No space for shared action between uncompromising partners in government…

The following essay was commissioned and written for Compromise After Conflict by the political analyst and editor of Mick Fealty.

…one thing that has been very noticeable, especially in Tunisia, Libya and Egypt, has been the emergence of democratically elected governments that have no time for opinions other than their own.

Roger Scruton, Why it can be good to give in to your enemies.

Peace and the re-emergence of complexity

If we can learn one thing from the Arab spring it is that democracy is not some whizzy piece of software. It cannot be installed or upgraded at the whim of a policy maker, let alone a military dictatorship.

Moreover, as Scruton points out successful democratic government depends on a broad willingness of the powerful to make concessions to the powerless. After electoral competition…

…the general assumption is that the final result will be a compromise, an attempt to reconcile the many conflicting interests.

Absolute binaries are the settled condition of war. The soldier or the rebel in the field understands the imperative “you must die, so I can live”, or vice versa. The aim is total victory. The object (after Clausewitz) “to render [your opponent] politically helpless or militarily impotent”.

In peace complexity re-emerges. Civil administrations trade the rights of individuals against the broader “common good”, even if that common good is proximate and unnegotiated. Concepts of ‘them’ and ‘us’ begin to dilute, if not entirely disappear.

But as Paul Arthur has noted, the exigencies of war or widespread civil conflict, generate a fatalistic sense that all ‘problems’ are sui generis and therefore insurmountable. Such conditions may persist, even long after the war has concluded.

Getting things done

Manal Omar of the US Institute of Peace has argued that in Egypt there has been a miscalculation on the need for such trade offs, particularly the effect of the revolution on the economic front:

“The ideological debate is not [gaining] traction the way it once would have taken traction. People are actually looking at who can deliver services, who can put Egypt on the right track.”

Which brings me to Northern Ireland. The military issue has been settled, and a broad consensus  in favour of the current settlement has been in place in both Northern and southern Ireland now for fifteen years.

As Mario Cuomo famously put it, political parties campaign in poetry, but govern in prose. But in Northern Ireland our structures of governance has been arrived at via two major compromises, (the Belfast and St Andrews Agreements) with the overriding aim has been the prevention of any easy return to the status quo ante.

Disappointingly perhaps, in government the two parties which hold real power in the Office of First Minister and deputy First Minister have made little progress, even in the most uncontroversial policy areas.

All incumbents at Stormont seem to have forgotten a valuable lesson in the utility of compromise by Senator George Mitchell in the long and protracted negotiations to establish the Good Friday Agreement. Deal with the easy stuff first, then leave the solution of tougher problems to a non political technical sub committee.

Yet after six years of uninterrupted executive power, the Assembly has just one piece of legislation regulating the height of hedges between neighbours to its name. An attempt to regulate the ongoing controversy over parades was rejected as too authoritarian by groups on both sides of the communal divide.

Meanwhile the Northern Ireland Executive racks up fines over the mismanagement of horse mussel beds in Strangford Lough. No issue, it seems, is too trivial for the withdrawal of even a modicum of compromise or cooperation.

Security in groups and numbers

One of the abiding problems in Northern Ireland stems from the beginnings of the latest Troubles and the significant flux particularly in urban populations in response to the outbreak of civil disorder.

In any wide scale refugee crisis ingroup and outgroup identities become hardened and matched by the uncompromising [ie, safer] forms of politics.

It is true that Northern Ireland has experienced nothing like the scale of population movement we see today in Syria, or that which took place in former Yugoslavia. Yet between 1969 and 1971 large if localised populations shifted from mixed to single identity communities in Belfast in search of the security of living ‘amongst your own’.

Other movements like the drift of Protestants from the west bank of Derry city took place over a much longer time frame. This was often motivated more by fear than threat, often in response to news reports, as people concluded that what was happening elsewhere could soon be happening to them, unless they moved to secure areas.[See Bruce]

Later as the de facto local power of paramilitaries went unchallenged by the policing and justice system, state organisations like the Housing Executive would do what they could to relieve social pressures by moving ‘exiled’ youngsters from one bailiwick to another.

We became accustomed to the hard uncompromising exegeses of war.

Changing the frames, shifting the context

A line often attributed to Alexandre Auguste Ledru-Rollin (although probably apocryphally) is ”there go the people. I must follow them, for I am their leader.”

Whilst it is true that almost fifty per cent of the Northern Irish population still live in single identity populations (and close to 90% of those living in publicly controlled housing), more than half chose to live amongst people not of their own ethnic or religious background.

Nearly twenty years after the conflict substantially ended, when given a free choice, people tend to choose to live in mixed areas where there is a growing post conflict sense of security.

And yet, over this most recent summer, Northern Ireland’s new constitutional establishment has been reduced to a hopeless public row over the fraught sectarian geography of north Belfast.

Without progress on the environment, education, or housing, there seems little likelihood of substantial long term improvement in the health of Northern Ireland’s general body politic.

Learning lessons from a long past

Despite negotiating to themselves a substantial increase in internal political resources, neither the DUP or Sinn Fein appear to have learned those basic lessons in the structuring of a workable compromise.

The proof lies in the commissioning of the former senior US diplomat – Richard Haass – who’s been charged with brokering a stickable agreement over parading. But in his local interlocutors, Haass faces a daunting and destructive fixation with the unresolved issues of Northern Ireland’s past.

As Scruton points out this week with regard to the Muslim world, the problem with tying everything back to the past is that that it ignores the community of the present.

For instance, the introduction of Sharia today, he argues, runs the risk of…

…imposing on people a system of law designed for the government of a long since vanished community and unable to adapt to the changing circumstances of human life.

