Progress will only come when members of all communities can feel confident and proud in their own identity…

In Why Northern Ireland’s anti sectarianism is semi permanently stuck in “the crawler lane”… Cillian McGrattan makes a long, subtle and impassioned plea to get away from the sectarian tropes which seem to bedevil discussion of just about every topic or policy area in N. Ireland, and bemoans the fact that progress appears to be so slow. However, his focus on ideologies perhaps ignores the degree to which any change in those ideologies is dependent on changes in the real world of economic advantage and political power.

If we take the longer view, we can see that the real world decline in power of the various churches has already had a dramatic influence on discourse. Each of these churches, to a greater or lesser degree, are based on a theology whereby their true believers are deemed to be part of an elect who are saved and destined for heaven while outsiders are “othered” and deemed to be damned and destined for hell.

True, the more modern, moderate, liberal exponents of those religions have taken the hard edges off their established theologies, have emphasised the “love thy neighbour” (even if s/he is damned to hell) aspects of the New Testament, and have grown to respect their differences and even make common cause on issues like patriarchy, same sex marriage and abortion where modern secular society is deemed to depart from “Gospel Values”. (Let is ignore the degree to which their condemnation of modern practice in those areas is based on Old Testament and Pauline teaching, rather than anything to be found in the Gospels themselves).

We must also be cognisant of the fact that N. Ireland was explicitly founded to be a protestant state for a protestant people where Catholics were, at best, to be tolerated as second class citizens of dubious loyalty, and not even employed unless absolutely necessary. Even the Belfast Good Friday Agreement (BGFA) institutionalised this division by forcing parties to designate as unionist, nationalist or other while explicitly claiming to guarantee “equality of esteem to all”.

Such an institutionalised categorisation of parties and their supporters as protestant, unionist, loyalist (PUL) or Catholic, nationalist, republican (CNR) cannot but have a polarising effect on all political discourse, with parties seeking to maximise their vote within their designation by adopting ever more extreme positions even on what might be regarded as technocratic issues in a less divided society. The Protocol to the Withdrawal Agreement, which deals with arcane matters of market regulation and customs controls normally the preserve of technocrats, is merely the latest issue to become victim of such polarisation.

The rise of this third category of “others” who do not fit comfortably into the PUL and CNR designations is reminiscent of Apartheid which sought to institutionalise differential rights and treatment for whites, blacks and others often referred to as “coloured” or “non-whites”. Some here have referred to these “others” in N. Ireland semi-derisively as “Letsgetalongerists” (LGTALONG) who want to ignore the historical roots of these divisions and simply get along with each other in pursuit of current common interests.

Often stereotyped as shallow or part of a privileged middle class who never had to endure discrimination, let’s not forget that many are very politically engaged or members of ethnic minorities or immigrants for whom the PUL or CNR designations simply cannot apply, but for whom integration is an important goal. Let us also not forget the diversity of backgrounds and views of those who do feel comfortable within a PUL or CNR designation, some of whom may have no great wish to end the polarisation and the feelings of tribal identity it enables.

For all the increasingly urbanised, populous, multi-cultural and multi-ethnic nature of modern civilisation, people often feel the need to identify with a particular religion, nationality, ethnic background, football team or even commercial brand as part of their identity, and there is nothing inherently wrong in this.

We must remember that for most of our evolution as a species, homo sapiens lived in small, roaming, family, extended family and tribal groupings who may have cooperated in hunting or childcare, but who had little necessary contact with other tribes unless it was due to procreation or conflict over scarce resources. People might only know and deal with a few hundred other people in their lifetime.

Agriculture, which led to larger settled communities, is with us for only a few thousand years, and industrialism, which led to much larger urban communities is only with us for a few hundred. Cities, states and empires, largely based on military conquest, the accumulation of capital, the acquisition of land as a prerequisite for economic and political power, and the movement of large populations to consolidate these holdings are all relatively recent phenomena in our evolution as a species.

And they seemed to provide boundless opportunities until we started to hit some boundaries: When the last places on earth had been colonised, when military technology evolved to have the potential to destroy us all, when the human population explosion and ravenous exploitation of natural resources exceeded the footprint that our planet could sustainably bear. It took a few world wars, the proliferation of nuclear weapons, climate change and the opportunities presented by global trade in mass produced goods to create a new global world order where global institutions and international law began to constrain what global companies and states could do, in the interests of the survival of the species.

Equally states had to evolve from being based on military conquest and forced subservience towards more consensual democratic means of government, if for no other reason than that a modern economy requires modes of work and cooperations more efficiently achieved through shared values rather than forced labour. Increasing diversity and complexity of economic and social organisation also requires a more sophisticated political architecture to achieve consensus and shared goals.

However, none of this is to say that tribes or tribalism have gone away, or that they are necessarily a bad thing. Just because you identity as PUL or CNR does not make you sectarian, any more than being LGTALONG doesn’t mean you don’t have tribal instincts. It’s how we manage the increasing diversity of almost all modern societies that matters. You can celebrate your identity or particular cultural heritage without trying to enforce it on others or seek to dominate those who don’t subscribe to your identity.

Tribes can go to war if there is competition for scarce resources or control over the levers of state. This is where tribes and tribalism can become problematic if the democratic norms of proportional representation, the rule of law, freedom of expression, and non-discrimination in employment etc. are not carefully observed.

