Essay: Northern Ireland Revisited (Irish Studies)

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Review of “Northern Ireland – The Reluctant Peace” by Feargal Cochrane.

Every responsible citizen interested in peace in contemporary global affairs must be compelled to study the peace process in Northern Ireland, especially in the light of the many conflicts tormenting the international scene today. Just to mention a few: the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Syrian Civil War, the conflict in Ukraine and many others. Also in Northern Ireland, a lot of hard work still needs to be done in order to achieve lasting peace. We still find ongoing and serious tensions, yet it is of course a much better place now. Most of the violence is gone but the Ulster region still has to fight economic inequality, sectarian aggression and disagreements.

The peace process in Northern Ireland is both a great achievement and partly a failure – and one should therefore ask oneself: are there any important insights that politicians and opinion makers – in Great Britain and outside the country – could gain from examining the peace process in the light of contemporary conflicts? There certainly are. Especially if one looks at the background of the conflict, the peace process and how the different ethnic, cultural, and national groups still strive to find a common ground after many years of conflict. How did nationalists and unionists come together? What are the inherent problems to sectarianism today? This is what professor Feargal Cochrane brilliantly investigates in his most recent monograph Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace.

For those familiar with the field, Dr Feargal Cochrane is a renowned scholar and a professor of International Conflict Analysis and a Director of the Conflict Analysis Research Centre at the University of Kent. He has undertaken an outstanding research in the field of conflict transformation and political violence and published widely within the field of diaspora communities. His latest study Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace deals in particular with the origin of the conflict and with the peace process in Northern Ireland.

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Feargal Cochrane’s monograph is basically divided into three parts. The first part explains the historical roots of the conflict and how the Troubles developed until the 1990s. The next and most substantial part accounts for the Good Friday Agreement and the consequences of it. Finally, the last part explains the contemporary situation in Northern Ireland in the light of the history and the Good Friday Agreement and what has to be done in the future.

In the first part of the monograph, Feargal Cochrane explains the Northern Irish conflict in a historical perspective. In addition, the historical narrative of Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace includes Cochrane’s first-hand knowledge of the conflict and the peace process from the 1970s to the present. He is admirably open about his Catholic upbringing, although it does influence his view on the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland: ‘I grew up in East Belfast during the 1970s and, as a young Catholic living in a predominantly Protestant area of the city, my childhood memories are laced with incidents of sectarian conflict.’ This quote expresses Feargal Cochrane’s mixed view on the conflict in Northern Ireland in a nutshell. He has a Catholic upbringing, yet he grew up in a Protestant neighbourhood and paid special attention to sectarianism – and this is also what he does in Northern Ireland: A Reluctant Peace. He reveals his own standpoint; however, this does not disqualify him. Rather, by revealing his own background, he appears more unbiased. As a reader, you know his basis, and, as it turns out, professor Feargal Cochrane is not a categorical Catholic/Irish/republican/ nationalist. Cochrane is clear-sighted and has a stern eye for the ambivalence of the different interpretations of the conflict of Northern Ireland and the solutions to it.

It is Feargal Cochrane’s intention to make us learn from history, as he says ‘unless the current political generation understands and learns from this history (and specifically makes a meaningful connection between the formal political system and the people) then it may be doomed to repeat its troubled past in the years ahead.’ Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace is basically a defence of the value of historical interpretation of current conflicts in society. The point is that we cannot really understand and make transformations in society without looking at their qualitative and historical significance.

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According to Feargal Cochrane, the original and underlying historical cause of the conflict in Northern Ireland was the economic inequality caused by the arrival of Scottish and English settlers in the 1600s. The economic and technological developments changed the cultural identity and traditions of the people living in Ireland, especially for the Gaelic Catholics already living there. The changes of the economic basis established two conflicting identities, i.e. Catholics versus Protestants, with their corresponding attributive binary identities: nationalists versus unionists and Irish versus Anglo-Irish.

Later economic roots of the conflict in Northern Ireland are many – and Feargal Cochrane has a rich variety of sources at his disposal. Feargal Cochrane devotes special attention to historical events such as the Irish Potato Famine (1845-49), when the conflict between the Irish and the British had one of its most significant outbursts for economic reasons, as he says: ‘a disinterested British government […] was more concerned about economic policy than the plight of starving peasants in Ireland.’ Of course, the passivity and reluctance of the British, enhanced the emergence of the nationalist/republican sectarian groups in Ireland in the 1800s and 1900s, as for example the Fenians and the Irish Republican Brotherhood. It was against the background of the struggle for home rule in Ireland that Northern Ireland later ‘was hammered into existence,’ as Feargal Cochrane states. While nationalists were fighting for home rule in Ireland, unionists in Ulster were opposed to the policy of home rule mainly ‘on economic grounds, as they felt that the industrialized northern counties of Ulster would end up subsidizing and being dragged down by the agricultural South.’

After Northern Ireland became a separated legal entity in 1921, the situation worsened because of political dysfunction of the unionist dominated government and the frustration of the nationalist community. The nationalists/Catholics were offered a second rate position in society with less access to housing and public jobs with unemployment and bad housing as a consequence. The Troubles in the 1960s really began as a Civil Rights Movement because of the terrible political and economic conditions of the nationalist community in Northern Ireland. The struggle against discrimination of the Catholics was a part of the general movement on the international scene that found its counterpart in the US where African-Americans were fighting a similar fight – and as such a product of the zeitgeist. Many from the nationalist side even believed, says Feargal Cochrane, that ‘the protests were about achieving a degree of fairness within the political system’ in the beginning of the 1970s.

Yet everything went wrong in 1972. This was mainly due to one outstanding event such as the Bloody Sunday disaster. Again, Feargal Cochrane concludes that ‘the slow and reluctant re-entry of Northern Ireland onto the domestic agenda of British politics in the wake of the rising levels of sectarian violence and destruction in the region,’ and ‘the complete lack of understanding or empathy’ by the British, was the main reason why the conflict escalated after Bloody Sunday and ended in direct rule from Westminster and continuing Troubles for almost three decades. Today many nationalists have accepted the apology from PM David Cameron for the Bloody Sunday disaster. On the basis of Lord Saville’s 5,000–page report on Bloody Sunday from 2010, Cochrane concludes that nationalists are ‘allowed to move on’ because the Saville-report laid the responsibility ‘squarely at the door of the British army.’

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In his monograph, Feargal Cochrane justifiably devotes special attention to the Good Friday Agreement (1998). According to Feargal Cochrane, there were many reasons why it came into existence. The interference from outside by the US was a major advantage for the process to move forward. That president Bill Clinton made peace in Northern Ireland one of his political goals in his foreign affairs policy was a great benefit for the negotiations between the Irish nationalists (Sinn Fein and SDLP), unionists (UUP, UKUP, UDP/PUP and DUP) and the British government with two PMs taking an active part in negotiations, first John Major and later Tony Blair, who finally settled the Agreement.

One of the key points in Feargal Cochrane’s analysis of the GFA is, however, that it was written as ‘a constructive ambiguity.’ It was also – says Feargal Cochrane – ‘the lowest common denominator.’ The principle of consent was the main political idea behind the Agreement – nothing could be changed without the consent of the majority. And the question of the decommissioning of the IRA was the bone of contention. On the unionist side, it was an ultimate demand that the IRA was decommissioning before they could settle a common government built on the theory of reconciliation with power divided between the conflicting parties. It was especially with regard to decommissioning that the GFA was ambiguous, yet ambiguity was the only way to obtain peace between the opposing parts.

This ambiguity also explains why some unionists – most of them supporters of Ian Paisley’s DUP – voted ‘no’ in the referendum on the GFA. What really helped the referendum become a victory for the “yes”-voters, was the terror bombing in Omagh town by the Real IRA just before the referendum in 1998. Twenty-one were killed and more than 200 people injured. This bombing changed the attitude of the nationalists, which meant that an overwhelming part of the nationalists voted ‘yes’ to the Agreement. Tony Blair’s account of the peace process in Northern Ireland in his autobiography A Journey (2010) is in accordance with Feargal Cochrane. Although, as the responsible politician, he puts remarkably more emphasis on pure luck in the whole process: ‘The fascinating thing about the Good Friday Agreement is that the way it came about was far more by accident than design.’ The advantage of Cochrane’s description is, however, that he is much closer to the feelings and reactions of the people to the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process in general. Though, of course, he was never a part of headquarters during the negotiations in Belfast.

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Later the Good Friday Agreement showed numerous disadvantages, according to Feargal Cochrane. The Agreement was not able to mediate the conflicting interpretations of the principles of peace in the future. As Feargal Cochrane states: ‘This goes back, of course, to the constructive ambiguity that underlies the whole peace process and to the fact that the political elites themselves have taken different meanings from the GFA.’ As it turned out, the Agreement really did not do away with the paramilitary violence and it only partly improved relations in the community. The Agreement had some fine goals and ideals but it did not describe sufficiently how those goals and ideals could be achieved and by what means. Instead, according to professor Feargal Cochrane, the real breakthrough came in 2007 with Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) finally being ready to go into a devolved government with Sinn Fein. Devolvement of power from Westminster (which was originally also a part of the GFA) and the DUP joining the government delivered political stability during 2007-11.

However, in order to finally settle peace in Northern Ireland, the policy makers still have to take into account the deeply sectarian nature of Northern Irish social behaviour today, if you are to believe Feargal Cochrane. This is the real problem and challenge of the GFA even today and in the future: the civic-founded Agreement cannot easily do away with the inherent ethnic-nationalism defined through persisting structures of the old violent sectarianism.

The last chapter of Feargal Cochrane’s research is devoted to the near future, which is unusual for a history. Feargal Cochrane’s main point is: If actual peace has to succeed, Northern Ireland still has to deal with sectarian violence, this might not be that political or religious any longer, yet it is still a violent element in people’s neighbourhoods, as Cochrane says: ‘Sectarianism is finding new forms, these are structurally embedded as those that led to the outbreak of violent conflict in 1969.’ The solution to the problems with sectarianism lies in dealing with the structures themselves, their historical embeddedness and the power relations that seem to persist as psychosocial patterns and as group behaviour.

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Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace deals widely with the problem of nationalities and nationalism in Northern Ireland and the relation to religion in a historical perspective. It is safe to say that religion did play a key role in the division of the powerful majority and relatively powerless minority in Northern Ireland. This division intermingled with the political and cultural identity of the inhabitants of Northern Ireland. It is Cochrane’s point that religion may have defined the identity on both sides of the conflict, yet religion did not create the division in Northern Ireland from the beginning. Instead, Cochrane interprets the division in Northern Ireland as an ethno-nationalist conflict that was not ethnic in the beginning but became ethnic in the course of time. This is an interesting point because it suggests that many of the ethnic- nationalist conflicts in the world that we deal with today might not be ethnic in their origin; rather, they may have another explanation – an economic explanation typically. This is also Cochrane’s point that the religious divide between Catholics and Protestants is based on a more basic economic inequality between Protestant/British/ unionists and the Catholic/Irish/nationalists.

One can understand Feargal Cochrane in the light of fairly recent theory of nationalism of the late modernist paradigm. He has a ‘constructionist’ approach to the conflict in Northern Ireland according to which the different sectarian groups ‘construct’, ‘invent’ or ‘imagine’ their opposing nationalistic or unionist characteristics. He also seems influenced by approaches established in well-known theories on nationalism by for example the late historian Eric Hobsbawn. In his study Nation and Nationalism Since 1780, Hobsbawn argued that nationalism and nations must be analysed on the background of their technological, administrative and economic circumstances.

The main political tensions in Northern Ireland are explained via reference to underlying economic circumstances. Cochrane reveals an interest in sectarian ‘superstructure’ in order to uncover an underlying ‘reality’. In other words, the political tensions cannot be understood without an interest in the economic and everyday problems of ordinary people. The informal political process is more significant than the formal political process in the substantial change of Northern Ireland. Furthermore, Cochrane also elaborates on Hobsbawn’s thesis that cultural traditions, which appear old, sometimes are often quite recent in their origin, and sometimes even invented later than often believed. The religious conflict in Northern Ireland may on the surface be a conflict between Catholics and Protestants but this divide is a construction that emerged later in history. The religious identities grew into sectarian groups especially during the 1960s and later, and they were constructed through antagonistic symbolic social factors or opposing imagined communities. Community sectarianism developed and “created self-fulfilling prophesies of mistrust,” according to Feargal Cochrane. 

The Troubles in Northern Ireland are, in Cochrane’s conclusion, a continuation of socio-economic inequalities in Ireland in the past developing into sectarian and antagonistic groups, especially intensified in the 1960s with both nationalistic and religious aspects. Today, sectarianism has developed into vigilant social formations with their own code of conduct, very similar to the gangsterism and criminal societies known elsewhere in troubled regions. These structures are then maintaining the power relations and economic advantages of those who benefitted from the sectarian behaviour originally during the Troubles.

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Without doubt, Northern Ireland: A Reluctant Peace is well structured and coherent in its argumentation – but one could question if Feargal Cochrane is broad enough in his approach and analysis. He could have used more cross-disciplinary and multiparadigmatic approaches, in particular in the last part of the monograph where he deals with the contemporary situation and future challenges of Northern Ireland. Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace could have benefitted from combining the historic approach with the theories by for example the American sociologist, Roger Brubaker on nationalism and ethnicity. It is Brubaker’s main point that in an analysis of nationalism, ethnicity and race, one should use a wide range of disciplinary fields, including sociology, anthropology, political theory, psychology, economy etc. Feargal Cochrane could have developed his conclusion further from the cross-fertilization of the different disciplinary fields. Statistics, qualitative methods and political science theory used in for example Northern Ireland After The Good Friday Agreement (2002) by Mike Morrissey and Marie Smyth would have been a valuable support for Cochrane’s analysis of the sectarian groups. It would also have been an advantage for Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace if on a wider scale it had involved a discussion of the different unionist interpretations of the current situation in Northern Ireland, although that is not Feargal Cochrane’s purpose in the first place.      

