This is part two of my analysis of the Haass talks and Unionist thinking. This article also appeared on my blog
Haass begins with:
…there was a feeling that change would disadvantage them.
First, Haass fails to notice the change that had occurred in the immediate run up to his talks had disadvantaged them. The design of the agenda was a rather obvious clue e.g. parades and flags. Second, we will deal with the cliché of ‘change’. Change can be good or bad, it can be progressive or regressive. Blind acceptance of something simply because it is ‘change’ is dumb. Anyone with any sense assesses it and makes their judgement on what is proposed. Third, in the last 20 years Northern Ireland has underwent a process of the most fundamental change. When Unionists have seen value in it, they have agreed with it and worked it. Fourth, it appears to assume Unionism is happy with the status quo and should be grateful for what isn’t changed.
Then we have:
I think the republicans and nationalists were more willing to entertain the possibility of change
Nationalism and republicanism were willing to entertain proposals on issues like the Maze when he offered them more than they had managed to get negotiated with Unionists or support his pet project. If you give people what they want, it isn’t difficult to get their support. However, it doesn’t help so much when you are trying to achieve a multi-lateral agreement that needs the buy-in from more than one section at the table.
However, these are matters are mere trifles compared with his poor choice of comparison. He begins with the South African and De Klerk comparisons. Haass argues De Klerk:
…understood that the future of his country meant them giving up advantaged positions.
Haass’s analysis of De Klerk is legitimate if somewhat rose-tinted. Apartheid was abhorrent and from its introduction it was on borrowed time. Its basis was an idea that the world was systematically beginning to reject and would continue to do so. It survived through the relative economic success of the country, the instability in Africa as the decolonisation processes often failed to establish genuine democracies and the Cold War.
The growth in the diplomatic strength of the developing world made it more difficult for Western democracies to quietly ignore the issue leading to sanctions. This began to impair the economy but more importantly it combined with the culmination of the Cold War.
Within South Africa, the ANC’s terrorist campaign was completely ineffectual. However, maintaining control in the townships was a real problem. Also within the townships, alternatives to the African National Congress were developing and they were as much the driving force behind the protests, riots and strikes in the 1980s.
These series of factors led to a debate within the highest echelons of the white community in South Africa. Even within the Broederbund, the highly secretive and powerful Afrikaner secret society that had driven apartheid, papers were circulating that apartheid’s days were numbered and the need to manage its end rather than allow collapse.
The factors that had allowed apartheid to survive had gone or were rapidly disappearing. If they waited much longer the potential partner on the black side, the ANC would not be in a position to deliver (arguably the position the Israelis found themselves in with the PLO). There was enough consensus at a senior level and the broader white community that a managed process was much preferable to a collapse. While the Western media fascinated on the likes of the AWB they often overlooked the plain fact that the clear and sustained majority of whites voted for De Klerk to negotiate the end to apartheid. They knew collectively that the jig was up.
This is the first reason why the comparison with South Africa is a poor one. Apartheid was an abhorrent system that’s time was unsustainable. The maintenance and development of the British Union state is not an abhorrent system. They are not comparable ideologies. It would be like looking for answers to the challenges of modern social democracy by examining the Italian fascist state.
The use of the South African comparison by some is not to provide something of use. In the political mainstream, its primary purpose is to delegitimise Unionism. For those who used terrorist violence, it was about the dehumanisation of Unionists and to legitimise their murder campaigns. Reliance upon it by someone tasked to facilitate an agreement is thus unwise.
The second reason is South African comparisons tend to feed the MOPEry syndrome, a syndrome that sections of both communities are susceptible too. Northern Ireland was not Apartheid South Africa. Northern Ireland was not Nazi Germany. Northern Ireland was not the Deep South of the USA. It did have significant and far-reaching problems but the elevation of our problems to bad comparisons doesn’t help. Reliance upon it by someone tasked to facilitate an agreement is thus unwise.
However, the greatest flaw in Haass’s analysis was this:
“Those who held the preponderance of power – and essentially that would be more the unionists backed by the British Government – needed to be willing to meet others at least halfway, and as of last December they were not, but again I would hope that a day will come when they will see it not only in their collective interest but also in their more narrow interests.”
First, Unionist political power was based on the 1921-72 parliaments. Unionism was stripped of political power in 1972. As an Alliance politician once correctly pointed out Unionism had gone from a position of supreme power to the place where the Lord Mayor of Belfast couldn’t change a bulb in a lamp-post, or a more recent example, can’t keep the national flag on City Hall. In 2014, Unionist access to political power comes at the price of a system of communal protections and being in government with the people who murdered us for over three decades. This is not a situation of privilege, ascendancy or domination. Thus Haass is using an analysis that is 42 years out of date.
