Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

So do we have yet another political crisis in the North of Ireland, with the failure of talks between the DUP and Sinn Fein to bring back the Stormont Executive?  No one is really calling it a crisis since things remain as they were, and we simply have the now default position of no devolved administration.  And neither is it exactly causing panic in the streets.  So is there really nothing new then?

Well, yes and no.

Yes, the failure of the ‘peace process’ to process us some peace is not new.  From the start it has been sold on the lie that it brought an end to political violence, asking everyone to ignore and forget that the ceasefires happened before the sectarian deal, and that political violence remains, although at a much reduced level.  However the claim remains a vital illusion, since opposition to the process from any progressive standpoint must be painted as anti-peace.

The Stormont Executive has collapsed so many times I’ve lost count.  Talks between the parties have ended in failure even more times; while this latest failed agreement follows that of the ‘Fresh Start’, and the St. Andrew’s Agreement before that, which itself was supposed to sort out the problems with the Good Friday Agreement.  The Holy character of the last deal was sanctified by the forever peerless referendum that endorsed it in 1998.  It is fast becoming an imperialist version of the last all-island vote in 1918, that for some Irish republicans will forever legitimise armed struggle to impose its result against imperialist denial.

The latest crisis however reveals once again that the Good Friday solution cannot bring a settled peace or reconciliation and cannot bring an end to sectarianism.  This cannot be a surprise, since It is based on pacification by the militarily force that was most powerful; and it must hide or disguise the truth about what we have to be reconciled to, which accounts for the more and more open acknowledgement that there will never be any truthful accounting for the past.   And it cannot bring an end to sectarianism because we are asked to accept one sectarian outcome because it is claimed to be acceptable, as opposed to all the others that are not.

The claim to popular endorsement of the peace process deal is also becoming increasingly threadbare, as the reasons for the collapse of the latest talks make clear.

The local journalist Eamonn Mallie described DUP politicians dancing on the head of a pin in denying there had been a deal with Sinn Fein, one subsequently sunk by the DUP and its grassroots.  The British Broadcasting Corporation has danced on the same pin in the gyrations required to deny openly reporting that there was a deal and the DUP had killed it.  Impartiality and balance for it are the same as fairness and truth, so the good ship was sunk by the DUP was and was not sunk; it is both simultaneously dead and still breathing – everyone just needs to take a rest, and then go back to breathe new life into the stinking corpse.

But it is now widely accepted that the deal collapsed not because of the leadership of the DUP, who were willing to endorse it, but was collapsed because the rest of the DUP political class and its grass roots were opposed to it, including the unionist ‘NewsLetter’ newspaper – reflecting wider opposition to the Irish Language among the unionist population.  What sank the deal was the sectarianism expected to simultaneously deliver a settlement and also somehow be undermined by it.

The myth peddled by the media, British Government, certain politicians and by the most naïve sections of the population – that only a small minority oppose agreement – ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of people mean very different things when they say they are for an agreement.

By its very nature, how sectarianism is to be shared is not something that can ever actually be agreed. By its nature, it identifies differences that must be maintained and defended; it identifies separate interests that are mutually exclusive and antagonistic, and it compels its expression through privileges that must be continually asserted.

There is therefore no such thing as the common good.  At most it can exist as the fair division of exclusive and opposing rights based on a division that, because it does not express the deepest interests of either section of the people concerned, can never be settled in a fashion that meets either’s deepest needs. Since sectarianism cannot ultimately meet the requirements of Protestant and Catholic workers there is potentially no end to the struggle to make it otherwise.

The current extreme of false sectarian rights is the demand for equality with Irish for the non-language that is Ulster Scots, which has become a totem for Protestant rights in general, and which a lot of Protestants regard as something of a joke.  However, such claims are true to the unionist tradition, a tradition that claims to stand for civil and religious liberty but which is less about claiming rights than denying those of others.

A rational recognition of interest would produce unity and not division, a unity based on the class interests common to both Protestant and Catholic workers.  However, the structure of society, including the most powerful political forces, presents sectarian answers, even when wrapped up in non-sectarian garb. So, resources must be ‘shared’ separately on a sectarian basis and sectarian interests are not to be eradicated but respected.

