Swiss Army Knives, Consociationalism and the CRC: Feeney On The Charge

In this week’s column, Brian Feeney has a right go at the NIO and their unionist leanings. In the process, he takes a swipe at the Community Relations Council (CRC) and begins with a ‘Did you know’ on Swiss army knives.

  • DK

    What is the point of comparing NI to these other divided countries (Belguim, Switzerland). In all of them there is no yearning of the various nationalities to join other countries. They have a common aim to make their own country great.

    Brian Feeney takes delight that attempts to reconcile the communities have failed and that middle ground parties have also failed. He makes the assumption that the policies of NIO/CRC in trying to build bridges are somehow incompatable with the notion of consociation. If he had looked over the water to Britain he would have seen that consociation is promoted to the extent that minorities are very much visible in public life and Britains inter-racial relations are better than many other European countries.

    His main gripe is that any attempt to reach out to catholics in NI could weaken their nationalistic ideals.

    But is he right to just dismiss the efforts of the NIO/CRC? They are trying to build a “Britain of Equals”, but, unlike the “Ireland of Equals”, they really mean it.

  • Stephen Copeland

    They have a common aim to make their own country great.

    That is slightly over-egging it, I’m afraid. Both Switzerland and Belgium are simply comfortable rich bourgois countries, whose inhabitants just wish to continue living nice lives, and have no particular interest in the ‘greatness’ of their little patches of the earth.

    And incidentally, both Switzerland and Belgium are federal states, where the component ‘ethnicities’ have almost complete autonomy. Maybe this is what NI is lacking? And maybe this is the direction we are going in, starting with the local government reorganisation in 2009?

  • DK


    Trouble for a federal state approach is that NI is too fragmented to easily draw a line and say – “this bit is the Catholic area and this bit is the Protestant area”. Never mind those of us (the fastest growing group) who consider ourselves neither.

    So we’re stuck with each other. Which means that we have to either get along or wipe each other out. The latter has been tried and doesn’t work.

    This kind of leaves us having to find shared ideals. The CRC appears to be the only organisation trying this. Wonder why Brian Feeney hates it so.

  • George

    the problem for your average Irish person is that you can’t have a “Britain of equals” if you can only be British to avail of it.

    Feeney seems to be arguing that the NIO is operating a policy which has the objective of keeping Northern Ireland “British” rather than the Swiss or Belgian models which accept there are two completely different communities.

  • Pastyman

    I don’t want to be accused of playing the man here but this is the biggest pile of guff i’ve read in some time. Thankfully i didn’t buy the IN yesterday morning and therefore at least have the comfort of receiving this gratis.

    Take one rambling analogy and add an obscure academic and hey presto! Er, nothing of any intellectual substance.

  • Stephen Copeland


    Trouble for a federal state approach is that NI is too fragmented to easily draw a line and say – “this bit is the Catholic area and this bit is the Protestant area”.

    Nonetheless, there are large areas that are close to mono-‘ethnic’, and that could be given a type of cultural autonomy. For unionism, south Antrim, north Down, etc, and for nationalism south Down, south Armagh, and large swathes of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Derry. These areas are fairly co-terminous and could form autonomous statelets. The map of Switzerland is also pretty fragmented, but it works. Belgium is more clear-cut.

    Never mind those of us (the fastest growing group) who consider ourselves neither.

    Well, you’re not yet very numerous, and the question of your growth is debatable. The religion question is a red herring, because it ignores ‘cultural’ catholics and protestants who are entirely un-religious. Election results are the only democratic way of measuring it, and there we see the small and shrinking Alliance Party as proof of no growth. On the contrary, support for the tribal blocks is stronger than ever, and less geographically fragmented too. If things continue as they seem to be, the physical division of NI into two or more ‘cantons’ will not be very hard in a few years.

    The ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach of the NIO which Feeney was criticising is clearly not working, so why not allow some cultural, political, administrative aautomony for the two main groups, and see what happens. It has worked in other countries – note that neither Switzerland nor Belgium has ever had a civil war or even serious communal disturbances!


    The biggest flaw in an article with many flaws is that he talks about the theories underpinning the GFA , yet he, like a lot of republicans seems determined to ignore or deny the single biggest principle underpinning the GFA, namely the principle of consent, and the fact that this means Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the UK until such time as a majority decide otherwise.

    Like a lot of republicans he seems to take offence, not and the exlusion of a nationalist or republican identity, but the simple existance of a Unionist and British one.
    To be reminded that Unionists or British people exist on the island of Ireland is a cause for offence with Brian and others.

  • “If only people could meet ‘across the divide’ they would find goodness and sincerity in ‘the other side’, If only people could meet ‘across the divide’ they would find goodness and sincerity in ‘the other side’.
    Crucial to this failed notion is the idea, always unspoken by its NIO proponents, that some day, like some shimmering Shangri-La, there will be a Northern Ireland, wait for it, ‘at ease with itself’”

    So is Feeney saying the above target is

    1. Unattainable
    2. Not worth working for anyway?

    If he is, then what’s his alternative, should Unionists and Nationalist keep bashing each other (metaphorically) over the head until one side gives in and suddenly realises that they were Irish or British all along?

