New wall shows “Reconciliation” policies fundamentally flawed

This is my latest piece appearing over at the “Compromise after Conflict” blog site, run by Queen’s University, Belfast.

“Peace walls” are going up, not down. Bomb alerts are increasing, not decreasing. The threat of civil disruption has risen, not fallen. Notably, the public perception that politicians have neither the desire nor the capacity to do anything about it is growing, not declining.

Yet for all that, approaching 2014, I see grounds for optimism. While politicians of all stripes will inevitably seek to maintain something as close to the status quo as they possibly can, civic society has begun to strike back; demands are growing, quite correctly, for a fundamental change in course – not least on the pages of Compromise after Conflict, but also elsewhere.

What “fundamental change in course”?

Dolores Kelly MLA wrote a piece on Compromise after Conflict about collusion. I agreed with much of it, disagreed with some of it, but here is the real point – she will not have changed a single view point by writing that piece. All she will have achieved is further self-justification for the sins of her own “side” (in fact pushing further support to Sinn Fein), while putting the blinkers up on the other “side” (it is just about possible that Unionists will one day be persuaded that collusion by the “British State” did take place in a systematic way, but certainly not by a Nationalist politician).

The “fundamental change in course”, therefore, starts with an understanding that parroting the same old priorities on behalf of our own “side” – no matter how objectively justified they are – gets us nowhere in a divided society. We have to begin challenging ourselves. Politicians, of course, cannot even begin to do that – which is why it falls to civic society.

I wrote in the comments section to my last piece that Northern Ireland is increasingly pillarised three ways – in addition to “Catholic/Nationalist/Republican” and “Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist” we now have a growing “Secular/Progressive/Liberal” pillar, to some extent at least. That latter pillar tends to be built on the growing professional, suburban class and is marked by its tendency to be internationalist, to reject old categories, and (demonstrated indisputably in polling) to regard itself predominantly as “Northern Irish” (rather than “Irish” or “British”).

I noted that some correspondents fiercely disagreed with this paragraph, arguing that in fact religious, political and social identities are distinct and that this should always be reflected. I’m not so sure they are distinct, that is the point – but I have an open mind on the subject.

As someone who aligns to that latter “Progressive” pillar, on my own terms above, it is my civic obligation to challenge it in pieces like this, rather than to challenge “Unionists” or “Nationalists” – which I am quite happy to do come election time!

I did this in my last piece by challenging the widespread “Progressive” assumption that we can just forget about the past and move on. Here, I wish briefly to challenge the “integration” and “reconciliation” policies those in the “Progressive” pillar tends to support. To be clear, I fully support these in principle, but I will argue here that that attaining them is more complex and their value more limited than widely assumed; I will do this first by arguing that the very foundation of current policies in these areas is flawed. This, I hope, will give us a better idea of what a “Shared Future” really is, and perhaps more obviously what it isn’t.

Let us start by assuming a hypothetical situation that, for whatever reason, it is determined that all schools from June 2014 will be integrated in terms of ethos (a policy, to be clear, that I would fully support in principle). The are two immediately obvious challenges.

Firstly, what does this “ethos” mean? Does it mean they would innately be interdenominational or secular? Does it mean they would innately support “the State” or challenge it? Does it mean they would innately identify as “Northern Irish” or shirk identity altogether? Would they celebrate and/or commemorate Royal weddings/births, or the Twelfth, or the Easter Rising; or just ignore them? It is all a bit more complex than it at first appears!

Secondly, in what way are they practically integrated? They are not, of course. “Dungiven Integrated School” would be 95% Catholic; “Comber Integrated School” would be 95% Protestant. In fact, this answers the first questions – in Dungiven, the school would be innately Catholic, instinctively challenging of the State and “Irish” (and “Gaelic”) by identity, and would celebrate the Easter Rising but ignore Royal weddings and births; in Comber, the school would be innately Protestant, instinctively supportive of the State and “British” (perhaps even specifically “Ulster Scots”) by identity, and would celebrate Royal weddings and births but ignore the Easter Rising. So in what ways are these any different from what we currently have?

Implicit in this is the concept of “reconciliation” (a very worthy concept and again one which, to be clear, I fully support). However, underpinning most assumptions around “reconciliation” is the notion that if only Nationalists and Unionists got on better together, we would have none of this trouble. There are three main difficulties with this.

