We need fresher thinking than this

Two New Year articles worth noting which struggle with the abiding theme. Given prime billing in the Irish Times, Robin Wilson laments the anti-democratic and physical force elements in both of our traditions as we move further into the decade of commemoration. His historical sweep of a century reinforces his determinist case against the GFA accommodation, leading to his usual bleak conclusion.

For Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair, the Northern Ireland “peace process” was defined by a realpolitik where moral considerations were entirely absent. But for as long as political leaders in the North and elsewhere continue to legitimise past violence, in defiance of norms now accepted as indeed universal, they will not only give credence to those who take up the mantle today but ensure that reconciliation remains an ever-receding horizon.

The trouble with this view is that it’s impossible to know what to do with it. He offers a critique but no practical alternative. The  human rights revolution aint around the corner, alas. The most useful reading I can give it is that it might spur the parties to prove him wrong. Perhaps Peter is listening…?

As far as it goes, a perfectly sound analysis has appeared in the Indo

One thing is certain. Unionists will need to improve their civic manners. They had also better start praying that the new majority behaves towards the minority with a greater sense of justice and respect than the old one.

And the Indo might have added…. to avoid turning any avowed Protestant minority into an aggrieved minority like the old one. Today’s demonstrators and rioters are members of no former master race. While one party rule lasted 50 years- (and has been over almost as long, remember) – it was never a monolith and left plenty of the demonstrators’ forebears out in the economic cold.  Today, handwringing and finger wagging supported by linear analyses straight from history are not enough.


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  • Chris Donnelly

    You would think Britain, France and the USA weren’t involved in any conflicts post-WW2 judging by Robin’s conclusion.

    Brian is right to point up the problem with the unrealistic premise Robin is suggesting. Past violence is legitimised every November at Cenotaphs across Britain and at Easter for Irish republicans.

    Reconciliation is to be found not in revisiting historical battles but in agreeing to disagree on interpretations of said conflicts whilst forging a shared vision of the future which provides space for both main traditions to be equally legitimised regardless of the short, medium and long term constitutional future for our contested land.

    Those out on the streets tonight are there because of a failureby unionist politicians to prepare the unionist base for the shared future which could only involve the evolution of a Northern Ireland no longer in the image of exclusively British Ulster, but one reflective of nationalist Ireland as well.
    In historical terms, they are perhaps comparable to the Boston Irish, who earned an unenviable reputation for racist attitudes towards the Black community in the 1960s/70s. Both occupied the lowest rung of the perceived dominant community (white in US, PUL here.)
    Whatever else about how they came to be abandoned by their political masters, pandering to their dangerously supremacist instincts is not the answer.

  • Taking Robin Wilson’s argument at face value is he then stating that the violence of the Allies in WWII was “illegitimate”?

    No, of course not. He clearly indicates that he believes the defeat of Nazi Germany through “political violence” was legitimate.

    It is only Irish “political violence” that is illegitimate.

    The article is simply an example of the usual hypocritical British double-think with an acknowledgement of Unionist violence thrown in to seem balanced to the casual observer.

    Strip it down and the interpretation is straightforward enough:

    British violence = Good.
    Irish violence = Bad.

    Its time for the British apologists to start viewing the historic Irish struggle against Imperialism in the same way they view the historic British struggle against Fascism. If the latter struggle was legitimate so was the former.

  • aquifer

    Part of the problem is the deliberate exclusion of Northern Ireland from the Social Democratic politics of the British state. This was a sectarian decision by the British Labour party, made for selfish advantage in British cities where displaced Irish Nationalists made up a useful cadre of activists and voters. A structural and systemic problem of the UK and Irish political systems with sinister local outworkings, also for the Republic where the church and emigration and rentiers ruled the lives of working people for too long.

    The scale of economies and of the spectacle of celebrity culture has gone global, leaving the locals with only their differences and welfare payments and loans paid for by prosperous centres in London .and Munich.

    Will nationalists of all colours take their ethnic exclusion and cults of victimhood to their conclusion, with their furniture following down the road on a tractor trailer as in Bosnia?

    Maybe we need a party of outright capitalism or socialism to take the necessary decisions.

