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close this bookEthnicity and Power in the Contemporary World (UNU, 1996, 298 pages)
close this folder11. An intractable conflict? Northern Ireland: A need for pragmatism
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A tractable conflict?

Twenty-five years of failed initiatives, until the 1994 IRA cease-fires, seem to provide a strong argument that the Northern Ireland conflict is intractable. There is, however, an alternative analysis. It argues that the conflict is neither unchanging and sterile, as Churchill claimed, nor incapable of solution, as Rose implies. This analysis is based on a closer scrutiny of the same evidence, first on violence and then on political intransigence.

1. The controls on violence

Insufficient distinction is made between the terms "conflict" and "violence." The tendency to confuse them is not new. It arose around the turn of the last century from the willingness of the new discipline of sociology to regard society rather as a machine that occasionally breaks down, and sociologists as mechanics, whose role was to identify the fault and point out how it might be fixed. This is a view of society that regards conflict as dysfunctional, as evidence that something has gone wrong in the social body. This view of conflict still dominates some departments of sociology.

But there has been an alternative strain of conflict analysis, weaker but never quite defeated, represented by George Simmel in Germany almost a century ago (see Lawrence, 1976) and more recently by Lewis Coser (Coser, 1956). In this view it is as pointless to attack conflict as to attack the aging process. Conflict is neither good nor bad, but intrinsic in every social relationship from marriage to international diplomacy. Whenever two or more people are gathered, there is conflict or potential conflict. The real issue is not the existence of conflict, but how it is handled.

Reference has already been made to the tendency for ethnic violence, unless rapidly addressed, to spiral out of control. During the early 1970s many observers believed that the upsurge of violence in Northern Ireland could lead to only two outcomes: the belligerents would either be shocked into an internal accommodation, or propelled into genocidal massacre. Neither has occurred. Two decades later there is still no settlement and the level of violence, though remarkably persistent, has not intensified. On the contrary, there is evidence that violence has diminished rather than risen in intensity. It reached a peak in 1972, when 468 people died. Since then it has gradually declined to below 100 in each year since 1981 until its rise in 1991 to over 100. The ratio of civilian to military deaths has diminished, and the number who have died from direct violence between the communities has almost disappeared; in 1992 it is difficult to find any examples of the direct sectarian confrontations which had been the main form of violence in 1969 and 1970 (McGarry and O'Leary, 1990: 318-41). This is not to diminish the awful tragedy of those who have suffered. Nor is it to suggest that paramilitary violence is dwindling away and will peter out; its pattern over the last twenty years has been spasmodic and subject to sudden increases. The point is that there are mechanisms operating in Northern Ireland - social, military, and paramilitary - which conspire to keep the level of violence under control but are not strong enough to eliminate it.

Ninety years ago Simmel used a domestic analogy to illustrate the danger of assessing the seriousness of a conflict by its outward expression. He described two married couples, one a model of harmony, considerate towards each other, always in agreement; the other given to spectacular public arguments. The real picture, he pointed out, may be completely different The agreement of the first couple may be based on a realization that their marriage is fragile and threatened; they cannot afford the risk of the one final quarrel that may topple them into divorce. The second couple, on the other hand, confident in the strength of their relationship, can afford to make every disagreement exuberantly public.

The same principle of refusing to take the visible expression of conflict at face value can be applied to ethnic conflicts. Developments during the early 1990s in Eastern Europe are reminders that countries which appeared to be insulated against ethnic conflict were in fact not. Ethnic identity, like the seeds discovered in the Egyptian pyramids, can lie dormant for centuries and, given the right conditions, spring into life. The only solution that history has shown to be completely effective in removing it is genocide. If that is not socially acceptable, we must look for better ways of handling it.

There is an analogy here with the treatment of cancer. Until recently cancer was seen as a terminal condition. Now each year sees a statistically measurable improvement in the survival possibilities for cancer victims. There has been a corresponding switch in treatment. Patients are no longer prepared for death but encouraged to enjoy a normal life. Ethnic conflict should be regarded in the same way, as a permanent but not a terminal condition - one to be tackled and improved.

