is sectarian; even if the divide is drained of all the hatred and distrust.


11. WorldbyStorm - November 8, 2007

Okay, let me put it a different way. Assuming that ‘distinctions’ remain between different ‘communities’ into the future – but that these subside in regard to certain ‘religious’ aspects but remain as regards ‘political’ aspects. Then are we in a non-sectarian situation? Is it the ‘distinction’ born of cultural political and religious histories which is the problem, or the religious aspect of it (and I’m not ignoring the dynamic of domination either)? Consider German (or Italian) minorities in Switzerland or Eastern European countries. They have a cultural distinctiveness in the context of the states they find themselves in. But is it that distinctiveness a problem or is it the way it is exercised? Would you proscribe there that they blend into a broader Swiss or Czech identity or would you say, ‘no that’s fine as long as there is no element of political domination’? If the latter then how do we move towards that in the NI context? Because for the life of me even if we can staunch the religious sectarian element the cultural distinctiveness (I know, I know, in some respects it’s paper thin, but in other ways it’s continents wide) is going to be all but impossible to alter… even if we think it is ethically appropriate to alter it… which means that ‘communities’ are going to exist for quite some time yet.


12. sonofstan - November 8, 2007

OK, I think I get it now.
Cultural distinctiveness, by itself, is not a problem; the Swiss example you allude to is a bit of a red herring, since Switzerland, from its inception has been founded on inter- community consensus and the explicit avoidance of dominance by one language group over another.
The problem in the north pre -69 was the assumption of political dominance by one group. identifiable in terms of religion and, in the loosest sense, ethnicity (can’t think of a better word – ‘ethnicity’ seems too much) and, crucially, class. The ruling class used a form of negative nationalism to forge a notional bond with a section of the working class (itself divided by explicitly segregated workplaces) – as indeed did the ruling class in the republic, though without quite the same sectarian bite, given the absence of a significant ‘other’.

So yes; if the distinction becomes drained of all hint of domination by one group over the other presented as – ostensibly – by virtue of identity, then cantonisation may not be poisonous; but the fact is that while French and German speaking Swiss are generally speaking geographically distinct and any possible polarisation is defused by the presence of yet smaller groups ( CH has a huge immigrant population as well, don’t forget) – the dynamics of a multipolar situation are way different from a bipolar one -in the north the sheer proximity of ‘communities’ with notionally different identities but nearly identical ‘objective’ class identity is a recipe for endless tension.

Another instructive comparison might be a comparison of US cities with British ones in terms of racial division; while some parts of English cities are ‘Black’ or ‘Asian’ they are never exclusively so the way black areas in US cities are, and geographical and social mobility – and intermarriage – are less restricted; and the fact is that Belfast, Derry and other large towns in the north resemble that US model with all the mistrust and potential for conflict inherent therein (which is not to say that either community in the north is as disadvantaged in relation to its other as Black America)
In other words, distinctiveness remains ‘distinctive from’ rather than simply ‘distinctive as’.

Your parenthetical aspiration in comment 9 gives a clue to what has to be given up if ‘normalisation’ is to occur; if nationalist keep seeing the process as a stepping stone on the way to a UI, and Unionists see it as the reintegration of NI into a looser, more devolved UK, then both are acting in bad faith, since either destination disenchants the actually existing polity (you could argue that republicanism by witholding final assent to the actual existing republic has done just this since the civil war – acting in the name of the relublic to come, rather than in the interests of a real, situated polity)

So yes, ‘communities’ can exist as long as both can recognise the state in which they exist as a necessary condition for their continued peaceful coexistence, and not as an instrument for eventual victory.


13. Garibaldy - November 8, 2007


I see your point about how to characterise the dispute in terms of religion or not. At this point, as we all know the dispute is not over transubstantiation ot whatever, but primarily over political matters. Nevertheless sectarian still seems to me to be the correct word to use. Look at the burning of Orange halls, or churches of various denominations. The division is clearly by actual religion or perceived religion. That division does of course take in other elements, political, cultural, class, but the chosen marker of identity of people in NI remains a religious one, especially in formative years in education. As SoS says, ethnic will not do, especially the way it is used in these islands as effectively meaning colour. We can change our religion and our politics, not our colour. People search for an alternative to sectarian, but there is no need for one.

As for the difference between populism and sectarianism, and ordinary politics. The water charges is an excellent example of normal populism. The DUP and Provos can say they came together to fight off the evil Peter Hain and acted in the best interests of all. That’s both populist and ordinary politics. Yet both the DUP and the Provos can also say that they are standing up for the best interests of their respective communities against them other bastards. Which is both sectarian and populist, but aimed at only their respective target audiences.

In terms of the cultural differences or whatever you want to call them. As you say yourself, there are both enormous similarities and huge differences. The optimum we can hope for from the GFA and our current politics is that respect for each other grow and the sense of hostility declines.How do we build an alternative identity? I could go on about sharpening the contradictions within the all-class alliances etc, but at a more practical level. Encourage people to interact more in a range of areas, from sport, schools, music, trade union activity etc. Effect integrated housing plans too. All this will take a long time, and have to be done by chipping away, individual by individual. But it also needs a stronger legal framework to protect our rights with a court able to enforce them. It’s a massive challenge, which will necessitate huge state intervention as seen from the brief list above. But in the interim, working on people we know and come into contact with as well as more impersonal political propaganda.

As for sonofstan’s point about needing to change the way we view the institutions. Part of the problem is that the status quo is unionist, automatically (which is why nationalists see Alliance as unionist whether it wants to admit it or not). We do need a stable process where we can work together on collective issues, forging a united identity, but I think it’s wrong to say that the state is viewed as an instriument for victory. More like it’s neutral, and now it’s up to the demographics and economic factors to change the situation. So the constitutional struggle moves to the bedroom and the wallet.


14. sonofstan - November 8, 2007

The status quo is unionist….?
Well yes, but…. it might be argued that the DUP in government is showing itself to be more Ulster nationalist than unionist; I’m certain Peter Robinson, Dodds, even Donaldson would like to see more devolution of power, as long as they can be the ones to exercise it, which puts them in the same camp as the SNP (though probably not Plaid)


15. Garibaldy - November 8, 2007

It might be argued that its Ulster nationalist, but I reckon the desire for additional power comes from ambition after 30-odd years where they haven’t been able to exercise any. Besides, devolution is all the rage these days everywhere if we term it decentralisation instead.


16. WorldbyStorm - November 8, 2007

I genuinely don’t disagree with either post. I think you’re right sonofstan that Switzerland isn’t a great example. Perhaps the Lebanon might be better. In part the point is that as the religious has bled away from the national the latter has become more important than the political. The definition may be default wise religious, but the distinction is about the relationship to the UK. And as we move into a secularised era then the national becomes more important. Perhaps pushing out the space for the political and the class (and I have to say, if its tough to impossible to get class politics going in ordinary polities then it seems definitely impossible in contested polities). And yet, look at the SDLP/UUP movements. The logic of the current set up is pushing the two parties together. Is that a class thing, a sort of meeting of the middle classes?

I’m entirely happy with overlapping identities perhaps indefinitely, a sort of inverted joint authority, but I think there is as Garibaldy notes an inherent Unionist bias in the current set up. Incidentally there are some intriguing contradictions being thrown up by the current set up. On Hearts and Minds someone noted that the current situation is leading to the prospect of two all-Ireland football teams on the island… Interesting…


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