CAIN: Democratic Dialogue: New Order? International models of peace and reconciliation (Report No. 9)

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New Order?

International models of peace and reconciliation

Identity politics and equlality

Tony Gallagher

One of the most memorable books written on Northern Ireland set the conflict within a wider comparative context. The book was written by Frank Wright, a colleague in the Politics Department in Queen's University who, sadly, died prematurely.[1] A lecture series has been established in his memory and in the first lecture of the series, Adrian Guelke also set the Northern Ireland situation in a comparative context.[2] Adrian's context was provided by the peace processes then under way in South Africa, the middle east and Northern Ireland. In each case, Adrian identified a key turning point when a hitherto stable situation appeared amenable to change.

In South Africa, the turning point came with the 1976 uprising of school students in Soweto and the killing of Hector Peterson by South African security forces. Following these events, many young people fled South Africa to enter the camps of Umkhonto we Sizwe (the military wing of the ANC), while within South Africa a new internal opposition movement started to form.

In the middle east, it was an accident in the Gaza strip when an Israeli truck crashed into a car of Palestinian labourers, killing four and injuring the others. This was to light a spark that led to the intifada.

And Adrian pointed also to a key turning point in Northern Ireland. This event occurred in October 1968, when a civil rights march in Derry was banned by the Unionist government and attacked by the police in full view of television cameras. Given the violence Northern Ireland has experienced since, the events then seem extraordinarily restrained in hindsight. But at the time they had an enormous impact on perceptions and perhaps marked the point at which the old way of doing things became unsustainable.

In many respects it was perhaps appropriate that the turning point in Northern Ireland occurred in Derry. The political arrangements in the city were generally cited as the most blatant example of Unionist domination. A system of gerrymandered electoral wards ensured that Unionist politicians held a majority on the council, even though the unionist electorate comprised a minority of the city's population. It is not surprising that, to nationalists, the city was known as the 'capital of discrimination'.

But the city had a key historical significance for unionists also: in 1689 the Protestant inhabitants of the old city held fast against the army of Catholic King James, in support of William of Orange. There is a continuing tradition whereby a Protestant society, the Apprentice Boys, march around the walls of the old city in commemoration of the siege. In 1969 Catholic opposition to the march led to widespread rioting in the city, the virtual collapse of the police force and the introduction of British troops to restore order. Subsequently, the city was to become a strong centre for the IRA and, indeed, parts of it virtually ceded for a time from Northern Ireland.

A visitor to the city would now find a very different picture. Much of the centre has been redeveloped and rebuilt. The city council is now unambiguously under the control of nationalist politicians and, indeed, the most significant political contest is between the moderate nationalist party, the SDLP, and the more radical Sinn Fein. The city appears wealthier, more settled and politically less fraught, certainly in comparison with Belfast. Despite its position as a crucible of violence in the early years of the conflict, the city was spared much of the worst of the sectarian violence, as the various paramilitary groups appeared to operate a modus vivendi which eschewed random assassinations.

But in some respects an important part of the heart of the city has gone. The River Foyle divides the city in half but its significance has become as much religious as geographic. There has been a steady and continuing fall in the Protestant population of the western part of the city. Only one small and declining area within the old city walls remains. There are a number of 'Protestant' schools on the western side, but some have become de facto Catholic, while others have a questionable future of any kind. In a very real sense, Protestants appear to have given up on that part of the city, feeling that they now count for nothing.

It is as if the carefully crafted domination of the old Unionist régime has been replaced by a casual, almost careless domination by nationalist politicians. The old system was wrong and had to be changed, because it represented the illegitimate domination of a majority by a minority But in the changing, have we created a situation where a majority now dominates a minority, to the extent that the minority feels driven out? If so, there is still no accommodation, no reconciliation with difference, no celebration of diversity.

Let me examine another example. From the origins of the Northern Ireland state there have been separate school systems for Protestants and Catholics. The state system of schools was officially non-denominational, but in ethos and practice it expressed the interests and values of the Protestant majority in Northern Ireland. The Catholic school system provided the most siguificant social institution of that community, in a society where systematic discrimination in employment set barriers to the labour-market participation of Catholics. Although some attempt was made to develop a genuinely non-denominational school system in the 1920s - efforts which were opposed by Catholic and Protestant churches alike - it was not until the late 60s that a rapprochement was agreed between the Catholic authorities and the Northern Ireland Ministry of Education.

