For Northern Ireland: Parity of esteem and reconciliation
by Allan LEONARD
1 August 2019
As part of the 31st annual Féile festival, Jim Gibney (a member of the Féile Debates and Discussions Committee) welcomed the audience of a couple dozen attendees of a panel discussion on what parity of esteem, reconciliation, and mutual respect means from those who are pro-Union. The panellists were Professor Peter Shirlow (Institute of Irish Studies, University of Liverpool), Dr James Wilson (Initiative for Civic Space), Alison Grundle (Initiative for Civic Space), and Terry Wright (a civic unionist commentator).
After a humorous anecdote involving knowledge of cricket, Prof. Shirlow made a serious point that the identities we were born into on this island have generally remained committed to constitutional lineage. He quoted the philosopher, Alan Watts:
“We seldom realise, for example, that most private thoughts and emotions are not actually our own. For we think in terms of languages and images which we did not invent, but which were given to us…”
Shirlow argued that while identity is emotional, cognitive, and evidential, it can be shaped and encouraged to be more progressive and accountable. Likewise, identities can be benign, but when challenged they can become assertive.
He said that identities are both binary and non-binary, and the failure to appreciate both perspectives undermines the peace process and reconciliation. Shirlow cited binary examples of constitutional preference as well as that the majority of those who do not state a religion in the census come from Protestant backgrounds, and that the unionist community is more pro-choice. Non-binary examples were mutual community levels of support for restoring the Northern Ireland Assembly, enacting marriage equality, and endorsing mixed marriages and integrated education.
Shirlow’s second point was to implore an appreciation of the “wealth of values”, with reference to the poet Aberjhani:
“Diversity is an aspect of human existence that cannot be eradicated by terrorism or war of self-consuming hatred. It can only be conquered by recognizing and claiming the wealth of values it represents for all.”
Shirlow said that despite the growth in mixed marriages, more inter-community socialising and friendship, declines in workplace segregation, and the thousands of inter-community projects, “We are still caught by those who wish to promote stereotypical views of self and other.” He quoted Ricoeur:
“[We] can neither get rid of myth nor take it at its face value. Myth will always be with us, but we must always approach it critically.”
Shirlow then made a call to action: “There is a requirement to direct opposition to myth, as it aims to both subvert and hold power. We cannot facilitate hearts and minds unless the challenge to myth is an urgent task for all.”
For him, the myth busting came from a fellow member of his community. Shirlow learned as a teenager that sectarian stories about Catholics weren’t true, that it was not right to judge the “other”, and that getting to know the other brought about further realisation about “the power and folly of sectarian myth”.
Shirlow provided examples of the under-representation of radicalism within the Protestant community: between 1949 and 1970, Northern Ireland had more strikes and lockouts than any Western European country; hundreds of members of the Community Party worked in the shipyards and at Shorts; many Protestant women helped pioneer contraception and reproductive rights; and a Unionist took the Northern Ireland Government to court over the age of consent for homosexuals. Also, he added, unionists today remain committed to environmentalism, LGBT rights, and feminism.
Shirlow’s third point was his support for both an Irish Language Act and respect for Ulster-Scots. He said that Irish place names and related forms of culture belong to us all:
“But I like most in this room use Ulster-Scots words. The number of times I have heard people lampoon and ridicule Ulster-Scots as they say ‘aye’, ‘wee’, ‘whist’, ‘afeared’, ‘he wouldnee be fit tae’, etc., is puzzling to me. Both are part of who and what we are.”
He added that it was highly relevant that many of the tunes played within the Orange tradition are Irish traditional forms: “The hybridity of culture has to be up-played as opposed to centuries of attempted downplaying.”
Shirlow’s fourth point was in regards to culture, whether it be a superiority or inferiority complex by either community. Citing examples of Protestant cultural icons past (Ruby Murray, George Best, Alex Higgins) and present (Van Morrison, Snow Patrol, Glenn Patterson, Colin Bateman, Gary Mitchell), the Protestant/Unionist/Loyalist (PUL) community is “replete with artistic heritage … The issue is not their background … but how they and their equivalent would prefer to be understood as broad cultural contributors. The trick of such cultural ability is obvious; it both enriches and upholds inter-community consumption.”
“More importantly, do people seriously think the PUL community does not produce poets, playwrights, surgeons, architects, athletes and all other forms?” Shirlow asked.
