Studying Conflict in the City of Belfast

I had the good fortune today of attending a seminar at Queens university entitled “Remedies and the Latin America Experience: Lessons for Northern Ireland”, led by professor Dinah Shelton. Shelton presented on various post conflict situations in South and Latin america and the varying roles played by commissions playing a role in conflict resolution or de-escalation by using human rights law. Other participants outlined the current state of the Northern Irish peace process, and then differences and similarities were discussed with an emphasis on how the different processes could mutually inform each other. Many issues arose, but I will focus on two: the question of the need for a single ‘grand narrative’ in order to move forward with common memorialization of the conflict, and the role of ideology versus economic motivations behind armed conflict and the difference that plays in blocking the emergence of common narratives.

Professor Shalton emphasized the need for a single “truth” narrative, or “grand” narrative to be adopted by both communities in order to move forward at the end of a conflict. There are various practical benefits to the emergence of a single narrative – for instance, it facilitates teaching the conflict in schools, and it enables a strict definition on the question of who is a victim, thereby making possible memorials which iconically place the conflict in the past. However, in the situation in the North of Ireland after the troubles there is no single narrative of the conflict emerging as dominant, and it doesn’t seem to me that any number of “truth” commissions could ever establish such a narrative. Each community, nationalist and unionist alike, have their own understanding of what the conflict was about, why certain actions were justified in the needs of the time, and these narratives give different answers to who counts as a victim. And it’s not obvious to me that either community is wrong, or at least wrong in the sense of saying something false. For the unionist community, the chief value has been the maintenance of the British character of the north of Ireland – and if you take this as the chief value, then the catholic rebels appear as terrorists, clearly undeserving of memorial. On the other hand, from a nationalist perspective, the struggle was about a minority community fighting for its rights, and from that perspective the emergence of the IRA’s campaign through the 70s to the 90s appears as something itself born out of violent repression of the Catholic community – and therefore IRA paramilitaries are themselves victims of the oppression, and therefore victims even if involved in armed conflict with members of the unionist community or the British. Of course there is much more that can be said of narratives on both sides (including the multiplicity of narratives on both sides), but my point is that there is no neutral perspective which both communities could take on from which there is a single answer to “who is a victim”. Moreover, it seems to me unnecessary that a grand memorial of the conflict be created. Both communities have their own memorials, and more or less, both communities have moved on. To ask them to move on by accepting a common narrative is as much as asking them to move on by giving up the community identity which they fought for thirty years to protect – a losing proposition. Moreover, I don’t see why a single narrative is required to teach the conflict in schools – for what reason could not multiple narratives of the conflict be taught, wouldn’t this reveal the inherent instability and contingency of the chief values in each? And even better, they might be taught in a way that problematizes the dominant narratives on either side, because in fact there are multiple Nationalist or Nationalist-Republican narratives, and multiple unionist or unionist-loyalist narratives. Teaching a larger swatch of narratives about each community than the community even represents to itself would be a way of undermining the intellectual authority of each community on its own history without becoming partisan, without attacking the community from the “other side”. I could imagine a way of teaching the nationalist-republican narrative which criticized the dominance of the Provisional IRA and emphasized the important role of the Marxist IRA in the period leading up to 1975. Also, I could imagine teaching the unionist-loyalist narrative with emphasis on the disingenuous split between the elected representatives and the loyalist paramilitaries who they pretend not to support or be affiliated with. If this was taught by a former paramilitary, and his or her testimony put into tension with that of a unionist politician, the tension might produce a space where people who feel strongly for or against that position could open up and explore its intricacies.

The second topic I want to treat is the idea of “ideology”. Shelton claimed that the hardest conflicts to overcome are those driven purely by ideology, specifically Maoist ideology. However, this seems to ignore the way that ideology emerges as a response to the harsh conditions of the oppressed, and extreme ideologies are not always social pathologies but can be adaptive to certain circumstances. Moreover, it seems to imply that “human rights remedies” is not itself a highly ideological position – one which tends to exclude or at least de-privilege community rights below individual rights. And that’s fine, we already agree with her because we’re comfortable liberals, but it makes me cringe when I recognize that one of the things that is happening when human rights law is used as a remedy to a conflict which involves issues of colonization, is that the law itself is an instrument of colonization because it picks out subjects as individuals, and tends to take away the ability of people to act as groups and form their own norms and institute them in social groups. And this is only a luxury you get when you are perfectly happy not challenging the state. But if you are unlucky enough to be born into a situation where you can’t recognize the state, or you need to act against the state, then human rights law might very well appear as an obstacle, something standing between you and victory.


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