The funding arrangements for Catholic schools followed practice in England. Thus, Catholic schools received public funds to cover a proportion of their capital costs. The difference represented the cost to the Catholic community of their right to own and operate their own school system. This type of arrangement is common in Europe and the principle was, in fact, confirmed in a case before the European Court of Human Rights. The court ruled that if a particular interest, such as a denominational authority, wanted to run its own schools then it should be entitled to some public funds if it can meet reasonable viability criteria. The court also ruled that it was reasonable to ask that particular interest to contribute towards the cost of the school in recoguition of its ownership and control. In Northern Ireland two extra elements were added to the equation. First, there was a persistent pattern in which leavers from Catholic schools had, on average, lower qualifications than leavers from Protestant schools. Secondly, there were labour-market differences between Protestants and Catholics, to the disadvantage of Catholics, and the government was committed to the principle of fair employment. While discrimination contributed to the pattern of labour-market difference, an investigation by the Standing Advisory Commission on Human Rights in the 1980s suggested that the differential performance of the two schools systems was also a factor.

I was one of a group of academics asked by SACHR to investigate some of the reasons for this differential in attainment levels. Our study suggested, among other things, that the different funding arrangements for Catholic schools had operated to their disadvantage and had probably contributed to the attainment difference. In an abstract sense it was reasonable to ask the Catholic community to make a financial contribution for their schools. However, in the wider context of government objectives, particularly the priority attached to fair employment, we concluded that Catholic schools should be funded at the same level as Protestant schools. After some public discussion the government agreed.

On one level, this could be seen as a positive example of a mature pluralism. If we accept the right of minority communities to organise their own school systems-which seems to be consistent with international human rights standards - and to receive public funds for this, the decision to fund Catholic schools in Northern Ireland to the same level as state schools provided a demonstration of the government's commitment to equality.

The decision and the research were criticised on a number of grounds. One of the criticisms was that the decision helped to entrench segregated schools. Some critics suggested that we should have recommended developments in religiously integrated schools. It is a moot point whether a recommendation by SACHR for more integrated schools would have led to any additional increase in these schools. In any case, and as noted above, the standards of the international community recognise and endorse the right of minorities to their own schools and, in so doing, differentiate between separate schools by choice and segregated schools by requirement.

But my main interest here is somewhat different. Now that all schools in Northern Ireland are funded to a similar level, has this led to an increase in cooperation between the school systems? This co-operation could include attempts to ensure that the separate schools do not unintentionally promote social division. It could include proactive attempts to promote tolerance, reconciliation and fairness through the schools. In addition, the authorities of the school systems could recognise that allowing for separate schools introduces an additional cost to the system as a whole, and agree to collaborative initiatives designed to make the schools system more efficient.

One way in which this might occur is for the transfer of property between the sectors in appropriate circumstances. This practical co-operation would avoid the bizarre situation that sometimes occurs where a school of one type closes as a school of another type is built anew on a nearby site.

There is a degree of co-operation between the school authorities, but arguably the opportunity for creative initiatives has not been seized. And we have seen the situation where zero-sum arguments are used by the authorities of Protestant and Catholic schools against the development of religiously integrated schools. In other words, the school system illustrates some of the possibilities of pluralism. But it also illustrates the limited way in which such opportunities are pursued: in practice, sectional interests are often prioritised.

In both the examples I have outlined we can see a dilemma. In both cases, changes were made in pursuit of the goal of equality. But it could be argued that in neither case did this change lead to greater tolerance and reconciliation. Indeed some might argue that the main result was to reinforce separation.

This dilemma is not unique to Northern Ireland. No one could fail to be moved still by the words of Martin Luther King in 1963 at the Lincoln Memorial: "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the colour of their skin but the content of their character."

This evocation was for all citizens of the United States, black and white, to enjoy the rights of citizenship. It represented a claim for the application of liberal principles: treat each person as an individual, not as the exemplar of a type. However, the pursuit of equality in the us moved more and more away from treating people as individuals, and more towards measures which may have had the effect of reinforcing group identities.

Affirmative action, goals and targets, workforce monitoring, availability and utilisation analysis - these all depend on ethnic counting in order to identify a problem, define a solution and judge an outcome. One does not have to be an advocate of neo-liberal economics to recognise the way affirmative action measures in the us became increasingly prescriptive in terms of outcome, at least until the political balance of the Supreme Court shifted to the right and the condition of 'strict scrutiny' made it harder to apply and easier to avoid any affirmative action measure. Similarly, one does not have to support the conservative critics of multiculturalism in us schools nevertheless to recognise the soft target presented to those critics by some aspects of the Afrocentric movement.