Second, is the belief that the London government was on Unionism’s side is best responded to as ROFLMAO. It is based on the lazy assumption that the state and Unionists interests are always the same. It fails to recognise the potential divergence of interest in a unitary state such as the UK.
There are also multiple examples of how this is simply not the case – the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the secret messages to the Provos asking London to be spared bombs, the no selfish strategic interest declaration, the Framework Documents and Downing Street Declarations (Unionism has had to spend years talking London down from), Blair perpetual desire to be over-generous to Sinn Fein, institutional discrimination in police recruitment, the ‘invisible’ OTR scheme etc etc.
A government paper of a British–Irish exchange from 20 years ago when some civil servant raised ‘What about the Unionists’ was about as far as it went and even then it usually resulted in a proposal watered down rather than stopped. In the modern era, Unionism did and does not have an external political protector. Thus Haass is using an analysis that is too simplistic, contradicted by the available evidence and misreads the power relationships.
Now, perhaps an expectation of being up with historical detail and realities is somewhat unfair. However, an ignorance of the basics of politics is not, even for a career diplomat. The logical conclusion of this argument is that it is Unionism’s ‘leadership’ role to feed its political base a series of shit sandwiches and tell them to not only endure it but to enjoy it. Now the machinations of London, Dublin and Nationalism would be so much easier if Unionism were like this. However, it will not be the basis of strategic or electoral success for Unionism or a functioning prosperous Northern Ireland.
Haass is not alone in holding these type of views. It is a common view among officialdom in London, Dublin and many of those who inhabit or inhabited the quangocracy. It is the core ideology of the Northern Ireland Office to this day, which a weak Secretary of State invariably crumble to (as the Parades panel U-turn demonstrated). The prevalence of it is why those Unionist and Loyalists who think Direct Rule is the answer are plain wrong. Under that system, this is what would be driving our rulers with no checks or balances.
It even had a voice in Unionism early on in the peace process. Norman Porter essentially advocated a reductionist Unionism. Its premise was as long as Northern Ireland remained part of the UK then nothing else really mattered. Unionists don’t want to live in such a soulless place.
I define this thinking as ‘minoritarianism’.
Essentially, Northern Ireland will be shaped and designed to satisfy the interests of the minority only. It is the mirror image of the majoritarianism of 1921-72 except Nationalism is to be the beneficiary not Unionism. This ideology/groupthink is progressed in the areas that Unionists have no say or highly restricted influence e.g. NIO, PSNI/Judicial system, the quangocracy (especially equality and good relations) and local government were Unionists are not in control. This is why the anti-Unionist identity agenda has been progressed at these levels and not through the devolved institutions.
Now this ideology is not limited to Northern Ireland. In most western democracies, the growing diversity within our societies has led to similar approaches where the focus is upon the needs, preferences, desires and wishes of the minorities. Minority ethnic groups had and do have legitimate needs but sections of the left and so called liberals (often middle class whites) went beyond that to attack mainstream identity.
In the past few decades while the right were generally winning the economic arguments, the left were generally winning the social ones. In a Northern Ireland context, this meant they either had common cause with Nationalism’s identity agenda or they fulfilled the role of useful fools. The results are the same.
Your average Unionist and Loyalist wonders why the treatment meted out to them does not receive much of a hearing or sympathy. This commonality in approach and ideology means this type of behaviour in Northern Ireland has been conditioned into people both here and further afield as ‘normal’ and thus to be accepted.
This ‘minoritarianism’ has contributed to ever larger swathes of people feeling utterly disconnected with politics and public life across Europe. It has not and will not prove healthy neither for our societies nor our democracies whether it is Germany, France, Great Britain or Northern Ireland.
In all this there is an underpinning attitude that Unionism is some sort of political lab rat that is expected to sit there while others experiment on how much it will take. This ‘lab rat’ does not know its own interests. Everyone knows better than it. This is certainly a superior attitude with the clear risk it becomes a supremacist attitude.
Northern Ireland rejected majoritarianism as a workable system. Its mirror image of minoritarianism is equally unworkable. Condescension or worse dismissal of Unionism is not a methodology for building productive or sustainable relationships. Unionism and Unionists have interests and needs that they can identify, wish to legitimately pursue and satisfy. Northern Ireland works best when both political communities buy in not just one. The disturbing thing is such basics need both to be repeated and more importantly accepted.