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.