However, one could find an interesting moderate unionist approach to Northern Ireland in Dr Arthur Aughey’s brilliant yet strange deconstructionist study The Politics of Northern Ireland – Beyond the Belfast Agreement from 2005.  Dr Arthur Aughey, who is a professor of Politics at the University of Ulster, is also known for being a non-fundamentalist, yet committed unionist. He is an official member of the Cardogan Group, who has an indirect moderate unionist standpoint and at the same time critical of British government politics. In that way, Arthur Aughey’s view on the peace process in Northern Ireland is a perfect match for Feargal Cochrane because of their different origins – Yet do they actually disagree?

It shines through Arthur Aughey’s book The Politics of Northern Ireland that he is also critical of the GFA. He analyses the Northern Irish conflict from an anti-whiggish standpoint. As Cochrane, Aughey also describes how both the unionists and republicans are mutually distrustful towards each other. Sectarianism is also in his view the great problem yet to be resolved in Northern Irish politics and he highlights the distrustful behaviour of especially the republicans. The GFA did create mutual suspicion because of its ambiguity, which in turn led to different interpretations and therefore became the cause of disagreement between the opposing parts.

It is interesting and fascinating how similar Dr Arthur Aughey and Dr Feargal Cochrane actually are in their interpretations and conclusions on the peace process in Northern Ireland, even though they often represent diametrically opposite standpoints. Both emphasise the mutual sectarian mistrust between the social groups in Northern Ireland, and they highlight the advantages and drawbacks of the GFA. Cochrane, however, is more positive towards the ‘constructive ambiguity’, mainly because it was necessary in order to allure the different parts into a peace agreement. Nevertheless, both agree on the verdict that the following peace process was restricted because of the ambiguity of the GFA.

In comparison to Aughey’s, Feargal Cochrane’s monograph has a major advantage because it is current and up to date. Recent events and the full description and historical interpretation of the Northern Irish conflict and peace process are included in his explanation – and therefore the Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace is the right place to go, if you are interested in a peace process in general and that of Northern Ireland in particular. In addition, Feargal Cochrane’s monograph is more than just historical explanation of the Troubles – it also gives guidance to policy makers about what to do in the future in order to establish actual peace in Northern Ireland. This is really the outstanding contribution of Cochrane’s work: that history is applied in order to create actual suggestions for improvement of the peace process in Northern Ireland, although the monograph could have gained in strength by the insights from other disciplinary fields.

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So what can we learn about peace processes from Faergal Cochrane’s explanation? A peace process is a difficult task to control. Although every conflict has its particular characteristics, there are social and structural factors you should always take into consideration: Always make changes in a society as close as possible to the populations considered. Focus on a solution to sectarianism interpreted as structures founded on economic and social inequality. Sectarianism as a historical structure and pattern of power relations can easily survive the breakdown of the adherent ideology and develop into vigilant ghettoes. Also, a responsible government for a province should never act with indifference and without empathy towards that province, rather it should seek gradual devolvement without forgetting its responsibilities. In formulating a peace agreement, it might be an advantage or even necessary to formulate the common goals ambiguously, while that might also give major drawbacks later on in the peace process. Cochrane’s monograph is a useful historical analysis of the Troubles from a fair and moderate Catholic/republican viewpoint. Northern Ireland: The Reluctant Peace explains, from a self-conscious historiographic basis, the historical mechanisms of conflict in Northern Ireland and what lead to the GFA in 1998. It also describes the continuous struggle for actual peace in contemporary politics in Northern Ireland – It is a clear point that peace is still not entirely settled in Northern Ireland – although Northern Ireland is much closer to actual peace. Furthermore, Feargal Cochrane gives an outline of what has to be done in Northern Ireland in order to obtain actual peace, both politically and between the sectarian groups. The Good Friday Agreement was and is still a reluctant success, however, there is light at the end of the tunnel.

Northern Ireland: A Reluctant Peace by Feargal Cochrane Yale University Press, 351 pp, £25.00, April 2013, ISBN 978 0 300 17870 8

 

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