A cosmopolitan vision for the future

A further response to Stephen Howe’s Mad Dogs and Ulstermen essay at the openDemocracy site. This time from the director of Belfast-based Democratic Dialogue, Robin Wilson, who argues that Cosmopolitanism, as discussed here by David Held, holds the only way forward for a deeply divided society that “is not simply amenable to a political “fix” at the level of a deal between the political (now, ironically, including paramilitary) elites.”

Cosmopolitanism is interpreted by Robin Wilson as –

By cosmopolitanism he [David Held] means a value system in which each individual (not “community”) is treated as of equal moral worth, all individuals recognise their common humanity and the state treats impartially all competing claims. If any government since partition had adopted such a stance, Northern Ireland’s problems would have been on the way to a solution.

Robin Wilson argues that –

But the cosmopolitan vision also has implications for what sort of constitutional accommodation will work. New Labour heavily spun the 1998 Belfast agreement as having “solved” Northern Ireland’s constitutional conflict. It did nothing of the sort – it merely repeated what earlier “breakthroughs” had done (like the Northern Ireland Constitution Act of 1973 which ushered in short-lived “power-sharing”): namely, setting competing unionist and nationalist claims side by side, and creating a method (a simple-majority referendum) for arbitrating between them. The failed border-poll experiment of 1973 should have warned the architects that this was the best formula for a destabilising sectarian headcount.

A cosmopolitan approach – which he suggests the government document A Shared Future implicitly acknowledged – is one that embraces the concept of modernisation –

In a four-dimensional political context – post-1997 devolution across the United Kingdom, prolonged (if contested) European integration, intensified globalisation, allied to the economic take-off and social “liberal agenda” in the Republic of Ireland, it becomes perfectly conceivable to imagine the citizens of Northern Ireland eventually sharing a cosmopolitan political space.

This polity could both be defined as a devolved region of the UK (where its competences, as with Scotland, would be extensive but constrained) and at the same time allocated a power of general competence in its dealings with the republic (where no such constraints would apply). For decades, the student movement in the region – which one would imagine would contain its most volatile political elements – has operated happily on a similar basis.

This would be a settlement, rather than an agreement, with three beneficial effects.

First, it would delegitimise the ethno-nationalist political forces on both sides – whose projects would be thereby rendered literally meaningless – in favour of the more civic-minded and progressive.

Second, it would remove from the scene republican irredentism (rejected as obsolete by most actually existing Irish people, as the small and very tasteless “Make Partition History” march in Dublin on 24 September demonstrated) and the cultivated sense of threat in which loyalists self-pityingly indulge.

Third, it would thus consign to the Ulster Museum, if not to the dustbin of history, the display of memorabilia that Stephen Howe has so carefully curated.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    No one would describe Northern Ireland as being the kind of cosmopolitan place that he proposes so what is the transition supposed to look like? I think you could look at the Belfast Agreement as the transition model to allow stabilization, particularly a reduction in outward conflict, and to facilitate the hoped for transition to a more cosmopolitan model. Should we design in structures in the Agreement to facilitate the transition more fully? What might they look like? Whilst the Agreement does institutionalize the community divides does it perpetuate it? Can that effect be alleviated by other structures?

  • lib2016

    A highbrow attempt at denying the GFA? Sorry, but no thanks.

    Deathbed repentances aren’t very believable at the best of times but in the face of the current denounciations of Father Reid you’ve gotta be kidding. Unionists made their beds, let them lie on them.

  • Duncan Shipley Dalton

    The GFA comments were mine, Robin did not suggest that.

  • Alan

    It’s not about denying the GFA. It is saying that the parallel consent elements are poisoning the whole system – never mind disenfranchising anyone who does not define themselves as a sectarian. Government must be about defining and executing policy. Proportionality is a misfit when it comes to driving a coherant governmental agenda. We can achieve cross community consent in other ways.

    As regards Robin’s thoughts, I am always wary of simple solutions that are simply stated – as they tend to be overly complex in operation.

    However, I’d like to hear how a polity would operationalise a cosmopolitan ideal.

    There is one area of the cosmopolitan project that I have a blockage with. I don’t see a solution to the operation of a veto or boycott by parties antagonistic to change in the scenario that is proposed.

    Take the North South dimension, which would be a key target for boycott. I have for some time considered that we needed to see a financial carrot for involvement in the North South element. Southern funding for activities in the North (along the lines of EU matching funding) would be a strong incentive to be involved.

  • George

    “This polity could both be defined as a devolved region of the UK (where its competences, as with Scotland, would be extensive but constrained) and at the same time allocated a power of general competence in its dealings with the republic (where no such constraints would apply).”

    And all right-minded people in Northern Ireland should be happy with this? Why be happy with be a devolved administration with extensive but constrained powers when you can keep pushing for full self-determination ?

    Scotland is hardly a roaring success thanks to devolution within the UK as the brain and financial drain continues south and Northern Ireland is in a worse position.

    I don’t see how accepting life under UK control is civic-minded and progressive while actively looking to live in a unitary Irish Republic isn’t.

    It all comes back to the same idea that a shared approach for Northern Ireland can only come about on Britain’s watch.

    Why not make NI a devolved region of the new Irish Republic with special powers in its dealings with the UK?

    Surely that is the more logical option, considering unionists are in a majority in Northern Ireland and would therefore be in a position to develop unconstrained relations with the UK.

    Let’s see what civic-minded and progressive northerners think of that.

    Alan,
    “Southern funding for activities in the North (along the lines of EU matching funding) would be a strong incentive to be involved.”

    These institutions are meant to benefit both sides of the border, it’s not another way to squeeze out a subvention.

    The problems with the north-south institutions aren’t coming from south of the border so why should its citizens pay to fix them?

    Invest money when it looks like being well spent not when the hands are out demanding cash up front just to turn up.

  • Alan

    *These institutions are meant to benefit both sides of the border, it’s not another way to squeeze out a subvention.*

    You clearly haven’t thought through the significance for accountability, engagement and influence of such an arrangement.

  • George

    Alan,
    “You clearly haven’t thought through the significance for accountability, engagement and influence of such an arrangement.”

    Enlighten me.