He said that if republicans want a new Ireland, then they need to appreciate capacity and diversity within the PUL community; likewise, if political unionism wants to maintain Northern Ireland, then it has to locate great inter-community consent.
Shirlow stated that the pursuit of all those supportive of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement is to challenge the sectarians and doom mongers:
“They tell us that sectarianism is worse than it is, they push every negative event, tweet, and social media comment into their knee-jerking world, and they even, at times, get public funding to tell us that their culture is wonderfully isolated.”
He added that to ignore the facts of greater inter-community partnership and projects is like maintaining a cognitive dissonance that swims against the positive tide. Or as he put it another way, the opening up of opportunities to interact across the sectarian divide has shifted many to a more positive place, but for “the guardians of identity, misery and desolation must remained fixated upon a selective past and an attempted selective present”:
“We must never forget that the guardians of identity misery are its entrepreneurs who more than others seem to only adore yesterday at the cost of the freedom of tomorrow. Their position is that of the static, whereas the leadership within thousands of inter-community projects that have appeared and sustained themselves is for motion, imagination, and re-casting. Such positive leadership is to do with the removal of the pernicious drip. It is for debate and evidence-based conversation. Not for polemic and uncompromising politics.”
At several times, Shirlow was critical of the role of traditional media: “The sectarian wheel that squeaks the most gets too much media oil.” For example, he said that the New Gate Festival that grew out of the Londonderry Bands Forum, as well as the East Side Festival (which takes place in east Belfast), and even this Féile festival, will not receive the media attention that they deserve. Shirlow asked why are we not collectively identifying and placing positive work into the public sphere to encourage or even demand media attention. He described not promoting positive experiences as “plainly obdurate”.
Shirlow implored political leadership to promote cultural values, irrespective of source, as a societal asset. He argued that this could be an opportunity to advance conflict transformation, not to change anyone’s identities but as a recognition for cultures to be practised through the assertion of their value.
For the sake of institutionally framing the concept of parity of esteem and mutual respect, Shirlow argued that we need the governance of Northern Ireland to accept that:
- Culture has an instrumental value; it drives creative economies, has health and emotional benefits, provides disadvantaged communities with a sense of purpose, and creates inter-generational benefit;
- Culture has an institutional value; it brings benefits for the public, promotes the ethos of public service, and it is vital for trust between citizens and the state via the promotion of mutual respect and parity of esteem
Shirlow remarked that the generation that has grown up post-Agreement is increasingly “on the same page”, but not on constitutional preferences: “They epitomise what the removal of violence can achieve. Understanding that helps ameliorate the power of those who wish for cultural rigidity.”
Shirlow finished with a call for all to celebrate both cultural hybridity and constitutional difference: “Let us work the Agreement properly and make parity of esteem and mutual respect a cornerstone of your and my constitutional preference.”
* * *
James Wilson began his talk with a reflection on the book, Hillbilly Elegy, where the author, J.D. Vance, writes about his experiences that lead him to expand his world view while still emphasising with his ethnic roots:
“I identify with the millions of Scotch-Irish descent who have no college degree. To these folks, educational underachievement/poverty is a family tradition … Americans call them hill billies, red necks, and white trash. I call them my neighbours, friends, old comrades, and family.”
Wilson replied, “I totally get that.” He spoke about the Protestant community living down to negative stereotypes and parodies:
“Loyalist culture is not being attacked so much as it is being demonised and killed off by those ceasefire volunteers who would claim to be its loyal defenders; instead they succeed in feeding the caricature.”
And where do these caricatures come from? Wilson cited one source, a statement from an IRA spokesperson in 1983: “Many loyalists have a supremacist mentality like the Afrikaaners in South Africa, the Pied Noirs in Algeria, or the Israelis.” Wilson replied that this was the old Gael versus Planter myth, of the ancient struggle of the Irish people against the “Saxon heretic Huns” who came from Scotland in the 1600s and took their land.
But the Gael versus Planter myth is dangerous, as it casts Protestants as an alien race, Wilson explained with a genetic genealogy with Ukrainian origins, a thousand years before Celtic la Te’ne culture arrived: “There is more evidence of Finn McCool’s construction of the Giant’s Causeway than for the Sons of Mil legend of the Gaels as a people group.”