And this dilemma is faced also in Northern Ireland. To work towards fair employment, we need to know how many Protestants and Catholics are in workplaces. With this information we can identify the areas where priority action is needed and monitor progress towards fair participation. But this also means we have to allocate people to mutually exclusive categories. In so doing, we run the risk of reifying those categories and ascribing to them an essentialist character.

The minimalist approach advocated by neo-liberals does not provide a solution. When the state limits its role simply to attempting to remove barriers to participation, without any meaningful diagnosis of the reasons for those barriers, little significant change follows. However, as I have suggested above, the statist approach which advocates active direction of outcomes as part of an equality agenda may serve to reinforce the social divisions that gave rise to inequality in the first place. The context of division may change, but the fact of division may remain stubbornly intact.

Of course there are factors particular to Northern Ireland which contribute to this pessimistic scenario. Despite having the trappings of a democratic state between 1921 and 1972, it never really functioned as a democratic polity. The government always won the elections because confessional politics made results highly predictable - indeed so predictable that during many elections a high proportion of the seats were uncontested.

Confessional politics is rooted in history in Northern Ireland. Indeed, some might say that politics here is too strongly informed by absurdly long memories and absurdly short imaginations. If politics in Northern Ireland operates as a zero-sum game, then it should be no surprise that political discourse displays the same character. And perhaps it should also not be a surprise if the pursuit of equality takes on this zero-sum character.

But of course Northern Ireland is not alone in having politicians with absurdly long memories. Benedict Anderson reminded us that the 'imagined community' of the nation rests on history as its foundation. Five years ago an article appeared in the Observer newspaper highlighting an example: the article reported how a Greek sculptor had found himself in the eye of a storm over his work.

The hapless artist had been commissioned to produce a statue of Alexander the Great to stand in Florina, a town on the frontier with the former Yugoslav republic of Macedonia. The statue was clearly intended to send a symbolic warning to the 'usurpers' across the border, but the town councillors were outraged with the result. Instead of endowing the 2,000-year-old warrior king with "the muscles he deserved", the statue cast him "looking like a puny pacifist". How, they complained, could the artist of this "obscene modernist work", have "forgotten the great man's weapons and helmet? Or have the gall to show him riding his horse with bare feet?"

Of course the Macedonians find themselves caught in a peculiarly Balkan dilemma. The Serbs accept the existence of a distinct Macedonian ethnic identity, but would prefer there to be no separate state. The Bulgarians are comfortable with a separate state, but believe the Macedonians are really Bulgarians. While the Greeks seek to deny the existence of both state and identity.

In this century, the continuing legacy of Versailles highlights the endurance of memory. The overt point of the settlement was to bring closer the ethnic and geographic division of Europe. Czechoslovakia made a case to be an exception to this rule, on the grounds that it would become the 'Switzerland of central Europe'. In the event, the fear of giving too much autonomy to the Sudeten Germans constrained the degree of autonomy given to the Slovaks, thus providing the seed-bed for Slovak ethnic politicians 70 years later.

In those parts of the map where ethnicity and statehood did not coincide, the presumed hope was for assimilation and the amelioration of separate identities. In fact, it is in the interstices of the settlement where we can see the enduring potential for ethnic conflict or, as in Northern Ireland, its continuation.

Moving to other examples, Lebanon was to be the 'Switzerland of the middle east'. This produced a settlement so tightly dependent on ethnic headcounts that, once put in place, everyone was afraid to check whether the comparative counts changed over time - though everyone knew they had. In Switzerland itself, the highly decentralised cantonal system is perhaps less a celebration of diversity than an attempt to sustain a multitude of linguistically, and perhaps religiously, homogeneous subunits - all of this leavened with a less than fully positive approach to a numerically significant population of non-citizen 'guest workers'. In Spain, is regional autonomy a way to achieve the promise of diversity, or is it, more prosaically, an attempt to attenuate separatist pressure and hold the state together? Federalism in Belgium seems to have led to virtual separation.

Anderson's notion of the imagined community highlights the way in which national identity is constructed and legitimated on the basis of historical memory, but is then reinforced by the relationship between the nation and 'its' territory. The nation-state is predicated on the idea that each (homogeneous) nation has the right to its territory, based on the right to self-determination. Even though the discourse of the nation-state implies permanence in the international order, the reality is that territorial arrangements do change, albeit only under extraordinary conditions. In Europe, territorial change occurred only after the two world wars and the cold war. And even in Ireland change came about in order to pursue still further the link between territorial and national specificity.

