David Miller [Ed] Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture Ideology and Colonialism, Longman, London, 1998, pp 315 ISBN 0582 30287- 0.
The most interesting of these articles describe the representation of the conflict in the media and in academic discourse. David Miller’s contribution ‘Colonialism and Academic Representation of the Troubles’ describes the role of the Northern Ireland academic establishment in stifling critical research, and supporting the official picture of the British government as a well meaning mediator, with no responsibility for the violence. Mike Tomlinson’s ‘Walking Backwards into the Sunset’ details the role of state intelligence agencies in sectarian killings, especially their collusion with the UDA.
One of the most interesting essays, Desmond Bell’s ‘Representing History’ moves from a description of the Tower Museum in Derry to cast a sharp light on the heritage industry. The museum, opened in 1992, shows divergent unionist and Catholic traditions as worthy of mutual respect, in a way which was once considered impolite, or even dangerous. Now, the dominant ideology maintains that the existence of two communities need not produce mutual hostility. The government lavishes resources on this and similar projects, and growing nationalist moderation suggests that they are getting value for money. Derry municipal council, dominated by the Catholic middle class, is pleased with the project, not only for the tourist revenue it brings, but because it grants it a status hitherto denied.
Of course, much of the history is fake: a social construction, which takes elements of reality and adapts them to fit changing official needs. Bell points out that the Cultural Traditions’ approach risks setting the cultures in stone, so that the possibility of common citizenship and united endeavour vanishes. As all traditions are considered of equal worth, it is as valid for loyalists to exercise their traditional right to march through a Catholic area, terrorising the residents, as for others to learn Gaelic or traditional dancing. If you were bewildered to hear the Orangemen at the Garvachy Road stand off justify themselves in language lifted from a Cultural Studies seminar, Bell’s article will make things clearer.
Bell’s piece is nicely complemented by Bill Rolston’s ‘What’s Wrong with Multicultualism?’, which puts ‘heritage’ in a wider social context. Multiculturalism, long dominant in mainland Britain, assumes that conflict is caused by individual psychology. If people can see other traditions as valid, strife will cease. In England that means replacing Norman Tebbit’s bigotry with an inclusive approach, where John Major’s spinsters will continue to cycle to evensong in the rain, but will also enjoy the Notting Hill carnival, and where white school teachers instruct black children in ‘their’ Rastafarian tradition.
Liam O’Dowd examines the ‘New Unionism’, an ingenious creation of a group of intellectuals close to David Trimble, which tries to separate Unionist supremacy from religion, while leaving everything else unchanged. O’Dowd’s essay is welcome, given Tom Nairn’s claim that the new unionism shows the emergence of a ‘civic nationalism’.
Some contributions cover more familiar ground. James Anderson’s ‘Rethinking National Problems in a Transnational Context’ proffers advice to the British and Irish governments, and welcomes examples of cross border co-operation by environmentalists, gay rights activists and feminists. He also rebukes the Official IRA for adopting a Stalinist stages theory by trying to achieve class unity, while putting the national struggle on the back burner [p.143]. He welcomes the ‘peace process’, whereas most contributors are doubtful that it will bring much benefit to the working people of the province.
In ‘Politics, the Economy and Peace in Northern Ireland’ Ronnie Munck and Douglas Hamilton suggest that the post conflict economy could have a substantial community sector. It is not clear what this would consist of and how it would be protected from market pressures. Pamela Clayton in ‘Religion, Ethnicity and Colonialism’ considers those explanations of the conflict and plumps for colonialism, but her contribution does little more than attach a label to the problem. Robbie McVeigh asks ‘Is Sectarianism Racism?’, argues that there are more similarities than differences between the position of Catholics in Northern Ireland and ethnic minorities on the British mainland, while making a laboured attempt to downplay the religious factor. Ruane and Todd in ‘Irish Nationalism and the Conflict in Northern Ireland’ suggest that the abandonment of republicanism’s traditional aim of a united Ireland will still leave two hostile communities confronting each other.
Surprisingly, given the excellent accounts of the adoption of American theories of ‘conflict resolution’ and Multiculturalism, little is made of Senator Mitchell’s Commission and the approaching settlement as an instance of the triumph of America’s ‘new world order’. Surely Mitchell’s success should be compared with similar events in ex Yugoslavia? The IRA’s abandonment of the aim of Irish independence has surely been influenced by those events. An essay on Sinn Fein’s own acceptance of ‘Cultural Diversity’ would have strengthened this collection. As the republican struggle winds down, Sinn Fein’s adoption of the language of ‘culture’ is displayed in policy documents and in the pages of An Poblacht/Republican News. A party, which has emerged from struggle and suffering is not going to vanish quickly, even as its traditional objectives are abandoned, but it is hard to see what its future role will be. It could, conceivably, accentuate its position as a plebeian alternative to the SDLP, but recent developments strengthening the pan Catholic alliance suggest it is moving in the opposite direction. Sinn Fein has in the past made feeble, sporadic and unsuccessful efforts to win over Protestants. However, an emphasis on ‘Cultural Tradition’ rather than structural change will surely lead to Catholic and Protestant identities becoming even more fixed and working class unity even more difficult.