This prescription approaches absurdity when individuals must be assigned a sectarian identity even when they reject it, all in the name of equality.  For employment purposes what matters is what “community background” you come from.  As the old saying goes, or rather to paraphrase, you can take a man out of the Shankill but the state will not allow you to take the Shankill out of the man – your sectarian ‘community’ background will eternally define you.

That the latest deal was sunk by sectarianism is obvious.  Opposition to a ‘stand-alone’ or separate Irish Language Act was the declared reason for unionist opposition, but the ‘justification’ given for this shows that the language is but the latest hook on which to hang sectarian hostility.

You will look in vain for any rationale why the Irish language must be opposed.  Opposition to the Act, given what appears its modest objectives, might be seen to be opposition to the language itself, but the vehement opposition that has been expressed is such that it prevents agreement on  everything else.  It can therefore only denote opposition to something other than the language.

Arlene Foster’s walk-away statement said that “I respect the Irish language and those who speak it, but in a shared society this cannot be a one-way street.”  In other words, I can’t say what is wrong with the Irish language, or an Act to give it some recognition, but I’m going to oppose it anyway.  Since the Irish language must be a sectarian attribute of the Catholic population, Protestants must get something in return, something that isn’t defined but which is needed in order to accept something which otherwise there is no reason to oppose.

The DUP’s Nelson McCausland opposes an Irish language Act because it is simply a part of republicanism’s “cultural warfare”.  So he can’t say what is offensive about the language or an Act to promote it either.  The rationale for opposing it is simply that the other side want it, and that’s not only a necessary but also a sufficient reason to oppose it.

The real opposition to an Irish language Act is best expressed by DUP MP Gregory Campbell who replaced the Irish greeting in the Assembly “go raibh maith agat, Ceann Comhairle” with the English words approximately sounding like it – “curry my yoghurt can coca coalyer”.

This of course is not an insult to the Irish language and it is not even an insult to those who speak it, it is a sectarian insult that manages to even be offensive to some not otherwise disposed to be sympathetic to Irish language rights.  While no one has the right not to be offended most recognise a deliberate offense based on bigotry when they see one.

From a socialist point of view, we are in favour of Irish language rights and the real capacity of its speakers to practice their language, and without insult or intimidation.  The key question is not that it furthers division, as some unionists hypocritically claim, but that its recognition would be an acknowledgment of what is now a minority cultural practice. In this way, a tolerance might be built up to such differences, not that these differences may be held up as the end objective in themselves, but that they become less and less important as markers or carriers of division.

The real gain would not be the bureaucratisation of the Irish language and its movement, which will not in the end help it but will place the dead hand of the capitalist state upon its shoulders, suffocating the voluntary impulses that make it so attractive to many.  Rather its free expression would help demonstrate that the language is but one facet of existence and that real freedom and human flourishing is not synonymous with language rights.  I remember listening to a young political and language rights activist, who thought the language was the most important issue and was the central element of liberation.  I would have been happy to tell him that you can be exploited and oppressed in any language.

However, responsibility for the failure to have a language Act lies more widely than with the narrow bigotry of the DUP.  The commitment to introduce one was given by the British Government, and the responsibility to ensure this commitment was delivered has rested with Sinn Fein.  That one does not exist is their failure.  Ian Paisley junior has claimed that republicans never pushed for one, and this is one unionist claim that has a bit more credibility.

Foster has now stated that there is currently no basis for a return to Stormont and both the DUP and Sinn Fein have said this round of talks are over.  For the DUP this means direct rule by Westminster in all but name.  For Sinn Fein it means that the input from the Irish Government must be increased.  Otherwise it becomes obvious that the North of Ireland remains completely under British rule, without any Irish input whatsoever, making any claims to have made progress in weakening this rule obviously hollow.

In the past socialists have dismissed nationalist claims that the Irish Government has either any separate interest or the power to enforce any separate interest on the British in relation to the North.  Brexit changes this, or rather modifies it.

The DUP have claimed they want a soft Brexit with no return to a hard border but they wanted Brexit and they want a hard border – in the same way that some Tories want Brexit in the manner of having your cake and eating it.  Unionists are very keen on an identifiable border that has real meaning, while the more intelligent understand that the conveniences of the current internal EU arrangements are important.  It’s doubtful they have any more clue about how these conflicting wishes can be accommodated than the Tory Brexit ejects now in Government.

