How “Othering” contributed to the collapse of Stormont, just when NI needs it most…

Nice piece from Cathal McManus on the problems arising from ‘othering’ in Northern Ireland politics over at Eamonn’s place, which he describes as:

…the inability of both groups to confront the processes of Othering that have helped to generate and sustain political division over long periods of time and which continue to prevent progress on outstanding issues contained within the various peace accords since 1998.

Othering is a process of identification that enables us to define who we are and to differentiate us from the Other/s.

As Anthony Marsella describesconflict can emerge from this when our differentiation process is grounded in a perception that “we” are ‘self-righteous, moral, justified, and “good” by virtue of religion, history [and] identity’ whilst the Other is deemed ‘evil, dangerous [or] threatening’.

This is reinforced by the fact that Othering is a two-way process wherein all groups in any conflict will come to see themselves as being the superior group and their Other as being lesser and threatening. In Northern Ireland, for example, the Other is always deemed the sectarian whilst “we” best represent the values of tolerance and inclusivity

Such perceptions are augmented by narrow analysis of history that depicts “our” ideological attachment to such values whilst highlighting the bigotry and sectarianism of the Other. As such, neither group will easily accept dissenting interpretations of history that might question “our” analysis or highlight complexities.

 Each group will find it difficult to accept that it may have fallen short of the ideals for which it claims to stand, or, that it may have had a role to play in creating the conditions for conflict.

These processes of Othering have been a characteristic of modern Irish and Northern Irish history and have ensured that nation-building efforts since the nineteenth century – both British and Irish – have repeatedly fallen short through an inability to incorporate the Other.

In our A Long Peace report, we tried to tackle this very problem by offering lessons from Game Theory, in particular, the iterated Prisoners Dilemma. We drew on Robert Axelrod’s Evolution of Cooperation, which considers a range of strategies for opponents reiteratively stuck together.

The Wikipedia entry notes:

…the successful strategy must not be a blind optimist. It must sometimes retaliate. An example of a non-retaliating strategy is Always Cooperate. This is a very bad choice, as “nasty” strategies will ruthlessly exploit such players.

In fact, the two more successful of NI’s parties have moved a long way by this often irritatingly slow method of co-operation. Irritatingly slow, in part because all politics involves the sort of othering of the type Cathal describes.

The trouble with our splits is that they are almost all dependent on cultural factors that discourage the sort of opt-in/opt-out dynamic we see elsewhere in the Republic, England, Scotland and (albeit more slowly) Wales. The biggest single

The biggest single movement of voters over the last few years has been towards constitutional neutrality, bringing that “parity referendum” scenario we outlined in May 2003 further into play, but posing questions to both major blocs in NI.

Cathal observes of Unionism:

An important consequence of these processes is that the fears and insecurities held in relation to the Other help to mask their own sectarianism. Any actions taken to exclude the Other is deemed purely a measure of self-defense rather than a symptom of their own sense of superiority. 

The result, of course, was the creation of an exclusive and chauvinistic Unionism that looked down upon the Irish Gaelic identity and which, ultimately, served to alienate many Catholics from the Union.

These views/fears have continued to dictate the nature of Unionism following the establishment of Northern Ireland in 1921, despite the added security of majority status. 

I might suggest that “despite the added security of the Belfast Agreement’s guarantee of powersharing”, Republicanism has fared little better:

Irish nationalism and republicanism have historically questioned the legitimacy of the British identity of Ulster Protestants; a questioning that is often manifested in the belief that Protestants are Irish, they just haven’t realized it yet. 

The failure to accept this Britishness has led to an inability to recognize how republicanism, in words and actions, has helped to reinforce unionist fears and insecurities rather than forge the inclusivity that republicanism claims to espouse.

When, therefore, republicans argue for ‘Brits Out’ or ending ‘British influence’ in Ireland, they do not fully appreciate the symbolism of this or how it is interpreted by unionists

Quite simply, it is seen as an attack on their British heritage and identity – a view reinforced by disputes over Orange Order parades and the flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall.

Slugger has seen endless debates on these matters, too many of them consumed in self-justification for both these reflexive views.  You don’t need to be a Sinn Fein supporter to appreciate the frustration growing inside its voter base at its lack of progress in government.

Something had to give, and it seems it was not simply the party’s place in government but Northern Ireland’s self-government itself: a high price to pay for ten years of an abrasive and non-permissive culture between partners at the seat of power.