    Internment by local bankers or a US dominated UN, or work camps with political re-education. But where would you find a solid tankie socialist these days to run the camps? The SDLP paid them off, and Provie juntas are not the same thing.

    Political education worked once already. Young catholics educated by social democracy demanded British civic standards and have got them.

    Loyalists demand that the tide be turned when sea levels are rising everywhere.

    What do Unionists want that they can actually get?

    They need to have the nerve to demand prosperity for catholic workers, but are chicken. The Unions should demand this, but they are riddled with sentimental nationalists.

    Could Alliance recover their roots in NI Labour?

  • David Crookes

    Brian, you say, ‘While one party rule lasted 50 years- (and has been over almost as long, remember) – it was never a monolith and left plenty of the demonstrators’ forebears out in the economic cold.’

    Spot on. Here’s a bit of ‘antidotal evidence’. When my father came back to Civvy Street in 1946 he returned to his job in the old Belfast Corporation, and began to broadcast as a singer of lieder. He was shocked to discover how the old Unionist Party controlled nearly everything, and how it rewarded its own partisans. (The liftman in the City Hall was a JP.) One day he was phoned up by a luminary of the Unionist Party, and asked to sing at Party dinners. My father said politely that he preferred to do no such thing. ‘Very good, Mr Flookes,’ said the luminary, ‘if you can do without us, we can do without you.’

    The old UP was in some ways very crafty, and in some ways extremely stupid. It contrived to keep the hoi polloi in order by appointing several persons of humble background and modest intelligence to cabinet posts. For a very long time a clergyman whom the Daily Telegraph once described as ‘intellectually challenged’ exercised considerable influence over the UP.

    The OO was used as a cement to hold upper, middle, and lower classes together. Several upper-class members of the Party, like Phelim O’Neill as was, were members of an OO which in their hearts they despised and detested. It is appalling to note how many Stormont and Westminster MPS were members of the OO.

    And boys oh, they looked after their own. I leave someone who knows more about the Curran case than I do to address that scandalous affair.

    An even worse scandal centred around a man who was regarded as a mystical guru by many unionists inside and outside the old UP. Once the guru was revealed for what he was, of course, they claimed not to have known him very well, or at all.

    In either 1975 or 1976, when I was doing my second degree, a student from Belfast told me obliquely about the guru, his predilections, and one of his intimates (an up-and-coming young intellectual). A number of unionist politicians knew rather more, and held their peace.

    There was something rotten in the one-party state of NI. Normal left-right politics was pretty well throttled by scare-talk about the border, and that scare-talk was kept going even when there was very little to be scared about.

    In 1964, when Harold Wilson came to power, my old mentor Cecil King told him sternly that he would have to do something about Ireland. ‘Things are quiet and stable,’ said King. ‘See what you can do to bring the two parts of Ireland together.’ Wilson’s response was to ask Terence O’Neill and Sean Lemass for lunch.

    In January of the following year O’Neill invited Lemass up to Stormont. It is a lie to say that O’Neill was attempting either to unite Ireland, or to sell NI down the celebrated but unnamed ‘river’ that imbeciles love to invoke. He did believe that the two Irish states should coexist in harmony. If he had been allowed to follow his Christian instincts, there might have been no Troubles. By the time Brian Falulkner became a genuine convert to power-sharing, several genies had come out of their ghoulish bottles.

    At least one of those genies is still at large. The unreconstructed unionist genie will use lawless violence to get its own way. It is unBritish and unChristian. For the third time in a month I must record that on 12 July 1967 one of O’Neill’s cabinet ministers was hauled off a platform and kicked unconscious by his fellow-Orangemen.

    Anyone who finds that sort of behaviour tolerable, or understandable, or pardonable, is a fascist.

    Sorry to go on for so long. Here are some of the fresher ideas that I reckon we need.

    Lawless violent unionism will have to die.

    People in NI should live in friendship with each other, and with their neighbours in the RoI.

    Some alternative to old-style unionism must emerge from the hearts and minds of ordinary working people who live in loyalist areas. The absence of proper left-right politics is stifling us.