  • “”Never mind those of us (the fastest growing group) who consider ourselves neither.”

    Well, you’re not yet very numerous, and the question of your growth is debatable””

    The proportion of people not voting for either side in NI Elections is growing-it has averaged between 30-35% at recent elections.

  • Pastyman

    The proportion of people not voting for either side in NI Elections is growing-it has averaged between 30-35% at recent elections.

    Does that include people who just don’t vote?

  • Sorry Pastyman, yes, that’s the figure I was referring to.

  • abucs

    No Paul, there should be a mutual understanding and dare i say mutual respect that both communities are present and have equal parity of esteem.

    To have everyone ‘kinda like me’ is just childish and denying the reality that there are differences.

    The first step in coming together politically is to recognise those differences, then accept them, and then in the end to respect them and to be comfortable in the full expression of those differences.

    If there is to be a coming together, this mutual respect and expression has to occur first, not an ‘everyone should be like this’ attitude.

    The more you try to deny one of the two communities’ existance or expression, the more vigorously that community will assert it.

    This parity of esteem is the basis of the GFA, it is what occurs in the other divided areas of Europe mentioned by Feeney, and this is what both the Irish and British governments support as the only way forward.

  • RmcC

    Paul is right, we are growing. Maybe we aren’t crowing like certain idiots who hog the media (excuse please mixed metaphor).

    I’m middle class, think all religion is hokum and would not know which bunch of self-serving politician to vote for.

    I don’t particulary agree with Brian Feeney’s piece, but he’s trying as others have to find an analogy to the basket case known as N.I. It’s a tough call. One thing is sure, the NIO sucks.

  • George

    “this means Northern Ireland is a constituent part of the UK until such time as a majority decide otherwise.”

    this isn’t questioned but this doesn’t mean you have to be British.

    The Irish minority within the UK has to be cherished and nurtured to the same degree as unionists would like a British minority in a united Ireland to be cherished if that day ever arrives.

  • abucs

    DK0, it doesn’t matter which religion you are if any.

  • Mike

    Incidentally, this place isn’t as bad as far as inter-community relaiotns go as some would make out.

    Take Belgium – only 1% of marriages there are between a Flemish and a Walloon partner.

  • Mike

    Comment 16 was by me.




    I never meant to imply that everyone in Northern Ireland had to buy into Britishness.I’m happy to accept that others feel no affinity with the UK, and I’d even agree that the national symbols of the irish repubic should be given more prominence if that make the nationalist minority in Northern Ireland more comfortable.

    My problem is with people who think they have a right to be offended by my Britishness.I see this is recent comments about the proposed “Britday”, where nationalists on this site were lining up to be offended at any notion Unionists make a public display of celebrating their identity.
    I also saw it in the recent debacle in Dublin, not only in the violence of a tiny minority, but the overwhelming majority of political representatives and media outlets who started from the premise that the presence of unionists and orangemen was an offence.

    Getting back to the article by Feeney.
    Am I just being paranoid in suspecting that all the calls for parity of esteem are really calls for a neutral enviroment until such time as we adopt an all Ireland ethos and identity.
    The GFA talks about the Unionist identity being protected in an all Ireland scenario, but if it isn’t even being respected and protected in the present day, what hope is their of it happening when Unionists are the minority?

  • DK

    Mike – what is it in NI? I’m curious as I am one of them.

  • George

    I think Feeney is more calling for the NIO to cease with the Ulsterisation of Northern Ireland so to speak, rather than bringing up the old parity of esteem chestnut.

    On neutral environments, I would be suspicious if I was a unionist. Regarding the GFA leading to a situation where unionist ideology/culture is respected and protected, I fear that is wishful thinking.

    Unfortunately, we are dealing with two communities who want to defeat each other more than live with each other so moving onto neutral ground playing the pipes of peace leaves you open to attack.

    The GFA didn’t settle the constitutional issue on this island, it only declared the current constitutional status and positions of both sides.

    It was but a snapshot in time and positions have moved since then and will continue to move in this centuries-old “struggle” for both groups.

    It seems that Feeney thinks the NIO is taking sides in this battle rather than being neutral. Maybe it’s as possible for the NIO to be neutral as it is for the Irish government.

  • Jacko

    Feeney was once shortlisted for chair of the CRC but failed to get the job.
    Any connection between that and his contempt for that body?

  • RmcC

    “Feeney was once shortlisted for chair of the CRC but failed to get the job.
    Any connection between that and his contempt for that body?”