Wilson said that 19th century Irish nationalism abandoned Presbyterian republican principles, replaced with a “faith and fatherland” nationalism, which meant that Protestants, as “Planters”, were excluded from the sense of imagined community of an Irish, Gaelic nation. He cited evidence of 39% of the Protestant population in Northern Ireland calling themselves “British” in 1968; by 1989 that had increased to 68%: “The IRA campaign that was supposed to be driving the Brits out had the reverse effect of instilling a sense of Britishness in the hearts and minds of Protestants. That’s a statistic of the Troubles you won’t hear on a black taxi trauma tour.”
Wilson implored contemporary Irish republicans to jettison “antiquated Hibernian nationalism” and reclaimed the republicanism of 1798:
“Remember that republicanism is a civic ideology — res publica/all of the people — not just those who recite the Rosary or speak Gaelic. True unity … is about uniting people, not simply claiming the fourth green field and reducing the Protestant population to the status of domestic farm livestock.”
Wilson cited a recent article by Allison Morris, who pointed out that no actual work has actually been done to flesh out what the island of Ireland will look like after any unification. Wilson underlined this by saying, “There is not one scrap of evidence that Protestants will be shown respect in a united Ireland. It is just naively simple to imagine that Irish unity, without reconciliation, will overnight result in a peaceful, united society.”
He also quoted David Ervine, who at the time told Sinn Fein leadership that loyalists were going nowhere without them, and they were going nowhere without loyalists. Wilson sees this as part of a vision for civic space, to build a society based on citizenship that is blind to race, creed colour, gender, or political orientation, and to demonstrate parity of esteem and mutual respect. This civic space would be for the restoration of a cornerstone of an evolving post-confict society — “the reinstitutionalisation of reconciliation” — to re-evaluate and disconfirm old assumptions, and to acknowledge “that there is so much more to the PUL community than bonfires, banners, and big drums”.
Wilson finished with an invitation:
“We need to move into a civic space that can make these habitual responses, values, and even identities anachronistic. We don’t need constitutional change to do this. We can start today. The joint first step — in uniting Ireland or maintaining the Union — is to create a space for reconciliation. Will you join us — Protestants, Catholics, Dissenters, atheists, and that wee family just off the Ryanair flight from Eastern Europe — in creating civic space?”
“Slan’ go foill — See you there!”
* * *
Alison Grundle began by saying that she was late to the party of identity politics, and that she remains uncomfortable describing herself as a unionist: “All of my life, I have rejected the stereotyped unionist — the flag-waving, bigoted, Orange-marching, intolerant, regressive unionist.” She proceeded with a personal story.
Grundle described her family background, where her parents were a mixed marriage. Her mother was a “Dublin Catholic” and her father was a northern Protestant. They met in Canada in the 1950s, both as economic migrants. As Grundle was born in England, she said that she has no birthright to call herself British, Irish, or both, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, but has two passports courtesy of her parents. Growing up in Coleraine, Grundle said that her mother revealed her Dublin accent everytime she spoke, but the family assimilated well: “I wasn’t called a Fenian bitch until 1985 and the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.”
She said that her family had a big dinner three times a year — Christmas, Easter, and the 12th of July — but her home wasn’t where she lived but in Dublin, with “hordes of uncles and aunties and cousins who drank pop instead of lemonade and had rashers instead of bacon … And late at night when all us kids were supposed to be in bed and asleep, they sang rebel songs and we learned all the words”.
Grundle said that she vaguely remembered civil rights being discussed in her political household, but living in Coleraine made the conflict feel like it took place somewhere else: “Derry was 27 miles up the road, but it was another planet.”
Her first politicising event was the three-day working week, when Ted Heath went on TV to tell the nation to minimise the use of electricity: “My mother told us to go and wash our hair and put the hairdryer on and turn on every light in the house.”
Grundle’s second politicising event was the hunger strike: “To this day, I have never gotten over my shock that the Government let those men die.”
Her third politicising event was the miners’ strike: “You can see a theme here with Tory Governments.” Grundle explained that her parents were unionists as well as trade unionists: “They recognised that working-class people always bore the brunt of any struggle.”
She described her mother’s political unionism as based on an escape of life of poverty in Dublin, and that one of her mother’s sisters moved to England to avail of the NHS, because she couldn’t afford treatment for the health condition of her children. Grundle described her father’s political unionism, based on his father and uncle signing the Ulster Covenant and wearing their Orange sashes when they went over the top in Flanders during the First World War. At the age of 91, Grundle’s father proudly proclaims himself an Irishman.