    By way of coda here is a trivial anecdote. In my student days I attended a weekend party in a big house. Most of my student contemporaries were there. I got up early on the Saturday morning, and went out for a walk. Before long I met two of my student friends. He and she were becoming very fond of each other. I stupidly attached myself to their little company, and walked around with them till breakfast-time. While that is one of the most idiotic things that I have ever done in my life, I see it as offering a model of the present state-of-the-union. GB wants NI as much as those two students wanted my company. Are we wise to insist on remaining where we aren’t wanted?

  • Gopher

    Far be it to me to point out the blinding obvious to anyone but the Allies violence against Germany was prosecuted by an elected government with the support of the majority of the people, whilst the “troubles” was prosecuted by a minority that failed to gain any realistic electoral support until they gave up”armed struggle” {sic}. So unlike my nationalist brothers I prefer not to engage in “cattle truck” politics when addressing people. When these flag posters actually get elected to something more than their own invented positions sure feel free to blame the entire unionist population but until then feel free to call them deluded, thugs, criminals, psychopaths, animals and any other name because they are just the same as any minority who uses violence against the wishes of the people. Hope that clears it up

  • BarneyT

    But surely the absence of power sharing and the contrived majority in NI ensured that democracy was one sided. Suggesting that nationalism
    epublicanism operated without an electoral mandate is therefore redundant.

  • Brian Walker

    Some excellent discussion and personal testimony here. The Marxist analysis of 20th century conflict is always fascinating but doesn’t offer solutions in C21 or any other century. Robin Wilson acknowledges that Unionists in 1912 had an economic case but he deplores the (imperialist, antidemocratic) resort to armed militancy which was imitated in the south – and away we go to hell in a handcart ( I paraphrase). I leave the causes of WW1 to the latest study that I fear doesn’t dwell on Ireland at all.

    Back to the point. The two governments have paid their main debts to history by recognising the consent principle. Might they, can they go further and act as persuaders in one direction or another? Ireland struggling with its debt crisis, the UK with its own debt problems, its relationship with Europe and a shaky Union? I think not, in any serious way.

    We have the bracing freedom to try to sort ourselves out. As Chris Donnelly points out unionism has still to embrace the point emotionally that consent cuts both ways. But the question of consent is a tough one all round. In a minority, if unionist consent was not given on unity is unity worth having? if unionist denial of consent was upheld under the threat of violence – or even without it – how would we expect nationalists to respond? These are bottom line questions which governments and political parties should ponder.

    My feeling is that perhaps without focusing up on them coherently many ordinary people sense these dilemmas and will want to avoid them. In an odd way the ongoing demonstrations may confirm that obduracy is bankrupt and the settlement will be confirmed.

    There is time to work out better positions. The unrest confirms that shared future policies need agreed political content well beyond platitude. But we will have to work with the system and the people we’ve got rather than dream about some other system and some other people. It’s about time too that we stopped deceiving ourselves that by justifying our present positions through our pet versions of history that we’re making useful contributions to the future.

  • “We need fresher thinking than this”

    My proposal on shared sovereignty isn’t fresh – it’s about twenty years old – but it does, in so far as that is possible, accommodate the two opposing constitutional aspirations.

    Under the present arrangements, arrangements designed by London and Dublin to contain the struggle to NI, we have a carve-up between the political extremes of the DUP and SF and loyalist and republican ‘street theatre’ in which, once again, the police and prison officers are caught in the middle. Republican attacks have been more lethal but that may not continue to be the case. These arrangements have reduced the consent principle to a state of farce but dangerous farce none-the-less.

  • BarneyT

    Was it Willie Fraser who recently called for direct rule? Perhaps he was considering joint direct rule from London and Dublin? I think not.

    Some say his point regarding direct rule represented an enlightened moment for Willie, illustrating the perceived impotence within Stormont.

    We have hit a wall in the north it has to be said.

    SF and DUP continue to cosy up to each other, clinging on to power for powers sake, but they appear to have forgotten a principle of power, which is to use it wisely.

    Equally SF and DUP tolerate Ford as justice minister, simply because SF cannot trust the DUP with this department and the DUP or any unionist politician will not tolerate justice in the hands of a nationalist or republican camp.

    The two main parties are poles apart when it comes to education, finance and health….or at least should be. This should be taken as a further illustration of the unworkable solution we have. Education is a fine example with regard to selection and non-selection.