But, as Anderson also reminds us, the idea of the homogeneous nation and 'its' territory is based on a socially constructed one, albeit an intensely powerful myth. Indeed, it is precisely because it is based on myth that the dilemma for those of us who wish to pursue equality arises. At the heart of the discourse of the nation-state is the idea of a homogeneous community. But the reality is one of heterogeneity in actually-existing societies. And it is because of pluralism in society that we face the problem of some groups being treated less fairly than others. This raises the need for action to promote equality, but this can lead to ethnic counting, potentially reinforcing the claim of essentialist identities. In Northern Ireland this goes further to cast all such measures within the overarching political discourse of territorialism, and may contribute to an ever deepening division in the society

Is there a way out of the dilemma? One way out may be to learn from the experience of civil society. Particularly among new social movements, the nature of political engagement may be more multidimensional, transient and developmental. If so, this may prefigure a different discourse of politics that avoids immutable positions across an extensive range of issues. The priority attached to the achievement of specific objectives may also contribute towards a discourse of politics that privileges accommodation in the pursuit of attainable positions.

One of the ironies of Northern Ireland is the coexistence of a vibrant and dynamic civil society alongside a fairly stultified public political domain. Within traditional liberal discourse civil and political society are distinct and separate domains; within traditional Marxist discourse civil society is a sham, an empty vessel for disguising the 'real' basis of political power. But perhaps there are benefits to be gained from recognising their separate existence while strengthening the influence of one on the other?

Another possible way out, perhaps not unconnected, is the development of new Labour's 'third way' between statism and the market. This third way recognises the limits of relying on the 'hidden hand' of the market, while avoiding the 'heavy hand' of state-led direction of outcomes. The approach is one which tries to promote social inclusion by establishing 'enabling processes' which offer people choices over their future, and systems of institutional accountability However, the approach also asks people to take responsibility for the choices they make.

It is this combination of enabling processes, accountability and responsibility that seems to lie at the heart of many of the new policy directions being charted by the government, and certainly seems to underlie its proposals for equality in Northern Ireland. In the best of all possible worlds this provides a strong basis for promoting equality, while avoiding the essentialist problems arising from the direction of outcomes. But the test is yet to come.

Two of the key elements of this discussion have centred on the claim to social homogeneity as against the experience of social heterogeneity. The dilemma arises from measures designed to cope with the clash of these notions. A synthesis might involve an active attempt to legitimise and value hybridity. In Northern Ireland this implies moving from a situation where our political discourses cast us as either British or Irish, to a new understanding where we see ourselves as both British and Irish simultaneously, and recognise in any case that the idea of being British or Irish not only changes over time, but exists in various forms at any single point in time.

The difficulty, however, is that while the idea of hybridity may be intellectually satisfying, this is little evidence yet of its emotional potency.


Jeannie Peterson from the UN opened the discussion by introducing how parallel, concrete challenges had been addressed in ex-Yugoslavia - in particular, in the contested part of Croatia known as eastern Slavonia for which she had been responsible.

The onset of the war in ex-Yugoslavia had been marked by the departure of Croatia from the federation, she said. This had left the Serbs in Croatia, formerly a majority in ex-Yugoslavia, a minority in the newly independent state. War had followed, later spilling over into Bosnia where most international attention had subsequently focused.

Efforts by the international community to promote dialogue between the Serbs in Croatia and the Croatian authorities had failed. The Serbs had attempted to form a separate administration, rejecting even quite radical plans for autonomy within Croatia. Croatian assaults had led to a Serbian exodus which left only one enclave behind, in eastern Slavonia. As a result of the Dayton agreement on ex-Yugoslavia, the United Nations Transitional Authority for Eastern Slavonia (UNTAES) had been formed, backed by 5,000 troops, to promote reconciliation between Serbs and Croats there.

A range of UNTAES committees had been established to address aspects of harmonisation between the communities, from electricity to education. Employment had been very contentious, in terms of guaranteeing Serbs a fair share of jobs.

To avail themselves of such rights, the Serbs had had to accept de facto that they were citizens of Croatia: they had been very reluctant to give up on the idea of a separate state. But in the end most had taken part in elections for county, city and municipal authorities, where the representatives of both communities had had to come to terms with the practical challenges of local government everywhere.

'Technical' issues - such as ensuring a common postal system - had been relatively easy to resolve. Those with a strong 'emotional' dimension - such as education-had proved much more difficult.