Yet Brexit has brought the debate of identity to the fore, for Grundle and others. She now describes herself as an internationalist, “partly as a reaction to living in a contested space and partly because I think it’s bonkers to do anything otherwise, when we look at climate change and global forces in the world today”.
If there was a border poll today, Grundle would vote for the Union, because for her she doesn’t see her politics represented in Ireland: “I see a Tory party in power propped up by another Tory party … A Tory party is a Tory party, whether it’s red, white, and blue, or green, or any other hue.”
Living in London at the time, she explained how she wasn’t in Northern Ireland during the peace process. But upon returning, Grundle said that one thing that hadn’t changed since she left was that people still weren’t talking about improving the economy:
“Improving the economy is the route to everything else … When I hear conversations taking place about what a new Ireland would look like, or defending the Union, I never hear anybody mentioning how we would actually build an economy here that would deliver for our children or grandchildren.”
* * *
Terry Wright began by contextualising his remarks with a statement that he did not equate Protestantism solely within unionism or Britishness, and cited the 2015 publication, The Contested Identities of Ulster Protestants. For him, “unionism is a multi-layered and dynamic social construct expressed as cultural, political, and identity fluidity … and self-segregating circumstances wherein the not yet born will be trapped and wherein we choose to nurture our children”. Wright added:
“To attempt to identify a common denominator on the spectrum is to risk stereotyping, and I contend the sash-wearing, bowler-hatted, Rangers-supporting, ‘Our Wee Country’ caricature that has survived from Jimmy Young to ‘Give My Head Peace’ is by now a bit tired, and in regards to that cohort in the age range of 18-40, patently inaccurate and wrong.”
Wright echoed Enda Longley’s view of the pro-Union constituency in Northern Ireland as a broad church, “when in full voice, they tended to produce a sometimes competing cacophony of sound rather than deep harmony”.
Yet he reminded the audience that some unionists have played a significant role in the peace process; it has not just been down to Nationalists and Republicans: “That is a thought that needs to be decommissioned.”
Wright highlighted the work of the Londonderry Bands Forum and the North West Cultural Partnership, committed to reconciliation and a shared future “and not blind to the past and current failings of political unionism”.
He said that many unionists see current policies and decision making as counter-productive: “The skewed notion that any progress on social justice is a Trojan Horse reveals a deficit in progressive and strategic thinking. If you do not build and live behind fortress walls, you do not have to worry about Trojan Horses.”
Wright commented on the language and public utterances of some unionist representatives, offensive to both pro-Union voters and political opponents: “It feeds the binary sectarianism and prejudices … and evidences the intellectual reductionism of lazy, Lambeg-drum politics. It maroons pro-Union politics in a less than perfect past.”
He said that while some unionists may not like the idea of an Irish Language Act, that did not mean that genuine language enthusiasts do not have a right to it: “Freedom and rights for a chosen few is no rights at all. Where is the justification for a political ideology wanting to extend its domination into the realms of culture and ideas?” Wright added that as the wider community is displaying, connecting, and engaging with Gaelic culture and language, it is not incompatible with a strong commitment to the Union, and can be a positive reflection of modern British cultural diversity, bringing Northern Ireland into line with Scotland and Wales:
“Unionism should be promoting a creative and principled solution and not allow itself to be defined by those who want to claim that the Gaelic language is a weapon of so-called decolonisation.”
In the absence of political unionism coming together as part of a shared future, Wright said that civic unionism is finding a voice, one which embraces a mindset of inclusion, integrity, social justice, mutual respect, reconciliation, and accountability, to provide the foundation for common purposes based on shared and agreed values: “Being colour blind and denominationally unaligned, civic unionism aims to dismantle barriers and bridge gaps that limit cooperation.”
Wright argued that recent election results and demography made it clear that the maintenance of the Union is no longer solely in the gift of unionism: “It cannot, nor should it, be sustained by blind loyalty to emblems, slogans, and unchallenged assertions.”
He explained that civic unionism contends that the community must have a participative role in “moving politics off the present terrain of discarded promises and commit to ending the quiet acquiescence to political stagnation, ideological standoffs, sectarian ego conflicts, and a debilitating lack of self-reflection; democracy has to be opened up and not closed down”.