    The police as a government tool cannot be administered to the current “flag wound” in our society. If they were applied properly to the problem, with direction and a main objective (as they would be in any part of Britain) they would be perceived within unionism as traitors on the basis that their tradition role was to keep the taigs in check (and that mentality remains). I often wonder if this is where the source of the police paralysis on this flag issue comes from.

    The police has to be impartial, but I sense they are far from that and will remain so for some time. Their roots continue to compromise them regardless of any reformation they undergo and that is illustrated by their light touch approach to the flag protesters. How can they stand back and claim to protect the right to peaceful protest with so many police officers being hurt and lives being placed at risk. The gloves need to come off if they are to restore order and their credibility.

    I go along with the notion that a very different strategy would have been adopted had this been a nationalist driven protest (with the same street presence).

    Where is the new injection going to come from to get government delivering and to deliver accountability?

    Every option I examine results in the dismantling of Stormont as a result of direct rule from London or shared sovereignty. The latter of course would have to pave the way for a new United Ireland. Why else have British\Irish shared sovereignty?

    The only way Stormont will survive is to remove power sharing in favour of coalition government (unavoidable I would think) and opposition. We all know that coalition governments are vulnerable, however they would at least be formed with some level of discussion and policy agreement rather than via allotment based on peace agreements, which has a degree of enforcement attached.

    The inherent weakness in this approach however is the prospect of unionist unity. Government\opposition has the potential to provide a platform for unionist domination and policies that could set NI back decades, even taking demographics into consideration.

    Government\Opposition and take a few risks. Its perhaps the only way new political blood could emerge

  • Ruarai


    on your point about “making useful contributions to the future” and no longer hiding behind historical talking points, I agee.

    And the path to improving one’s contributions is clear.

    For nationalists: how to turn Northern Ireland into a potential social and economic asset for the Republic of Ireland.

    For unionists: how to turn Northern Ireland into a potential social and economic asset for the rest of the UK.

    For constitutional agnostics: how to turn Northern Ireland into a potential social and economic asset for their community in NI.

    Escaping the past is not the challenge, building the future is.

  • Brian Walker

    Very erudite Nevin but all in your own head and not actual politics, which is not a solo business but the art of the possible. I know you will argue…. but I would guess we have the “solution” here and now for as long as the eye can see.

  • Brian Walker

    Yes indeed

  • BarneyT

    Ruarai, as much as I agree, in NI the past in many cases sadly influences the future due to many aspects of the past still being relevant and unresolved.

    I think power sharing recognised the real threath of domination by unionism and the future must learn from this should the demographic coin flip.

    The last thing I want is for unionists to face their own medicine. Thats not going to work either

  • Brian, to call for fresh thinking and then dismiss Nevin’s suggestion as unrealistic is more than a tad unfair. It wasn’t so unrealistic that was the Plan B in the minds of the two governments had there been no progress a few years ago. In fact, it was this very prospect that shifted Paisley’s thinking on one or two key matters.

  • “all in your own head and not actual politics”

    Brian, it’s merely the Hume analysis with the unionist aspiration included. What could be fairer than that? Unlike the Hume approach, it allows folks to work the common ground at local, regional and higher levels.

    Do you disagree with my ‘tug-of-war’ metaphor for the current ‘solution’?

    Belfast Gonzo, I thought the London and Dublin Plan B was Joint Rule; we had a form of unacknowledged and unaccountable shared adminstration post-1985. My approach is based on open and accountable government; the side-deals necessitated deception and lies.

  • Gopher


    I have long felt like that. however I believe that both traditions strategy is not based in the real world. Unionism is quite content to continue its economic drip feed from London a simple but brutal concept the UK will always have deeper and more secure pockets than the Republic. Whilst nationalism should be called public purse nationalism. (spot the difference between the economic policy of the two nationalists in mid ulster), If I can indulge the nationalist dream with my imagination and say there will be a 32 county Irish Republic I cant stretch my mind farther than they will have us enter it as paupers without the ability to strike a decent deal. As everyone knows the present unionist alternative is the most practical.

    You simply cant get these idiots to improve this place.