2 Politics in context

"The Northern Irish problem" is a term widely used both in Northern Ireland and outside it as if there were an agreed and universal understanding of what it means. Richard Rose's conclusion that "there is no solution" to the problem is correct, within his own terms. The problem lies with his terms. These regard the problem as a constitutional one, with the implication that improvement is inconceivable without political accord. It is more accurate, and more productive, to consider the issue, not as a "problem" with the implication that a solution lies around the corner for anyone ingenious enough to find it, but as a tangle of inter-related problems:

- There is a central constitutional problem: what should be the political context for the people of Northern Ireland? Integration with Britain? A united Ireland; independence?

- There is a continuing problem of social and economic inequalities, especially in the field of employment.

- There is a problem of cultural identity, relating to education, to the

Irish language, to the whole spread of cultural differences.

- There is a problem of security; people are being killed and maimed because of it. Some even think there is a problem of religious difference.

- There is certainly a problem of the day-to-day relationships between the people who live here.

All of these are elements of the problem, but none can claim dominance. Each affects the others. Any approach to change needs to take into account all elements of the problem. Educational reforms will be frustrated if they are not accompanied by the removal of fundamental inequalities in the distribution of jobs. It is foolish to seek a political settlement that does not acknowledge that each tradition has cultural expressions which are nonnegotiable to them but anathema to many of their opponents. It is ridiculous to devise security policies - peace lines; undercover operations - without trying to anticipate their effect on community relationships. To gauge progress along the single track of political negotiation - no matter how important that is rather like gauging a person's health by the condition of their kidneys. Important, yes, but any more important than bowels, liver, or heart?

A multilateral analysis suggests the need for a multilateral prescription. At certain times there is a chance of movement on some of these issues, while on others progress is impossible. In such circumstances it makes sense to adopt a pragmatic approach, with initiatives determined by opportunity and circumstances. Push where there is give. If one element of the problem seems intractable, accept it as such, at least in the short or medium term. Then get on with progress on the other elements. During the last three years there have been changes in the educational and fair employment fields which would have been unthinkable just five years ago.

The issue of cultural pluralism is firmly on the agenda: the law now requires every primary-school child in Northern Ireland to be introduced to the concepts of cultural diversity and mutual understanding. Despite the political stalemate at macro level, there has been some movement in the political undergrowth at local government level.

Eleven of Northern Ireland's 26 councils are currently operating a powersharing regime, often involving rotation of the chair, and 18 have agreed to implement a community relations programme with specific and binding requirements.

These are undramatic but significant changes, but they should not be presented as the first glimmerings of a bright future. Progress towards a more general political solution has been more disappointing. It is not easy for politicians to abandon overnight the rhetoric and suspicion nurtured over centuries and appear, phoenix-like, at peace talks, ready to draw up new plans on a clean slate. Politicians have the same prejudices and weaknesses as the rest of us. In Northern Ireland, as in the Middle East, there has been too much eagerness to regard the first meeting of the protagonists as an end rather than a start. When the first meeting takes place, it will be necessary to leave space for the exposition of old sores and the repayment of old scores. Only later can the poultices be applied.

The Downing Street Agreement between the British and Irish governments, signed in November 1993, offers for the first time the possibility of addressing the constitutional and security problems together as part of a peace package. Peacemaking, especially between conflicting ethnic groups, is a long process. Let us hope for the best. But let no one believe that, even if political talks are successful, the other elements of the problem will meekly solve themselves. I am an optimist, but I believe that an optimist is one who plans for the worst rather than expects it.


This chapter is based on a paper entitled "Intransigent Ethnic Conflicts: Prospects for Peacemaking," presented at Haverford College on 12 November 1991. I would like to record my thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation, at whose centre at Bellagio part of the work for this paper was carried out, and to the Woodrow Wilson Center for Scholars in Washington DC.


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