Do Words Matter?: Book Review of Political Discourse and Conflict Resolution – Debating Peace in Northern Ireland

I share many of the concerns of Andy Pollak, whose recent post ‘My Response to the Slugger Begrudgers’ zeroed in on the ‘relentless flow of negativity’ of some Slugger commentators.

Pollak’s post was largely concerned with the medium of the blog. Indeed, I think the anonymity of the online world encourages extreme discourse and allows people the perverse satisfaction of ‘speaking out’ without having to take responsibility for their views.

Pollak ends his post with a quotation from John Bradley, who contends that ‘the new electronic media … make it difficult to think deeply about issues, read longer papers, or examine issues in the appropriate context.’

A new book, Political Discourse and Conflict Resolution: Debating Peace in Northern Ireland (Routledge, 2011), edited by Queen’s sociologist Katy Hayward and independent scholar Catherine O’Donnell – like Pollak’s post – raises some provocative questions about the quality of our discourses here in Northern Ireland.

As an academic endeavour, it strives to provide the opportunities that Bradley writes about – to think deeply, to read longer analyses, and to delve into context.

A confession: I co-authored a chapter in the book with Amber Rankin, on ‘DUP Discourses on Violence and their Impact on the Peace Process.’ So my enthusiasm for what the book has to offer may be coloured by my participation in the process that produced it. Readers of this review are thus forewarned.

The book is set up with a useful introduction by Hayward, who identifies the unifying question of the book as:

‘What role does political discourse play in conflict resolution?’

She then identifies three roles for political discourses:

  1. The construction of a framework within which negotiations can take place
  2. The facilitation of agreement between moderate and extreme positions
  3. The forging of common ground

Several of the chapters neatly illustrate these points, such as O’Donnell’s on political discourse in the Republic of Ireland and P.J. McLoughlin’s on ‘Humespeak’ and the SDLP.

But readers should not jump to the conclusion that the book offers naïve assertions about ‘lessons to be learned from the Northern Ireland peace process.’

It is not a series of just-so stories about how learning to talk nicely to each other, and including actors previously outside the pale in negotiations processes, led to ‘peace.’

In fact Eamonn O’Kane’s chapter on discourses about Northern Ireland’s ‘model’ of conflict resolution points out that discourses around the ‘lessons from the peace process in Northern Ireland’ have been articulated mainly by republicans and the British Government, and that these discourses focus on ‘the factors which they can be seen as responsible for’ (p. 184).

These discourses, he says, fail to ‘acknowledge the preconditions and wider constraints that were in play’ during the Troubles and the peace process. So O’Kane warns that setting Northern Ireland up as a conflict resolution model may create ‘a discourse on the peace process … that is both historically inaccurate and potentially misleading’ (p. 190).

Owen McEldowney, James Anderson and Ian Shuttleworth also tackle misleading discourses in their chapter on ‘Sectarian Demography: Dubious Discourses of Ethno-National Conflict,’ arguing that media coverage around censuses and an accompanying moral panic around ‘growing apartheid’ has been sensationalist and oblivious to the empirical data. For example, they claim that data about residential segregation has been overblown, and argue that media coverage of it ignores other measures of segregation or integration, such data on mixed workplaces and increased social mixing.

Of course, all of the chapters in the book are grounded in the assumption that words matter – and several of the chapters include quite technical academic theoretical discussions about why discourses are important.

Most chapters in the book also highlight the contradictory and conflictual nature of political discourses in Northern Ireland. From the highest office holders in the land, down to the humblest of Slugger bloggers, people disagree – and the language they use to do so can be offensive and at times destructive.

(The book does not include an analysis of online discourses – but one can certainly see the at times exclusionary and violent language of our politicians reflected among Slugger commentators.)

At the same time, another major point of the book is that it is healthy for democracies to provide spaces for disagreement. As Hayward writes:

‘… we seek to conceive conflict resolution in terms that allow for multiple rather than shared discourses, dissonance as well as harmony. … in a process of transition from conflict, it is necessary to frame “peace” not only as a goal to be achieved but as a concept to be debated.’

As a co-author of a chapter it might be expected that I agree, and I do. I think it matters what people say, and I think it’s important that dissenting voices are not excluded from the public sphere.

But how many of our politicians are at a place where they see peace as a concept to be debated? Are people in Northern Ireland genuinely open to hearing what those who share different views actually have to say?

I’m not convinced. That’s why we still have discourses like those which Rankin and I analyse in our chapter – words that dehumanise and misrepresent others, using some of the strongest possible language to do so. We recognise that:

‘Some may be tempted to say that the past is the past, words are only words, and now it is time to move on.’

But we argue that both the memory of harsh words about others, and worse – the continuation of such discourses – can hinder post-conflict transition by making it more difficult to establish trust and build working relationships among our politicians.

Yes, strong words are preferable to bullets and bombs. But that doesn’t mean that they are helpful, and that we in Northern Ireland shouldn’t be challenged to think more carefully about what we say.

Political Discourses and Conflict Resolution provides 14 chapters to stimulate some of that thinking, on topics including discourses in the early phases of the Troubles, in the Republic of Ireland, New Labour, the SDLP, the DUP, the Orange Order, and among republican former prisoners.

Unfortunately, the book is only out in hardback and is prohibitively expensive (£76 and £53 for the kindle edition) for those who don’t have access to an academic library. With the closure of the Queen’s Bookshop, there’s also not much hope of going into a shop in Belfast and browsing through it. However, earlier editions of many of the papers are available in the online journal Peace and Conflict Studies.