Northern Ireland’s private sector is about to join (however unwillingly) the quickening of the pace of European geopolitical tensions around it. It’s not exactly a time for the lights to be on, and not a soul at home.

The governmental sterility that has arisen between two parties whose forte is to cater exclusively for 30% of the population each. The final outcome of this “othering” has been a Venn diagram with no intersection of common interests, other than holding office in perpetuity.

Even that conceit was put under pressure last May when the minor parties –  the traditional fall guys – walked away from their Ministerial salaries and sat on opposition benches. Seven months later, with the front man terminally ill, the whole thing collapsed.

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  • ted hagan

    Eamonn McCann’s piece in today’s Irish Times, on Martin McGuinness, the peace process, and the current mood in Derry, is also worth a read.

  • Jag

    Jesus Mick, that’s just unreadable.

  • mickfealty

    Bad start to the week, by the sound of it. What’s the problem with it?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    The overlaps with the ‘Prisoners’ Dilemma’ ring true of course: with both ‘sides’ being ‘locked in’ to the endless continuation of this struggle for dominance (short term goal) or release (the ultimate goal). Mutual distrust while always keeping an eye on the other, copying the other’s tactics, conforming to each other’s norms etc. mean that release, without dominance, from this becomes unfeasible.

  • Redstar

    Just read it. Excellent insight and somewhat frightening analysis

    Mc Canns intellectually way above the rest

  • ted hagan

    Last thing we needed. Goes to show May doesn’t give a toss about this place.

  • Peggy kelly

    ‘othering’ is pretty standard fare in all democracies. The very fact that competing political parties exist at all is because they are either born of earlier conflict or they sprout from very differing idealistic roots. Tories vs Labour, Republicans vs Democrats, Fine Gael (pro treaty) vs Fianna Fail (anti treaty). For the most part however, American, British and Irish societies have managed to evolve into stable cohesive democracies. The ‘other’ needs to be beaten at the ballot box rather than somehow beaten off the land.
    And therein lies the difference with the North. Looking at the DUP,UUP,SF,SDLP,Alliance etc. ; what we have in fact is a perfect choice of parties that any other state might be proud of, a diverse political culture with plenty of choice for a modern electorate. Despite this the majority of voters opt for their tribe on the basis of history, culture and personal identity. The piece above focuses on othering in the context of that age old tussle between nationalism and unionism. But we actually have another ‘other’ – the middle ground.
    Those who vote for the middle ground tend to be congratulated for having the sense and wisdom to reject those parties who are regarded as ‘sectarian’ or ‘combative’. Those voters are deemed to be more enlightened and a breed apart from their tribal neighbours cursed and misguided by history, culture and needling events.
    The North is now in a race phase. A point at which the two major political ambitions are caught in a tie break. With no ref on the field it means the game will continue to get dirty until one side eventually scores and finishes the business. The attitude of London and Dublin over recent years has been one of a hands off approach, sort it out yourself lads, don’t bother us. This approach simply can’t work on a playing field where you have two diametrically opposing teams who are out to win and where the rules are simply not obeyed or monitored in the absence of a qualified referee.
    ‘Othering’ in the Northern context is nurtured and encouraged by the two governments.

  • Nevin

    My sense of belonging and sharing comes from my family roots and is in the context of this quote from the late Ray Davey, one of the founders of Corrymeela:

    Ray: “We hope that Corrymeela will come to be known as ‘the Open Village’, open to all people of good will who are willing to meet each other, to learn from each other and work together for the good of all.” .. source

    ‘Othering’ appears to be little more than watered-down mutual apartheid and ‘shared education’, as distinct from ‘integrated education’, the elevation of religious indoctrination over education separate from a particular religious sect.

    “The biggest single movement of voters over the last few years has been towards constitutional neutrality,”

    The vote share for Alliance and the Green Party fluctuates but essentially remains under 10%. However, the narrowing of the gap between unionist and nationalist shares makes that 10% much more significant. Naomi’s blunt speaking in the style of Arlene may well have had more appeal to voters than the style of her predecessor.

    “the creation of an exclusive and chauvinistic Unionism that looked down upon the Irish Gaelic identity”

    This is reminiscent of John Hume’s “Personal Views” ie exclusive and chauvinistic Nationalism is simply ignored. Perhaps its time the opposing camps cleaned out their own stables; they could also embrace ‘rights and responsibilities’.

