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.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty