Troubles and strife

February 23, 1996

ETHNIC AND RACIAL STUDIES Edited by Martin Bulmer Routledge, quarterly, Pounds 30.00 (individuals), Pounds 77.00 (institutions) ISSN 0141 9870

This special issue of Ethnic and Racial Studies does not tell us whether the time is ripe for a settlement in Northern Ireland, but it does indicate what more needs to be done.

Until the London bombing of February 9 shattered the ceasefire some of the conditions required for a settlement had been reached.

First, the proponents of violent change had, with some exceptions, kept the ceasefire for about 17 months. Second, by choosing David Trimble, the Official Unionists have gained an articulate and confident leader. Third, in the Framework Document, London and Dublin promised to establish innovatory institutions that reassure and show respect for both communities. Fourth, President Clinton and other United States politicians' active part in the peace process has "corrected" the immense disparity in power between Ireland and the United Kingdom, thereby increasing the chances of reaching a balanced settlement.

Readers of this special issue published late last year, such as political scientists and sociologists, will gain valuable insight into important changes in Ireland since the start of the present troubles. Michael Gallagher's chapter on "How many nations are there in Northern Ireland?" explains why he rejects the one-nation approach of old-fashioned nationalists and views the unionist community as divided between an Ulster Protestant and a British nation. When Irish nationalists (but not Republicans) - North and South - put aside the one-nation perspective in the 1980s, they transformed the long-term prospects for peace. Recognising that the border is a matter primarily of differing community identities, they stopped blaming London for partition. Wherever the border is drawn, a very sizeable community - nationalist since 1921 but perhaps unionist in the future - will feel alienated from the state, unless it changes. Accordingly, the border cannot be removed for decades, if then, but it could become more permeable and less significant. Therefore the central shared tasks of the two governments - fellow members of the European Community/European Union since 1973 - is to manage the conflict and to reconcile the two communities. London and Dublin share a heavy responsibility of indefinite duration, reluctantly and with regular outbreaks of mutual mistrust. Each would be delighted if the burden were reduced or removed, and together they have made strenuous efforts to this end.

Along with Gallagher's chapter, other contributors offer fresh and stimulating analyses. O'Leary and McGarry, who have written extensively on Northern Ireland, identify major inadequacies in liberal approaches to the conflict, and Jennifer Todd criticises the inevitable conceptual ambiguities and fudges in the declarations and agreements of the two governments. Etain Tannam finds encouraging evidence that the EU promotes limited low-profile cooperation between nationalist and unionist politicians. (The EC/EU has been very conducive to cooperation between the two governments.) Thus both the Official Unionists and Fine Gael, the leading party in the Dublin Government, are members of the European People's Party Group.

Brendan O'Duffy's study of violence in Northern Ireland, offers the challenging analysis that until John Hume, the SDLP leader, persuaded London and Dublin to reverse themselves in 1993-94 they were quite mistaken in marginalising republican proponents of violence and supporting constitutional nationalists, because that ignored the symbiotic relationship between the two. In the past fortnight, political leaders in the two capitals and in Washington have asked themselves if Hume (and by implication O'Duffy) made the correct judgement. They decided he did, not least because they can see no other way that offers some hope, and a prospect, however elusive, of containing and further reducing the costs of the conflict.

This special issue illuminates admirably many aspects of the conflict, especially the need for new institutions, but it gives only brief attention to the sense of identity and the attitude of the growing Catholic community towards the Republic. Many decades of separation may well mean a Catholic majority would be loath to join the Republic, even one that is changing gradually. Conversely, the South would not welcome a unity that involved undertaking major new burdens.

Dan Keohane is a senior lecturer, department of international relations, Keele University.

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