The dry stone wall of Northern Irish politics…

VETERAN observer of NI politics Arthur Aughey (pictured) weighs up the outcomes of the peace process for devolution in an extract from Breaking Up Britain (blogged on Open Democracy). Rather than see the Agreement as “a foundational event from which a radically new society emerges”, Aughey paints devolution here as part of a messy continuum. He conjures up the image of a dry stone wall to suggest the continuity of our history, composed, not of bricks, but unpredictable, interlocking rocks. And anyone who has travelled through our countryside will know there are plenty of spaces in these stone walls, spaces “for events which appear to challenge much of what went before”.

Aughey writes:

[T]he Agreement is not a new beginning or a re-foundation but a modification of circumstances in Northern Ireland, an adjustment of how practices stand in relation to one another. Some things come on to the agenda but some things also fall off it. Some things come up for debate but yet others are settled, at least for now. Some things may improve but others may get worse. The dry stone wall of Northern Irish history changes shape, as does the perspective on the relations between its parts, with each addition to it. The eccentricities, irregularities, inconsistencies and some might think, absurdities, are not defects or irrationalities but constitutive characteristics of its politics.

Aughey continues:

To talk, then, of a new dispensation or a new era of good relations is to put words into the mouth of history. The devolved Assembly has had only a fitful existence and was suspended from 2002-2007. The power-sharing Executive did not meet for most of 2008 because of a Sinn Fein boycott. Some, with good reason, have argued that the institutional inadequacies of the 1998 Agreement were only added to by the modifications at St Andrews, confirming the lack of policy cohesion, mutual sectarian vetoes, absence of collective responsibility and legislative vacuity. That criticism rests on two observations.

First, the peace process represents a ‘Faustian pact with sectarianism’ and so rests on precisely ‘the division it is supposed to solve’. Second, there is an absence of an overarching allegiance to the shared polity which can counteract sectarian instincts. Those points are well made and essential since nationalist and unionist parties, while not necessarily enamoured of the condition of ?enforced coalition’, have little incentive to change things if only because they directly profit by them.

The dry stone wall image implies, of course, that there is no administrative solution to the division, only a modification of circumstances in which it is possible for those divisions to become political and constructive rather than murderous and destructive.

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  • Pete Baker

    I thought that “dry stone wall” sounded familiar..

    “History has no premeditated design..”

  • Belfast Gonzo

    Perhaps a case of history repeating..?

  • granni trixie

    Aughey is to be credited for coming up with a new image/concept of ‘the peace process’ to refresh thinking. I always thought that if ‘they’ would stop killing each other I could thole anything – with good will all the probs of NI could be resolved and goodwill would flourish in the absence of people being killed.

    I also related the GFA to a line from Shakespere “fair is foul and foul is fair” – values turned upside down. I still feel that but would vote YES again as a trade off for people being killed. But its not just, is it? And what do we tell our children about killing people being wrong?

  • The Spectator


    “the peace process represents a ‘Faustian pact with sectarianism’ and so rests on precisely ‘the division it is supposed to solve’”

    But was the Belfast Agreement ever intended to ‘solve’ sectarianism, or sectarian division – by which Arthur seems to mean destroyed sectariansim – or did it simply recognise that the division was insoluble, and indestructable?

    Mick and others are fond of telling nationalists that unionists/British nationals will “always be here” and that accomodation must therefore be made (one might call that argument the basic premise of this entire site), and he is of course quite right. They will, and it must.

    What he sometimes misses out is that the mirror image is also absolutely and equally true – nationalists/Irish nationals will always be here, and accommodation must therefore be made. The earlier unionist dominated administration sowed the seeds of its own destruction by ignoring that. A future SF fairytale of 50% + 1 and gaelic sunrise would almost certainly fail for the same reason.

    The best therefore GFA could EVER hope for was not to ‘solve’ sectariansim, but to manage sectarianism – which after all is just the unpleasant outworking of the reality that we are simply not the same as each other, nor are ever likely to be (we’ve managed not to be since 1603 after all) and that our dearest identities and national ideals are mutually incompatible.

    The reason that sectarianism is so strong, in my view, is that it is, in an important respect, true. That our bigotries have a certain logical coherence. That what we believe in our black hearts is not simply a bigotted fiction, but a bigotted fact.

    Because it IS the ‘prods’ who are stopping us getting a united ireland; it IS the ‘taigs’ threatening our country and the union. Both those facts are simply empirically true. All else follows; simply connect.

    What the GFA might, ham-fistedly, manage is to convince us that that disappointment is not good enough reason for discrimination, bigotry or worst of all violence. Asking it to redraw reality altogether and abolish sectarianism or the call of the tribe is unrealistic and hopelessly utopian. To remove the GFA protections from each tribe to try and force the issue would be foolish and disingenuous.

  • Brian Walker

    Arthur’s piece has as I would expect, great analytical and descriptive power. What it doesn’t do is to prescribe. Beyond platitudes, the active question is: how is the general public interest going to be heard above the din of sectional politics? Elections are always round the corner – Europe, Westminster, new councils, the Assembly again. It’s a big ask.

    Put in less poetic language, Arthur is counseling us against the determinism that insists on “end of history” outcomes like the inevitablity of peace, a united Ireland or any other nirvana. As the NI Assembly staggers on, it may dawn of the main parties that their zero sum game is decreasingly viable and that their rival millennarian visions need to be replaced by something else. A specifically political message perhaps, is that no “process” or electoral system ( like replacing the present STV with AMS) will of itself unlock the stasis that has characterised the NI Assembly for most of its short life. The main lesson may be that expectations for concrete results should remain modest, although pessimism and cynicism should also be resisted. Let others of the Jonathan Powell school tout the Northern Ireland model for export. The best that can be said for what the Assembly has so far produced is well put by Arthur: “..a fated incivility can become a tentative civility such that even if the people of Northern Ireland may not choose to live together they are compelled to live together.”

  • Secder

    Arthur as usual gives a fairly as it is description of life in NI.

    But what he doesn’t give as others have said is a way forward.

    We need change and we need a new dynamic in our political culture. I support the idea of the executive being limited to two parties of opposite traditions facing an organised opposition from the Assembly floor. But for this to work a new mentality must be injected into both the UUP and the SDLP.

    Possibly the conservative link with the UUP could be the catalyst for new thinking but unless UCUNF can attract new members and new candidates -with new thinking it will not happen