Constitutions and Culture Wars – Annual IBIS Conference at UCD

Prof John Coakley of UCD

The Institute for British Irish Studies (IBIS) at University College Dublin held its annual conference on Monday on the theme of “Constitutions and Culture Wars: Northern Ireland, the Irish State and the North-South Dimension.” The event also marked the retirement of UCD Prof of Politics John Coakley, the first director of IBIS. Coakley’s work on the island of Ireland has been highly regarded and influential, with recent publications including The Irish Presidency: Power, Ceremony and Politics (Irish Academic Press 2014) and Reforming Political Institutions: Ireland in Comparative Perspective (Institute of Public Administration 2013).

The conference featured a line-up that included some of the leading social scientists working on the island of Ireland, as well as an opening address by Tanaiste and Minster for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Eamon Gilmore, TD.

Gilmore emphasised the “tangible benefits” of North-South cooperation, including increased cross-border trade and evidence of more people commuting cross-border for employment opportunities (in both directions). But, quoting Garret Fitzgerald, he said:

“We have not completed the imaginative leap of understanding,” and “we remain short of the line on reconciliation.”

For those disappointed that the British and Irish governments have not put more effort into encouraging and supporting parties in the North to devise a joined-up process for “dealing with the past,” it may have been either surprising or comforting to hear Gilmore pledge any “support the south can offer,” and emphasizing the Republic’s role as “a guarantor” of the Belfast Agreement.

(Click here to read the text of Gilmore’s speech)

British Ambassador Dominick Chilcott, who chaired the first panel, followed Gilmore by commenting that “East-West relations are better than they have ever been,” and “Northern Ireland is not the dominant subject of our exchanges any longer.”

The first academic panel featured John Garry (Queen’s) on “Voting Behaviour under Consociational Conditions” and Jon Tonge (Liverpool) on “Fusing Protestantism with Pragmatism? Membership of the Democratic Unionist Party.”

Garry, Tonge and Brendan O’Leary (who spoke on a later panel) have all been advocates of Northern Ireland’s “consociational” political institutions (consociationalism is a technical name for the form of power-sharing featured in the Northern Ireland Assembly), so it was not surprising that Garry concluded “criticisms of power-sharing are overplayed” and that “maybe” the form of power-sharing we have is “quite good.”

Garry’s conclusions were based on analysis of four election studies which asked questions about identity (British/Irish/Northern Irish), constitutional preferences, ideological self-description, and attitudes to power sharing. Garry found that within the nationalist voting bloc, “ethno-national” concerns were more likely to come into play, while within the unionist voting bloc, “performance” concerns were paramount. So in perhaps over-simple terms, Sinn Fein has succeeded by appealing more to ethnic identity and concerns than the SDLP, and the DUP has succeeded by being perceived to have gained more political influence than the UUP.

Garry also shared a finding that might cheer up depressed SDLP supporters, saying that the data showed some room for the SDLP to emerge as an “ethnic catch-all party,” because some unionist voters reported that they thought the SDLP could represent the “interests of all in society.” There was no evidence that the UUP could play this role, as nationalist voters did not believe it could represent the interests of all.

Tonge’s presentation covered much of the ground that has been reported recently from his new, co-authored book on the DUP, the launch of which has been covered by Alan in Belfast. The data from the surveys of DUP members is fascinating, and equally fascinating were Tonge’s comments on how the Northern Ireland media have reported on the findings.

For example, the Irish News led with “DUP More Opposed to Mixed Marriage than Homosexuality,” while the Belfast Telegraph emphasized “DUP – We Can Woo Right Wing Catholics.”

Tonge also emphasized that DUP members are “happy” with Northern Ireland’s political institutions, reporting that 41.7% say they strongly support and 41.4% say they support the institutions. He presented this as evidence of the success of the consociational system. But I would ask how content we should be that a party whose make-up is largely unrepresentative even of the unionist population (with the proportion of Free Presbyterians and members of the Orange Order in the party far outstripping their proportions in the unionist population) supports political institutions that discourage the emergence of “ethnic catch-all” or cross-community parties?

The second academic panel featured Yvonne Galligan (Queen’s) on “North-South Institutions: Mainstreaming Gender Equality?” and Melanie Hoewer (UCD) on “Different Pathways – Shared Interests: Women’s Activism in Ireland, North and South.”

Galligan’s study analysed the gender balance on six North-South bodies between 2000-2011. Although the percentage of women increased from 24%-33% over that time, she found that gender balance was generally not taken into consideration when making appointments and that women’s seat-holding on boards is less secure than that of men. Emphasizing that the business case for gender balance is well-established, she recommended that diversity should be factored in to future board appointments, that the appointment processes should be more transparent (getting beyond the old boys’ networks and usual suspects), and that positive examples of gender-balanced boards should be highlighted.