Obsession with the past and a narrow set of fundamentalist values – which do not reflect the increasingly diversifying values of the broad swathe of society under conditions of peace – is a problem which affects the elites of both the DUP and Sinn Fein.

In search of a dream?

On the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s historic speech on the steps of Washington’s Lincoln Memorial (176 years after the Three-fifths Compromise), it is a timely reminder of the importance of action in the here and now:

We have come to this hallowed spot to remind America of the fierce urgency of now. [emphasis added]

And he warns his followers that their “marvellous new militancy…” :

…must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. They have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom.We cannot walk alone. [emphasis added]

Whatever about cherishing all the children of the nation equally, the urgency of change and the importance of acting now, has never been more tangible…

Compromise entails risk

Tennessee Williams once wrote: “We have to distrust each other. It’s our only defense against betrayal.” But as Iris Bohnet and Richard Zeckhauser have noted in their 2003 study on the nature of trust, risk and betrayal (PDF):

…individuals are much more willing to take risks when the outcome is due to chance, as opposed to an equivalent-odds situation where the outcome depends on whether another player proves trustworthy. Taking a chance on the latter risks incurring betrayal costs, costs shown to be above and beyond mere monetary losses.

Before compromise, there must be trust. Without trust, there is no way to mediate the kind of risk involved in the long term gamble ordinary people have been asked to take on the power sharing institutions of Northern Ireland.

What’s missing are the concrete incentives (and disincentives) for the parties themselves to play a value positive game. Pointing to an international treaty, a constitution or even a ministerial code is insufficient to change the game a political party will want to play.

In lieu of a local common will, incentives may be imposed from the outside. The most that Mr Haass may do in these upcoming negotiations is to rehearse back to the key players their own incentives to come to some form of compromise.

No win without compromise

It’s hard to blame parties of the former extremes for returning to their own Clausewizian logic of war. The real deficit lies in the lack of any committed action across the liberal middle ground on either side of the communal divide.

In their current weakened states, the former moderates of the UUP and SDLP have become far too comfortable in their self appointed role as the moralising headteacher to whom people barely listen any more, rather than providing a functional political alternative to the broad voter base.

If they were to provide such a functional opposition we might then begin to address the structural issues by changing the dynamics from intra-ethnic competition to a inter-party/govt vs. opposition competition.

As Fareed Zakaria has noted, there is no inevitability about the ascent of liberal democracy, whether in Northern Ireland, Egypt or anywhere else. And much of the last twenty five years has shown that  you can’t WIN militarily and expect that to be the end of it. Is there in fact a Win if there is no compromise, these days?

“I left Poland in search of democracy and found it was more like a phantom always shifting and constantly lingering on the horizon. Once it is given to someone, it changes. In fact, it needs to be remade every day. It requires the consistent disruption of silences and the [utterance] of things that people do not want to hear.”

- Krzysztof Wodiczko

Mick Fealty has written several papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the  media in Northern Ireland, the Republic and more broadly. He is a former visiting Research Associate of the Institute of Governance at Queens University, Belfast.

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13 Responses to No space for shared action between uncompromising partners in government…

  1. Pingback: NI Democracy becalmed: Is there in fact a “Win” if there is no compromise, these days? « Slugger O'Toole

  2. IJP says:

    Superb piece.

    As Mick will know, I particularly like the challenge he makes to the “action across the Liberal ‘Middle Ground’”, and would of course include the party of which I am a member in that.

    It does not suffice merely to comment passively on things; or even to come forward with detailed ideas. What matters is *action*.

  3. James says:

    Do ye think anyone of impotency sorry, importance will heed Slugger I hope so?

  4. Mick Fealty says:

    Well, these things always take time James.

    But someone has to at least begin to feel the fierce urgency of now now, rather than at some theoretical point in the future. It would be foolish to discount the tangible gains of nearly twenty years of relative peace, and yet it is also foolish to argue that as things are now, then so they must remain.

    As I’ve noted over at Slugger, there’s no easy or obvious technical way to make the change. The system we currently have does not either licence or encourage opposition (which is the kernel of Scruton’s critical remarks).

    Even after a good campaign and making gains, you are still obliged to ‘work’ with anyone who gains a ministerial mandate, even if they don’t want to work with you, and seek to undermine you politically at every turn.

  5. Jonathan Brown says:

    Good reading.

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  8. Michael McKelvey says:

    There only seems to in some quarters – especially so working class PUL (Protestant Unionist Loyalist – for those unfamiliar with the jargon) an angry sense of loss, instead of thankfulness for the lives not lost, the regenerated housing and expenditure on public works massively beyond what a local tax base could support. The key is to give a wider sense of identity e.g. to acknowledge the harm and the hurt caused by family or relationship breakdown to children – which in some working class areas is 75% set against only 25% in more leafy areas, and to get people interested in their children achieving at school – which has happened with a measure of success in Nationalist West Belfast due to combined community efforts, and also maybe there should be more honesty that peace money is finite and the troubles are not turned into a mawkish version of South Pacific Cargo cults – with ‘funding’ forever available.

  9. Mick Fealty says:

    All of that Michael.

    There are differentials in school performances in working class areas which I think come down to the capacity of CCMS to more easily respond as a management structure to changing times and shift cooperatively to face contemporary challenges.

    The social structure of the west is subtly different too. That’s an effect of the long term shift of populations into a maximal area which contains significant numbers of middle class folk.

    There’s no direct parallel in the east for example where class divisions are more pronounced, which ensures that there are far fewer between the wealthy and the struggling classes in Protestant society.

    You might have thought that for two parties whose core base share some of these basic problems might agree some form of common political action in order to face down some of these issues across the board.

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