Europe has a long and terrible history of such tribal rivalry writ large, where internal tribal or class based rifts within society are often suppressed by the bigging up an external “other” as the biggest threat to all. Key to such populism is the identification of an evil or hostile “other” – be they Jews, communists, immigrants or gays – who we are all urged to hate for the safety and security of a dominant national or tribal identity.

The solution that Europe found to this awful history was to build a larger overarching entity, call it a superstate if you will, which incorporated multiple national, ethnic, religious, regional and ideological tribes into one overarching legal and representative architecture which did not pretend to express any one identity, other than a very broadly and loosely defined “Europeanism” which can be interpretated in pretty much any way a particular tribe chooses beyond an adherence to democratic values and the rule of law.

Brexit happened because a slim majority in Britain didn’t buy into this broader identity and were much more concerned with asserting their British and perhaps English identity. Class and national divisions within the UK didn’t help. A widespread anti-establishment sentiment in the UK was successfully deflected from the Westminster establishment onto “meddling bureaucrats” in Brussels. If times are hard, it is always easier to blame the “other tribe” than confront issues in your own. It can even be dressed up as patriotism.

But I don’t share the pessimism at the pervasiveness of tribal identities in N. Ireland. Distinct tribal or regional identities are present, in lesser or greater degree all over Europe. People can be fanatical in support of their nation state, ethnic identity, region, religion, or football club. It doesn’t have to effect how, broadly, the EU functions as a cooperative framework between nation states dedicated to negotiating solutions to conflicts of interest.

Equally I don’t see the ending of this tribalism as a necessary condition either for a functioning N. Ireland or any new constitutional arrangement in the future. There will still probably be people with a strong PUL or CNR identity in N. Ireland in a hundred years’ time regardless of whatever constitutional changes do or don’t take place. If people feel happy and comfortable in their identity, more power to them.

What they shouldn’t expect however, is that the state must reflect their identity in all its dimensions, to the exclusion of everyone else’s. Your national, religious, or regional views may define your identity, but you cannot use them to define others as evil, deviant, malevolent, unpatriotic or untrustworthy. They have as much right to their identity as you have to yours. And the state should, as far as possible, not seek to exclusively embody any one identity at all. Ideally it should be ‘owned’ and identifiable with by all.

So I am not surprised that the compromises contained in the BGFA which might have been necessary to achieve piece in 1998 have become a barrier to improved inter-communal relations now. They institutionalise the PUL/CNR antagonism and incentivise their leading parties to exacerbate this polarisation in order to achieve greater dominance within their own tribe. They also give insufficient recognition to the growing LGTALONG tribe or tribes in our midst.

The BGFA was always supposed to be subject to ongoing review. The replacement of the requirement for parties to designate as one or other will increase their ability to appeal to all across tribal boundaries for votes. The requirement for cross-community consent could be replaced by a requirement for a minimum 60% support for any change in policy on any devolved matter. Mandatory coalition could be replaced by a normal voluntary coalition and opposition within the Assembly.

Far from guaranteeing the Alliance Party a pivotal role, in might force all parties to tack to the centre in search of transfers and votes to increase their influence. It might even persuade some of the 40% of the electorate who refuse to vote in today’s polarised climate that it might be worth casting their ballot after all. Competence and policy could start to loom larger in people’s calculus of whom to vote for rather than just the tribal identity claimed by particular candidates.

Above all, the political system needs to start taking more responsibility for the performance of N. Ireland as a whole. It is simply not sustainable to scare away potential investment secure in the knowledge that the Barnett subvention will make good any shortfall in economic development. You cannot always expect all problems to be resolved by others, if you refuse to resolve them yourselves. Westminster has other fish to fry, and so will Dublin and Brussels if it ever comes to that.

The quality of life in N. Ireland will ultimately be determined by how well people living there resolve their own problems. Having your own tribal identity is fine so long as you do not use it to disenfranchise or denigrate others. Being secure in your own identity must never be dependent on fear, hatred, or “othering” of others. If so, you will forever be living in anxiety and fear, because there will always be others sharing your living space.

A mark of maturity is the ability to honour others without feeling diminished in your own identity in the slightest. Progress will only come when members of all communities can feel confident and proud in their own identity without feeling the need to define themselves in contra-distinction to others, or to seek to dominate them in any way.

The PUL community may be experiencing a crisis of confidence, but strangely their “saving grace” can only come if they can find the faith, confidence and leadership within to proudly proclaim their identity regardless of whatever constitutional or trading relationships they find themselves in. “Put not your faith in Princes” (psalm 146.3). If your identity is dependent on whatever party, leader, or sovereign is in power, it will not be sustainable, and it cannot be based on your faith.

Discover more from Slugger O'Toole

Subscribe to get the latest posts to your email.

We are reader supported. Donate to keep Slugger lit!

For over 20 years, Slugger has been an independent place for debate and new ideas. We have published over 40,000 posts and over one and a half million comments on the site. Each month we have over 70,000 readers. All this we have accomplished with only volunteers we have never had any paid staff.

Slugger does not receive any funding, and we respect our readers, so we will never run intrusive ads or sponsored posts. Instead, we are reader-supported. Help us keep Slugger independent by becoming a friend of Slugger. While we run a tight ship and no one gets paid to write, we need money to help us cover our costs.

If you like what we do, we are asking you to consider giving a monthly donation of any amount, or you can give a one-off donation. Any amount is appreciated.