The Irish Government however has strong reason for seeking as soft a Brexit as possible, and in this case have not only a separate interest but have potentially European Union support for this objective, as it is one that the EU shares, if not to the same degree.  For both, an arrangement whereby trade between North and South continued to be carried out under current rules would be preferable.  However, the EU can also accept strict border controls inside the island in order to defend the integrity of the Single Market in a way that the Irish State would find more damaging.

The unionist pursuit of Brexit, alongside the reactionary support for it in Britain, is a response to decline and a misguided attempt to reverse history in order to return to a past glory that has gone and is not coming back.  Like unionist intransigence and bigotry, it denotes a movement that has no other understanding of the way forward because it does not want to go forward.  It wants the past, but the past, as they say, is another country.

Unionist demands for untrammelled sectarian supremacy are not sustainable.  The Catholic population is too large, and although it is not politically active in the sense of any mass political movement, it is not completely passive and brow-beaten either.  The demands of unionism are ultimately too extreme, and if given freedom to implement them would provoke reaction.  The current impasse is the result – the British Sate cannot allow unionism the freedom to do what it wants, even while it continues to conciliate its more amenable demands.  And this is the case whether the DUP props up a Tory administration or not.

The impasse is however obviously unstable, and as nothing continues forever it is especially true that this instability will not last forever.

2 thoughts on “Sectarianism prevents sectarian agreement

  1. Was taking a look at youtube yesterday and came across video footage of Nigel Farage’s recent visit to the South of Ireland. I find it is interesting that he has chosen to begin agitating for the Brexit ideology to be transported across the Irish Sea. Given the fact that the British media, especially its anti-European press is well established in Ireland this could become a serious challenge to the Pro-EU outlook of official Irish nationalism. It seems to me that Farage merely represents the advanced guard of yet more to come, for the Brexit party of England is bound to have to extend their own credo or face isolation and maybe a British backlash. The British ruling class often speak about ‘the special relationship’ in reference to the United States of America, yet there is arguably a more important special relationship, the historical one with Ireland that is always likely to flare up again despite the best intention on all sides to suppress it. The great Brexit disengagement from the EU is bound to unsettle the most basic political routines and relationships that have been in place for some time in Ireland both north and south. For the first time in many years the practical premises of politics are up for both restatement and revision.

  2. The social and economic conditions have changed since the triumphant days of the Good Friday Accord. The British Government was in a better place in 1996/9 than it is today. It had the best diplomatic and commercial relationship with the Irish Government it ever experienced. The ballot and bullet strategy of the IRA had pretty much maxed out. And the Unionist Party was expecting to make a deal on power sharing solely with the ever compliant SDLP, Unionism was worried by the emergence of Sinn Fein as an electoral party but not expecting it to surpass the SDLP so easily. Also the first years of the Good Friday Agreement were years of prosperity and not years of austerity.

    The most dramatic change of course is Brexit. I took a punt on voting for Brexit in part because I believed a vote to leave would certainly put great strain on the conservative settlement of 1996 like nothing else in play was ever likely to do. It seems to me that behind the appearance of the political breakdown over the Irish language is the reality of a gathering national conflict of interests post Brexit. If the ‘long term interests’ of the Irish and British States are now being reset to take a divergent course, then it is all too predictable that the DUP on one side and Sinn Fein can only seek to make the most out of the new divergence. After all both political parties have already proven themselves to be masters of the forgotten principle and the broken promise.

    The primary legal devisor of the Good Friday arrangement, John Hume had been consistent in argument and rhetoric that only an Agreement between the Two Governments within the framework of the European Union held out a real prospect of burying the Irish revolution for perpetuity.

    He almost achieved a final victory on this score, but his grand conservative plan, while not yet finally lost is being sorely tested by the direction of travel of the two States. I recall the look on the face of a republican who still favoured the Good Friday Agreement when I spoke to him outside the polling station on Brexit Day when I told him I was going in to vote for Brexit, he said I should try taking some advice from a psychiatrist. My reply was ‘well all of us Marxists are thought mentally unhinged in one way or other by bourgeois standards’

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