Firstly, to what are we “reconciling”? What stage in Irish history are we seeking to reconcile to – 1968 before the Troubles, 1920 before Partition, 1602 before the Flight of the Earls, even 1168 before the Anglo-Normans arrived? Ask different people and you will get a different answer as to when this part of the world was “reconciled” – the truth is, it was never “reconciled”. So, we need to be clear that “reconciliation” would be an innovation, a first in the long history of Ulster – a monumental challenge, in other words, not the natural state of being some seem to assume it to be.

Secondly, how do we “reconcile” when people are not motivated to do so and indeed are encouraged from the very core of the process not to? The whole 1998 Agreement is pinned on not asking awkward questions about the past; on Gerry Adams as the Statesman (don’t mention “The Disappeared”), on the UK Government as the global peace maker (don’t mention “collusion”), and a wide range of other examples of “willing suspension of disbelief”. We are effectively being asked not to reconcile ourselves to the bad things carried out in our name; in return for the “other side” being allowed to do the same. “Reconciliation” thus requires unpinning the 1998 Agreement from its very foundations – how likely (or even practically desirable) is that?

Some correspondents challenged these two points, arguing that this is simply not what “reconciliation” means. Yet I think it is (as a linguist, by academic background) – my dictionary records that it means “the restoration of friendly relations”. So, can anyone tell me when, in the history of Ulster, we had “friendly relations” (understood: between Unionists and Nationalists)? I wonder if the word is helpful at all?

Thirdly, there is an unstated assumption that “reconciliation” is to be carried out exclusively within Northern Ireland and exclusively between Nationalists and Unionists. What about the hundreds of people of Nationalist/Republican background killed by Nationalist/Republican terrorists – how are they to be “reconciled”? What about the role of the State (both the UK and Irish States, in fact, whether direct or indirect) in murders of loved ones – how are they to be “reconciled”? What about the Army families in Great Britain, or the families of civilians killed in bombings in England, or the families of tourists who lost loved ones, are they part of “reconciliation” or just to be expediently forgotten? Even broadly, how do we “reconcile” when our attitudes and instincts towards the State, towards history, towards culture and so on are so fundamentally different (and justifiably so)?

Suddenly it becomes very easy to talk of integration and reconciliation, but incredibly difficult to work out even how to begin with it. Furthermore, even attaining integration and reconciliation would still leave in place an inherent inequality (including between “Nationalists” and “Unionists”), an inherent sense of bitterness (inevitable in a post-conflict society), and an inherent sense of loss (any compromise requires sacrifices, even as fundamental as our preferred stance on the constitution).

As a first step, what we all have to understand – and “Progressives” more than any – is that to manage any change process is complicated and controversial, and even more so when it is one as painful to many as Northern Ireland’s. First, we have to make the case that change is necessary; then we have to outline the change we seek; and then we have to work out how, as a whole, Northern Ireland can achieve it.

I have no idea how we go about this – if I did, I would share it on this forum! The only thing I am sure of is that what we are currently doing is not working, largely because we think of it in too simplistic terms and because we want politicians to lead the process when they have no motivation to do so. In fact, it is a complex and sensitive route and will require leadership from civic society, who have a greater stake in navigating it.

Meanwhile, we should be exceptionally wary of anyone, from any side (including the broadly “Progressive” one), offering an apparently simple approach to what is a genuinely difficult, testing and multi-faceted issue.


4 thoughts on “New wall shows “Reconciliation” policies fundamentally flawed

  1. factual says:

    I think you exaggerate the difficulties in Intrgrated Education. Most places in NI have significant numbers of both communities within reasonable distances. And good teaching allows a range of views to be represented, it always has. There are already many religiously mixed schools. In fact, this is increasing as the nondemoninational schools take in more and more children from the Catholic denomination in recent years.

    • I think that rather endorses my point.

      Some schools are becoming integrated in effect. Others will never be integrated regardless of what you do because they lack a significant mix in the local population. There is, of course, a third group which have a significant mix locally but made up of people who would feel generally afraid to go much beyond their own (95% one side) neighbourhood – so which would remain divided in June 2014 but, with the right community relations actions (including but not limited to education), may not be a couple of decades hence.

  2. wee man says:

    Another thing to be optimistic about is the emergence of NI21 on the scene – an actual pro-union party that dismisses the tribal ‘parroting’ you mention above. A further sign that the old ways are breaking down

    • That would be, but there’s very little chance of it actually getting anywhere. We’ve seen it all before – UPNI, NI Cons, NIWC etc.

      That said, if it brings new people into politics and they don’t get too disenchanted, it may prove useful.

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