  • Brian Walker

    Nevin and Belfast Gonzo,

    Joint sovereignty was part of a mix of options whose elements were adjusted to form the three stranded GFA. Although I have no evidence to be certain, a theoretical examination of it might have been useful in order to arrive at the settlement. My own view is that it is a compromise at the wrong level. It would institutionalise insecurity and give neither side in NI what they wanted

    Whether you agree or not, we have moved on from that type of macro politics to the grinding business of trying to build confidence in the communities. Who has any appetite for opening the whole business again? What could it conceivably deliver?

    I see no essential flaw in the present system that prevents accommodations for all including disaffected unionist minorities.. Indeed, the structures reflect sectarianism but what conceivable system could abolish it as a stroke?

    What is needed now?

    I suspect the present unrest is less of fundamental challenge to the system and more of a wake up call to unionists who are looking more marginalised and ineffectual than they need be. The Forum feeble though it is at least creates a focus for talks and diplomacy.Rather than keeping fighting their paltry internal battles which are now so painfully exposed, they have to get on and make a few comparatively minor but tricky political adjustments to embrace realities which still leave them pretty secure.This needs more leadership than an overcautious Robinson has been offering. He should recall is own remarkable comeback between the poils of 2010 and 2011 and take some risks.

    The main message is to dispose of the nonsense that Northern Ireland is a cold home for unionists.If you keep saying it you can’t be surprised if ordinary people believe you. There may be local agendas that need attention, there always are.

    I agree that some outside assistance may be needed and the British government has been woeful. Both governments should consider urging better delivery including educational reforms and the end of designations in the Assembly. These of course are medium term issues but there are already a few signs of movement in that direction. Instead of dismissing then out of hand as inadequate before they’ve emerged, they should be encouraged. It would be good if intelligent commentators sometimes tried to answer the question: “what would I do in their position?”

  • “Who has any appetite for opening the whole business again? What could it conceivably deliver?”

    Brian, I do because the present arrangements elevate the petty over the important; they encourage confrontation and discourage co-operation.

    “My own view is that it [joint sovereignty] is a compromise at the wrong level.”

    This smacks of joint Direct Rule by London and Dublin which is why I opted for the more nuanced shared sovereignty with maximum devolution, the exercise of power and responsibility at all levels of governance.

    “I suspect the present unrest is less of fundamental challenge to the system and more of a wake up call to unionists”

    Why is your focus on the misdeeds of unionists? I’m very conscious of the misdeeds of unionists and nationalists, including the recent murder of a prison officer, and IMO they all flow from the Agreement’s constitutional ‘solution’.

    “I agree that some outside assistance may be needed and the British government has been woeful.”

    The input from London and Dublin, as you might expect, has been selfish; all manner of misdemeanours and malpractices that would be tolerated here would be stamped on beyond our borders. Just talk to any London and Dublin civil servants who are either based here or who deal with day-to-day decisions here.

    “Indeed, the structures reflect sectarianism but what conceivable system could abolish it as a stroke?”

    They encourage and incite sectarianism; they make a very difficult situation worse. Working together for the benefit of all, as distinct from just talking together, is beneficial for the local as well as the wider community; it is also very emotionally satisfying. IMO my proposal doesn’t abolish sectarianism at a stroke but it certainly would significantly reduce its worst effects.

  • Brian Walker

    Ok Nevin, but you must know that you make the case for something that isn’t being be considered. The only circumsaces in which it might be in some form is the scenario of a narrow change of majority, reflected first in an Assembly election which would make a referendum likely. If as seems possible – but who knows? – there was a threat to stability, the governments, particularly the Irish? and some of the parties might baulk at a complete severance of the British apart from continuing personal British citizenship. A form of JS might then appeal.

    Bu there are too many unknonw there it seemsd to me for it to be a response to the present situation. We seem to be going through a stage of adjustment.

    The old assumed notion of Britishness with

  • “you must know that you make the case for something that isn’t being be considered.”

    Brian, neither of us are really in a position to know all that is being or has been considered. The 1998 Agreement is much closer to my early 90s proposal than it is to those promoted by John Hume and later by the Redemptorist’s [‘stepping stones’].

    The last time I looked, unionists and nationalists each received less than a 50% share at the ballot box. I would consider that a serious threat to political stability; even hard men like Peter and Martin might not be able to hold the line if the ‘ante’ is ratcheted up even further by loyalist and republican paramilitaries.