  • Granni Trixie

    I was surprised that Cathal McManus does not place the concept of othering in a context where ‘telling’ is a prominent feature of culture in Ni – telling being a “skill”/process developed for identifying signs which suggest someone is a Protestant or Catholic. Note that this Process goes on even where the significance of being P or C is irrelevant – say in cross community settings.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And this is also ‘othering’ as well as ‘saming’, for want of a better term. I am othered and I am also samed: adopted if you like, sometimes by one individual over the course of a conversation. First time encounters can result in a lot of confusion – oscillations in perception – experienced by my interlocutor.

  • Nevin

    Eamonn had a bit more bite in this New Left Review in April 1969 – and it was targeted at Stormont and the Dáil:

  • Skibo

    A Westminster election with Naomi Long a favourite to return as an MLA. How would this damage the centre ground in a Stormont that screams out for a major presence?

  • Nevin

    Can you elaborate, Skibo? I don’t see the connection with my post.

  • Skibo

    Nevin your note on Naomi’s blunt speaking style being more appealing to voters than her predecessor. Who will be the voice for the middle ground if Naomi returns to Westminster or would she have decided that her presence is more important to the Assembly. I would have thought that the Westminster salary and the benefits may be of more benefit to the Alliance party.

  • Nevin

    Did you intend to say ‘return as an MP’? Perhaps Brendan or Granni Trixi could indicate where Naomi’s intentions lie.

  • Barneyt

    “Protestants are Irish… they just haven’t realised it yet”

    Well….I don’t think SF are alone in that. Not only do you have many protestants who call themselves Irish and certainly Northern Irish but you also have the wider GB view. Try to tell a Britain that you are solely and unreservedly British and they will raise the issue of parallel identity. In GB they see British as the collective but preserve their true identity as the primary badge of colour, which is Scottish, Welsh And English respectively. By extension they expect the British in Ireland to foster the local identity too as they do. There’s the problem in some ways. They can ground themselves using their native tag but over here we have the rudderless British who refuse to anchor themselves to their Irishness, be it full blown or Northern. I don’t mean it offend here but this is my take from 20+ years of living in England and the message is you can be British English as well as British Irish

  • johnny lately

    “Irish nationalism and republicanism have historically questioned the legitimacy of the British identity of Ulster Protestants; a questioning that is often manifested in the belief that Protestants are Irish, they just haven’t realized it yet. ”

    All Protestants are British and none of them are Irish – What a load of ………

  • Skibo

    My mistake Nevin, yes I did. Does Naomi see her future in the Assembly or in Westminster. I would have thought if she saw a possibility of the Assembly being reformed, she may pick her MLA seat and push for the Justice ministry.

  • Nevin

    The Secretary of State has been under pressure for some time to cede further powers to local councils so we might end up with a truncated version of direct rule ie a series of cantons sort of doing their own thing – with public dosh.

  • file

    Hopefully not, Mick: ” The final outcome of this “othering” has been a Venn diagram with no intersection of common interests, other than holding office in perpetuity.”

    As in hopefully there will be no perpetuity about it and the walls will have come tumbling down long before perpetuity starts.

  • Fear Éireannach

    NI is a colonial entity, based on the promotion of “othering” to ensure those representing the imperial power did not become too close to the natives. The “othering” has now become an end in it own right for some, who have no broader policy other than to be obstructive and different.

    As NI is a political entity based on this, the only long term solution is to end NI.

  • Starviking

    The DUP have their influx of money from the Brexiteers to keep them in the game.

    Sinn Fein have their “Oirish” donors from abroad.

    Moderates? Zip.

    Time to apply strict rules on political funding to Northern Ireland, as it stands, we are letting people buy elections.

  • Nevin

    I agree with the general thrust of your post, Peggy. It suits London and Dublin to contain the virus to Northern Ireland. The other ‘other’ folk have often been the chosen few suitable enough to participate in quangos.

    You’ve overlooked the day-to-day roll of Dublin civil servants in Northern Ireland. A phone-call to the AIIC/BIIC secretariat in Belfast at one time could have been answered by a British or an Irish civil servant but in recent times only Irish civil servants appear to be in the building – or out in the streets dealing with ‘folk who are throwing things’. Those whom I’ve spoken to often move from the Belfast desk to a more congenial role – such as an Irish ambassador post. The most amusing yarn I’ve heard from one of them was about a new colleague from either the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Justice turning up in a pin-stripe suit during an ‘exchange of pleasantries’ in a housing estate – out in the jungle, north of Glengormley. I say one or the other because he used email addresses from both!

  • not sheep

    the problem with the middle ground is there well-of approach to life so let put up tax,s and this only make the poor worse of and the damage to the economy