Hoewer’s presentation focused on three historical moments of women’s activism: 1) the “formation of solidarity” in the 1970s, 2) the mobilisation of cross-border activism during the peace process in the 1990s, and 3) recent mobilisation coalescing around UN Resolution 1325 on Women, Peace and Security. Hoewer showed that women’s issues were often stymied by the “ethno-national boundary” but that there was some evidence that UNR 1325 had created more spaces and opportunities to develop solidarity on shared women’s interests. She also noted that some activists had used UNR 1325 “as a useful tool to highlight shortcomings in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.”

The third academic panel featured John Coakley (UCD) on “Adjusting to Partition: Nationalist Opinion and the Future of the Irish Border,” Brendan O’Leary (University of Pennsylvania) on “Where are We?” and Joseph Ruane (UCC/UCD) on “Modelling Conflict and Instability in Both Parts of (the island of) Ireland.”

Coakley emphasized that “nationalist Ireland has learned to adjust to partition,” showing a general decline in traditional nationalist attitudes towards a united Ireland in party constitutions, in the concession to drop Articles 2 and 3 of the Irish Constitution, and in opinion polls both north and south of the border. He also said that in other areas of the world where there has been partition, “borders get reinforced.”

Coakley acknowledged the much-remarked upon emergence of pro-union (but not unionist) Catholics in Northern Ireland – those who report they would prefer to stay in the UK but refuse to define themselves as unionist or vote for a unionist party. He concluded that “the intensity of Catholic pro-union commitment is unclear,” and any change in this orientation is more likely to come from external shocks, such as a Yes vote in the Scottish independence referendum.

In his presentation, O’Leary urged his listeners to look at the situation on the island of Ireland from the perspective of 20 years ago, and to recall the “deep pessimism” of that time. By way of contrast, we now live in a “north-south world” where the North South Ministerial Council has caused little controversy, and has brought “no consequences for unionists to fear.”

O’Leary questioned Coakley’s conclusions about nationalist Ireland’s adjustment to partition, arguing that the example of Germany showed that a future unification of Ireland might not be as unlikely as it might currently appear. (Coakley later said that German unification was one precipitated by an “external shock” brought about by the dissolution of the Soviet Union, so could not really be considered a counter-example, given Coakley’s earlier caveat about external shocks.)

But while allowing for the possibility of change in nationalist attitudes towards the current constitutional settlement so that a united Ireland might be more ardently pursued, O’Leary seemed to allow no room for the possibility of change in relationships between the “two communities.” He said:

“Reconciliation is a deeply Christian notion that implies some notion of transcendence combined with repentance. It is utopian and pious to expect reconciliation of that kind. … It is better to go for tolerance and co-existence. … Reconciliation is unachievable and agreement about the past is absurd.”

Ruane’s presentation focused on the Republic of Ireland and the failure of its leaders and policy makers to anticipate the financial crisis. He said the consequences of the collapse of the Celtic Tiger have been both material and cultural, in that “Ireland’s multi-class buy-in” to the state has been threatened and there is now a profound lack of trust in institutions.

He also presented a helpful model for looking at the behaviour of the Republic not as a classic nation-state, but as a “multiple interface periphery” region, balanced between the core regions of the US, UK and EU. Although it is a “risky development model,” the Republic has attempted to “balance off” its interests in these core regions against each other. Though time didn’t allow for deeper discussion of this, it would be interesting to contemplate how both the Republic and Northern Ireland operate in this way, and what that means in terms of cross-border cooperation.

The conference concluded with a roundtable discussion on “North-South after the May 2014 Elections,” chaired by Gerry Moriarty of the Irish Times, on which I participated along with Tina McKenzie (NI21 European Election candidate and Staffline Group), Sara Dybris McQuaid (Aarhus University), Niall O Dochartaigh (NUI Galway), and Féilim Ó hAdhmaill (UCC).

Most of us either challenged earlier points made by speakers or brought up areas that had not yet been addressed during the course of the day, such as a lack of reflection on civil society activism (with the exception of Hoewer’s presentation), the lack of discussion on East-West institutions, and the lack of discussion on the themes of the Haass Talks: flags, parades and dealing with the past.

Unsurprisingly, given I lecture on a Master’s in Conflict Resolution and Reconciliation at TCD at Belfast’s Irish School of Ecumenics, I picked up on O’Leary’s comments about reconciliation, which I thought were overstated.

While I agree that it is unrealistic to expect everyone to be reconciled or even to agree on what reconciliation is or who should be doing it, I think that it is disingenuous to dismiss it as a concept for public and political consideration. Empirically, there is evidence that some activists working at the grassroots in Northern Ireland have developed discourses and practices around reconciliation that have led to changes in attitudes and identities.

Indeed, in his opening remarks Gilmore acknowledged that civil society had contributed to “transformative change in attitudes and relationships” and that this type of work should continue to be supported.

While tolerance and mutual respect are not to be sniffed at, I do not think they offer an inspiring enough vision for societies transitioning out of violence. Concepts like reconciliation, forgiveness, mercy and graciousness – backed up by examples of leadership from politicians or civil society activists – can in some cases provide a glimpse of a better vision and should not be neglected at the expense of focusing on political institutions.

Photo slideshow from the conference. View all photos here:

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