Wright also explained how civic unionism does not hold the view that for unionism to succeed, others have to fail: “Feeling no threat to communal profiles and priorities, individuals and groups work respectfully and inclusively as a supportive community with common bonds, to find mutual understanding in the midst of diversity and to secure a future better than our past.”
“This is the civic pulse of the community to which static politics seem oblivious,” said Wright.
* * *
During the question and answer session, an attendee said that he saw Northern Ireland as “a colonial construct and those who vote to maintain the Union as having a veto on the reunification of Ireland”, but instead of a cold house for Catholics, it would be a warm house for all, but within the confines of a continuing Northern Ireland; he couldn’t accept this, as he felt that partition was wrong in the first place. Peter Shirlow replied that he came to participate in today’s event to demonstrate that people who come from pro-Union backgrounds are not all bigots trying to undermine any project: “Many of us support the Belfast Agreement and if [it] transitions us into a united Ireland, [on] the first day of a united Ireland I will work for social justice and inclusion.” Terry Wright added that whether a border poll takes place in five, seven, or ten years, in the meantime we should be working together to address social and economic deprivation.
A question was asked about how to instill the value of mutual respect in any restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. Wright commented on the intra-communal point scoring that took place, between the UUP-DUP as well as SDLP-Sinn Fein. He said that there has to be some sort of civic input, looking at some models used in Ireland [including the Citizens’ Assembly]. Alison Grundle said that this wasn’t about voting: “We’re about stepping outside of the polarised politics of this place — particularly from our perspective of political unionism — and actually having conversations and debates about the things that we actually have in common.”
An attendee asked the panellists if there was anything in the back of their minds that told them that the British government might abandon them. The questioner made a comparison with the former state of Rhodesia, where he found white residents referring to themselves as “British Rhodesian”, not “African”. Shirlow replied that virtually everyone on the panel would identify themselves as Irish in some shape or form. Also, both Wilson and Shirlow cited the principle of consent as a distinguishing difference. “The British can’t abandon us,” explained Shirlow, “there has to be a vote; that’s the only way you can change the constitutional status on this island.” When the questioner came back with a statement that in 1921 “over 100,000 of my fellow countrymen and women were abandoned”, Shirlow replied, “Yeah, but we didn’t have a Good Friday Agreement.”
The question was asked whether an environment of reconciliation and a civic society would be strong enough to overcome the constitutional question. Shirlow replied that he didn’t know, but that was not a reason to not try to understand this place in a more complex way and to get to the task of reconciliation.
Shirlow wrapped up the discussion with a generational perspective. From the survey data he and colleagues have analysed, the number one issue for young people in 1997/98/99 was sectarianism. Now, sectarianism is one of the least likely things young people will say is a top issue; rather, it is drugs, health, jobs, and investment. He said that there are many ways in which the Good Friday Agreement has worked, which needs to be talked about more:
“Why are we not celebrating the fact that the Agreement has epitomised positive change? Why are we letting Nolan hog the airwaves? Why are we letting people who are culturally dysfunctional tell us what this society is? Why are we not standing up for civic society?”
Shirlow added that society is changing and that change is as much to do with pro-Union support as it is for republican support and those from neither background.
He said, “Let’s start supporting the Good Friday Agreement and let’s stop the myths about each other.” He sees challenging sectarianism as a duty for all of us, because “whether you want a united Ireland or to stay in the UK, nothing is worth either constitutional preference if there is not proper parity of esteem and mutual respect”.
“Your duty is not to get up in the morning and worry if there is a united Ireland or if we are still in the Union. Your duty is to get up in the morning and say, ‘How do I make this a better society?’, because that better society will serve your constitutional preference as much as it will serve mine,” Shirlow finished.
Originally published at Mr Ulster.
Writer & Photographer
My interest is in efforts to address ethnonational and other identity based conflicts, appreciating the power of belief and one’s adherence to particular world views. So, while it is useful to ascertain facts, realities are influenced by traditions and customs. I seek to learn and interpret this phenomenon, by making images and storytelling — documenting events and experiences of peacebuilding in Northern Ireland and beyond. There are many stories to tell.
Co-founder and editor of Shared Future News, which reports on peacebuilding in Northern Ireland. Co-founder and director of FactCheckNI, Northern Ireland’s first fact-checking service. Co-founder and secretary of FCT Belfast, a local member of the Forum for Cities in Transition, which is an international network of local government, business, and civil society representatives assisting each other with peacemaking. I also contribute to Northern Slant and Slugger O’Toole.