Government pandering to factions in Northern Ireland holds some stark lessons for Britain, says Newton Emerson
England, oh poor innocent England. Has Northern Ireland's stupidity taught you nothing? "Sure it's only a few hundred extremists ruining it for the rest of us" was our great consoling shibboleth during the dark days of the Troubles. The idea that everything would be fine but for a handful of lunatics sustained us through decades of denial over the difference between a problem and a symptom. But now that the mist has begun to lift, a far less flattering view of ourselves has come into sharp focus. The sea in which republican and loyalist terrorists swam, to use Mao's infamous analogy, turns out to be broad and deep and very, very salty indeed. Worse still the government's plan to dilute it consists of spitting into its vastness from two opposing shores. By recognising sectarianism the peace process has formalised it, legitimised it and thus unintentionally galvanised it. Yet Chairman Blair seems so pleased with the results that Northern Ireland's cultural revolution could well now be coming to a forbidden city near you.
Peace has shown that Northern Ireland remains riven with self-indulgent factionalism to an absurd degree. At some level we always knew this. What we didn't know, prior to the Good Friday Agreement, is that such factionalism is apparently fine within the limits of an acceptable body count. The Agreement was sold to us with pictures of little Protestant and Catholic children skipping hand-in-hand down a beach together beneath the slogan 'Wouldn't it be great if it was like this all the time?. Arguably, any population stupid enough to swallow such anodyne nonsense has only itself to blame - but alas the population of Northern Ireland has never blamed itself for anything and the peace process serves largely to encourage this reckless self-deception. Once we could no longer blame our antique hatreds on paramilitary extremists, for example, we blamed political extremists. When we then made those political extremists our largest parties, we blamed disaffection with insufficiently moderate moderates. When that didn't wash we went back to blaming each other. But we never blame ourselves - and we have successfully guilt-tripped everyone else into not blaming us either.
The key to this strategy has been using the language of liberal tolerance to justify mutual hostility. Among the most lethal of these boomerang buzz words are community, culture, rights, equality, justice and respect. All sound noticeably better than 'tribe', which is what they all actually mean in present-day Northern Ireland. Each of our tribes has taken each one of these unifying social concepts, given them a uniquely sectarian spin, then dared the authorities to challenge the resulting paradox. Lamentably, in almost every case, the authorities have refused. 'Community' is the most corrosive of all such tribal posturing and the one from which all other evils flow. Having identified, defined and appropriated a 'community', any political vested interest will find itself in possession of a political blank cheque. Anything the community does can now be deemed its culture. Anything it wants is a right. Anyone who stands in the way is guilty of inequality, injustice and disrespect. The community - which by now will have acquired geographical properties as well - begins to look more like a nation, a state within a state. This is certainly Sinn Féin's intention, and in its gormless attempt to emulate Sinn Féin's success Ian Paisley's DUP is certainly doing much the same.
The inevitable result is Balkanisation, and the extent to which Tony Blair and his chief peace process advisor Jonathan Powell have acquiesced to a Yugoslavian solution is quite remarkable.
The poison has been administered as both a tablet and a suppository. From the head down we have the seeping sectarianism of the suspended Stormont assembly itself, where locally-elected representatives must declare themselves unionist or nationalist (read: Protestant or Catholic) before taking their seats - and the votes of those who refuse don't count towards the required 'cross-community' consensus. Even this doesn't satisfy Sinn Féin and the DUP, who while agreeing on little else during their last negotiations nevertheless agreed that Stormont wasn't sectarian enough. Both parties demanded changes that would make it impossible to be an effective neutral voice in the assembly and the British government gutlessly agreed. So if devolution ever does return to Northern Ireland, it will now return in the form of two parallel parliaments.
However it is from the bottom up that the poison really stings. The most glaring example can be found in our schools, which have been exempted from fair employment legislation at their own insistence. Although this legislation has been one of the great success stories of Northern Ireland over the past 25 years it remains the case that Catholic schools and their Protestant-by-default state equivalents can hire and fire based entirely on the religious 'ethos' of applicants and employees - and not just teachers, but support staff as well. This is typical hypocrisy. The people of Northern Ireland are happy to demand equality where inequality might cost them a pay-packet, but where they wish to preserve sectarianism - and pass it on to future generations - they demand a segregated school system that wouldn't be out of place in 1960s Alabama. So much for those Protestant and Catholic children skipping hand-in-hand down a beach.
More insidious is the case of policing, itself now subject to a strict 50:50 recruitment quota. However that hasn't stopped Sinn Féin demanding that law and order in its 'communities' be dealt with by 'community restorative justice' - essentially, kangaroo courts offering a clearly implied choice between your kneecaps or your neighbours'. Community restorative justice projects are officially funded and thus officially endorsed. Meanwhile in loyalist 'communities' the police organise meetings between residents and paramilitaries so that the former can beg the latter to behave, which in practice means flying terrorist flags for only one month a year plus no gunfire at bonfires without adult supervision. Such agreements are then heralded as a great success - as indeed they are, for the sectarian militias they clearly empower.
A thousand other seemingly trivial cases spring to mind, each one equating tribe to politics, politics to community and community to whatever you're having yourself. A cultural festival, perhaps? Whose culture would that be then? Can't get funding? It's an injustice! This attitude finds its ultimate expression in Ulster-Scots, an entire language and associated heritage made up on the spot by the DUP to match Sinn Féin's appropriation of all things Irish, then expensively humoured by the government so that both tribes can be bought off in reassuringly equal measure. Yet both tribes will never be bought off, nor will either ever be equally reassured, because humouring made-up demands only encourages the people of Northern Ireland to make up further demands. The hope that we might eventually run out of things to complain about has given way to the realisation that we simply don't care how daft our complaints sound. Disputes over parades and particularly flags epitomise an addiction to squabbling for its own sake and are all the more vicious because so little is actually at stake. Where is the incentive to compromise? We're paid to act like this. Which is not to say that the situation has no real victims - just that their plight no longer suits the tribal agenda.
Low-level violence increasingly targets those who do not neatly fit into Northern Ireland's two licensed categories. At the very moment in our history when they could most make a difference, we have spurned the unaligned. Mixed couples cannot be housed, immigrants huddle between ghettoes and anyone with a shred of decency opts out of the political system altogether. In response to this unravelling of civic society the authorities have yet again refused to knit us back together. Instead new hate crime legislation has been introduced to outlaw certain thoughts, even as the associated actions go demonstrably unpunished. Naturally, there has not been a single prosecution to date.
The extreme is the edge of something larger. A few hundred extremists may claim they represent millions and to an extent they may be correct. But extremists are the symptom, not the problem, and to treat them otherwise is to feed a fever. They must still be treated, of course, just treated the same way as everyone else. Instead, in Northern Ireland, we have tried to humour every aspect of two competing extreme positions and the results are decidedly mixed. In less than a decade our whole society has come to mirror a political system set up purely to reflect its edges. We could have started from the centre - built up a strong, secular common ground where rights came with responsibilities, respect was earned and equality and justice meant more than matching favours. But we failed to do so, we were not forced to do so, and now we are stuck between Sinn Féin's martyr cult and Ian Paisley's Ayatollah, kidding ourselves that we're special and different while the government indulges our very worst instincts and desperately tinkers with the law.