    Sounds as though the pinots noirs are sour right enough. 😉

  • Páid

    “the ulsterisation of northern ireland”…….might not be a bad thing. Nationalists generally are not loyal to NI as they realise it was a stitch-up designed to make them a minority. Similarly, unionists would argue an independent ireland would amount to the same thing. Aaaahh but ulster…. has agreed boundaries; a distinctive culture and dialect (irish and english); and therefore a bona fide reason to be a distinct political entity. NI is not a nation, or even a province, and just about (technically) scrapes a ‘country’.
    So imposing Northern Irishness as a ‘nationality’ on Ulster Prods and Irish nationalists is doomed.

    But Ulster………………

  • Crow

    I think Stephen Copeland’s suggestion of cantonization has a lot of merit in the context of Northern Ireland. However, many people seem to get hung up on the need to achieve geographical contiguousness for such entities. I would suggest that establishing two largely distinct communal zones would be relatively easy to achieve (vis-a-vis the super council recommendations). The sizable minorities that this arrangement would create should be addressed through a series of inclaves and exclaves. There is a tendency to baulk at the resulting tapestry and it is usually argued that these communal island could never survive surrounded by their antagonists. However Northern Ireland is not at war and the viability of these entities would be ensured by common security provisions across zones. Services would be potentially more expensive to deliver to these entities but there are many successful examples throughout Europe and beyond.

    The only real issue that this would create is a creeping repartition but perhaps that too is not as unpalatable as it first appears.

  • Crow

    The last post was from Crow not Stephen.

  • Teaser

    I’m N.Irish not British, but I do carry a UK of GB and NI passport; N.ireland is a separate constitutional unit and all N.I born people have the same N.Irish constitutional status as I – we could be banned fom GB for whatever reason the SoS decides while still remaining in the UK.

    Some day a stroke of a pen(British)will wipe out the N, and we’ll all be just Irish again.

  • Belfast Gonzo

    There was a response to Feeney in the Irish News letters page today:

    Power sharing has failed – let’s try something new

    BRIAN Feeney (March 8) argues that the Northern Ireland Office should be (but has not been) working towards a power-sharing solution here.

    I beg to differ. The NIO has been trying to engineer structures of government in which unionists and nationalists share power since 1972.

    They have failed not because they have been distracted by a misleading analogy with race relations but because the essential criteria for successful power sharing as practised in other European countries do not apply here.

    The first power sharing executive took up office in January 1974 – and fell apart five months later.

    The stop-start executive of 1999 disintegrated after a turbulent short life because it did not earn the confidence of the majority community.

    Some have suggested that these attempts failed because of transient events but serious political scientists argue that power sharing is virtually impossible in Northern Ireland because of structural factors in the political system here.

    Until these are transformed, attempts to engineer and sustain a power-sharing government will fail.

    Brian mentioned Arend Lijphart as the main protagonist of consociation.

    Lijphart has identified the following essential criteria for power sharing to succeed:

    • A commitment by the political leaders to maintain and improve the political system.

    But here, neither side wants power sharing within the UK as its preferred option.

    The SDLP and Sinn Fein want to end the union, while unionists have variously preferred return to majority rule at Stormont, full integration or independence.

    Far from maintaining and improving the constitution, Sinn Fein’s leaders have made enormous personal sacrifices over the past 35 years to destroy it.

    While Sinn Fein ministers led their departments conscientiously in the 1999 executive, the party makes no secret of its impatience to detach Northern Ireland from Britain as soon as possible, leading many unionists to suspect that Sinn Fein’s commitment to the 1998 agreement is a tactical ploy.

    • Cohesion within each community.

    The leaders of each community must be able to cooperate and compromise with each other without losing the support of their electorates.

    But in Northern Ireland there is a dual party system, characterised by intense competition between the two main parties on each side and only a small proportion of support for cross-community parties like Alliance.

    Despite its remarkable electoral successes since 2003, the DUP has not yet established such overwhelming predominance that it can afford to risk losing the allegiance of an electorate dismayed by what it sees as repeated concessions to republicanism.

    • A tradition of cooperation between the leaders of the two communities.

    Northern Ireland’s political tradition has since the 1920s been characterised by mutual hostility.

    Worse, since the failure of the power-sharing experiment in 1974, a new negative tradition has emerged of attempts to construct cooperative coalitions collapsing.

    Today’s DUP leaders remember the fates of O’Neill, Faulkner and Trimble, three leaders who sacrificed their careers in the quest for rapprochement.

    • A common external threat.

    Not only has there been no common external threat but there are now two separate perceived threats. Unionists feel threatened by Dublin’s support for the unification project which they contrast with Britain’s indifference to the union.

    Nationalists correspondingly resent Britain’s continuing military presence and criticise NIO ministers for refusing to act.

    All of these criteria are now further from being satisfied than they were in 1974.

    The great task of winding down the conflict will be better and faster if we can at least have some honesty about what is possible and what is not.

    Only when they admit that power sharing can’t work under current conditions will the two governments be free to apply themselves seriously to the task of devising a better, more workable alternative.

    BILL SMITH, Senior research fellow

    Institute of Governance, Public Policy

    and Social Research

    Queen’s University, Belfast