    “As far as it goes, a perfectly sound analysis has appeared in the Indo”

    The Indo piece is little more than an anti-unionist rant, the sort of thing John Hume used to indulge in.

  • Brian Walker

    OK Nevin, The only circumstances I could envisage a revival of any version of formal joint sovereignty would be a narrow change of majority in which both governments particularly the Irish would baulk at Ireland being solely responsible for a newly unstable can of worms in the North

    . No structure by itself will bring stability but I’m puzzled as to why you can’t see that the present one is actually working pretty well, loyalist unrest notwithstanding. I concentrate on unionism only because that where the current problem lies. Nationalist consent for the system is palpable and will in my view survive the present loyalist protests as it survived Drumcree and Holy Cross. Republican dissidents have failed to gain political traction. Does anyone seriously suggest that if McGuinness really wanted to he could make them disappear? One lesson of post Troubles politics generally seems to be that if you win power legitimately you lose some influence in the streets.

    Unionist parties have done their people no service for neglecting to stress the changes of the GFA which affect their identity. This is no easy matter and should have been combined with the obvious gains in term of the end of the troubles and the hope of a broader outlook. We can debate the changes endlessly but I would say there was not a morally superior alternative.

    The change in question now is from the more or less unstated but pervasive assumption that unionists are simply part of a 63 million British nation in which nationalists are a few hundred thousand. This was never entirely valid and certainly isn’t valid now. Since 1998 the entire Union has been differentiated by different forms of devolution and in NI’s case also by an international treaty. Continued membership rests with the local majorities and in NI’s case also with the Republic.

    That’s all pretty dry stuff. But now here comes the big gunk. The GB majority has no direct say in that decision. In that sense nationalist consent is more important to the survival of the Union than opinion in Great Britain.

    So unionists have a choice: to try to wreck the GFA in the hope that chaos will somehow redound to their advantage – ie to swap roles with the formerly aggrieved nationalist minority – or to forge consciously and deliberately a narrative of common interests which may grow into something warmer as time passes. And by the by stand a fair chance of preserving the Union.

    It’s a no brainer isn’t it? Peter knows the score completely but is fumbling the politics. As I’ve said he should look to his own remarkable revival and take some risks.

    Nationalists as a whole seem more serene as they can count their legitimately won gains and are prepared to take their chances in the numbers game. My sense is that they won’t really mind if the gains are consolidated and the numbers game doesn’t turn up for them. I call that good politics

  • Brian Walker

    Incidentally Nevin you don’t know whether I know if joint sovereignty is being considered or not. Lack of official contacts is not a requirement for blogging in Slugger.

  • “I concentrate on unionism only because that where the current problem lies.”

    Brian, if you seriously believe that then further discussion is pointless. Meanwhile, threats to political stability from militant unionists and nationalists will most likely continue on as before.

    “Lack of official contacts is not a requirement for blogging in Slugger”

    True. However, I’d like to see more informed comment.

  • DC

    OK, my approach is that the two traditions need to improve, not remove.

    That means improving relations towards both flags and identities somehow, and the flag going back more than 15 days.

  • Brian Walker

    Nevin, I persist one more time to make two points. One, yes, “ the current problems lies with unionism” which behaves neurotically in the face of republican probes and its own little internal struggles. Unionists stirred up more trouble than they bargained for over the flag dispute, in a disastrous and cynical miscalculation as far as I can see. What would you call it?

    Two, if I may say so without offence you are the lonely prophet who demands too much allegiance to your own rather fixed if often interesting views.

  • Brian, as I’ve already pointed out, there are two current problems, both of which flow from the constitutional ‘difficulty’. You studiously ignore or separate out the nationalist one, the attacks on police and prison officers. I’ve widened the focus because of the possible risk to minorities in other places.

    In regard to the flag dispute, nationalists and unionists were responsible for stirring up trouble and APNI found itself in no-man’s land, in a manner of speaking.

    No allegiance sought, no offence taken – but you did ask for some fresher thinking. I’ve apologised for the lack of freshness but I have offered a practical alternative to the present dysfunctional arrangements 😉