The Croats had celebrated when UNTAES left, whereas the Serbs had hoped it would remain for decades. The UN had since been forced publicly to criticise Croatia over its implementation of the agreements. Ms Peterson concluded, however, that while multiculturalism would take years to develop in eastern Slavonia the basis for it had been laid.

Returning to Northern Ireland, Mari Fitzduff said that in the past those concerned with intercommunal equality had tended to scorn those promoting intercommunal contact. Yet interdependence was indispensable, and she welcomed the proposal in the government's white paper on equality[3] that all public bodies should be obliged not only to promote equality of opportunity but also good relations between groups.

Was national identity really necessary in the modern world? it was asked. Mr Gallagher replied that while it was easy to debunk nationalist accounts of the past these still had tremendous motivating power. In the post-modern world both global and local identities were resurgent. "The trick is to persuade people that they are not just one thing: they can be more than one thing at the same time."

Tony Kennedy of Co-operation North connected this to the rights of diverse individuals within communities to that diversity: "You're always forced to be in one identity or another." He related the story of a devoted supporter of Cooperation North who tragically died on the annual maracycle; he had combined two loyalties - one to the maracycle, one to the Orange Order.

Joyce McMillan told of how she had been challenged by a supporter of the Scottish National Party at a funeral as to her identity. She had replied that she was Scottish and British, to which he had responded 'You've got a problem'. 'No, you've got a problem', she had told him. She suggested that in the cultural sphere hybridity, far from being disdained, was celebrated and could have a compelling power.

Harald Bungarten spoke of how a German could have a hierarchy of three identities: (say) Bavarian, German and Europe. The point was also made that identity is contingent-on holiday, being 'Irish' can be a common and non-threatening ascription, for example. Similarly, 'Czech' and 'Slovak' had not seemed to be so incompatible before partition was set in train. It was important, therefore, to think through taken-for-granted identities: as Mr Gallagher put it, the goal was to inject 'niggling doubt'.

It was further suggested that conflicts were easier to resolve if a wider range of interests could be brought to bear, including via NGOS. This might be particularly helpful as such groups might focus on other identities - such as labour or business.

But cultural hybridity was a bridge too far for members of communities who felt themselves to be under threat and so felt the need to assert their sense of difference, as uncomplicatedly as possible, as a weapon in their defence. There was thus a need to be clear as to where the common ground of interdependence lay, so that it was not seen as surreptitious dominance by one group over another.

To put it another way, for those who perceived themselves to be socially excluded, other sources of identity - professional, regional, familial-might fall away, as a single identity offered itself as the only vehicle for expressing resistance to that exclusion. Hence, for example, the otherwise inexplicable phenomenon of alienated young east Germans now defining themselves as 'belonging' to the ex-DDR.

In resolving conflicts with both the axes of inequality and difference, a fine balance was entailed: interdependence had to offer security to the traditionally dominant group, without ruling out change for the historically subordinate one. Domestic constitutions and international human rights conventions could both be brought to bear to provide clear rules.

If equality was about content, interdependence was about process. Thus while at Queen's University the right decision had been taken on the removal of the British national anthem from the graduation ceremony, given its offensiveness to nationalists, the right process had not accompanied it. An intense debate had taken place, yet almost entirely confined to people talking to people from the same community, disposed to give the same response. Common ground had not emerged.

Symbolism was key and tolerance was thus crucial. Germany, because of its history, could tolerate the flying of various flags internally by the different Länder. Other countries, because of their histories, could not.

What was the role of the international community? If cultural homogeneity was being thrown into question, so too had to be problematised the associated idea of monolithic states immune to 'external interference'. Hence the droit d'ingérence idea, on behalf of subordinated minorities.

Combining these considerations, Bernard Dreano suggested, if symbols were crucial to multiculturalism - and France of course had had the long experience of the area of Alsace-Lorraine contested with Germany-then 'international symbolic mediation' was required in Northern Ireland, recognising its British, Irish and European dimensions.

But Ms Peterson's testimony - of which perhaps the Northern Ireland 'peace package' partnerships are another example - was also a telling demonstration of the importance of building upon practical efforts on the ground.

1Frank Wright, Northern Ireland: A Comparative Analysis, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, 1987
2Adrian Guelke, Promoting Peace in Deeply Divided Societies, occasional paper no 6, Queen's University Dept of Politics, Belfast, 1994
3Partnership for Equality, Cm 3890, 1998

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