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All round the houses
The Belfast Agreement appears to offer stability at the price of sectarian stalemate
Eamonn McCann, 29 Nov 2001
A clear illustration of the way the Belfast Agreement facilitates sectarianism came with the announcement last month by the Northern Ireland Housing Executive that £9 million was to be spent improving the housing stock in Glenbryn.
Glenbryn is the estate in upper Ardoyne where members of the UDA and some residents have been forcing children attending the Holy Cross school to walk along a corridor of spittle and hate to reach their classrooms in the morning.
The announcement of the money was hailed in the Orange Standard, the official organ of the Orange Order, as due recognition that in north Belfast “the standard of housing in Catholic areas is infinitely better than in Protestant districts”. The newspaper went on to observe: “In North Belfast, a safe Unionist seat in the 1960s, there has been a dramatic increase in the Roman Catholic population with the take-over of many former Protestant streets”.
This is the pattern of thinking otherwise expressed in pipe-bomb attacks on Catholic homes in areas abutting Protestant districts.
Nationalist politicians took a directly opposite view. Why “all of a sudden” had Glenbryn been handed this bonanza?, the leading Sinn Fein representative in north Belfast wanted to know. Housing ratios in Catholic areas were higher than in Protestant areas, he pointed out. The money was simply a “reward” for the mobs out intimidating children.
Had the announcement been discussed in rational terms the questions would have been posed very differently.
The news of the £9 million may well have been brought forward by government officials wanting to be seen to be doing something about the dangerous situation around Glenbryn. But the money wasn’t whistled up as a “reward”. It was part of £133 million earmarked for housing improvement across the north of the city. And the NIHE had designated Glenbryn a priority “housing action area” a number of years back. The announcement was long overdue.
The £9 million isn’t to be pumped in immediately but will be spread over seven years. Whether that level of spending will be enough to meet the acknowledged needs of local people is greatly to be doubted.
The money is not to come from taxation but is to be raised through a Private Finance Initiative. That is to say, a private company or companies is set to make a profit from the enterprise. Other objections apart, the result of the PFI approach is that the conduct and management of the scheme will be subject to an even lower level of public accountability than has been the case in “direct” public authority schemes.
There is a host of obvious questions here which could have informed a vigorous debate, particularly in Glenbryn itself, about the adequacy of the plan as an answer to local people’s housing needs. But none of the relevant questions was raised by any of the mainstream parties. Instead, all strove to present themselves as the most strident and uncompromising advocates of the interests of their own community vis-a-vis the interests of the other community.
The end result is that sectarian consciousness has been validated and intensified across north Belfast.
This circumstance should provide food for thought for those pro-Agreement commentators who have recently taken to musing on the conundrum – as it seems to them – of levels of sectarianism appearing to rise even as the reforms set out in the Agreement are implemented, many of the changes envisaged are put into practice, and the institutions survive crises and take root.
Some commentators might usefully look again at the analyses of those who argued from the outset that the Agrement was structured in such a way as to deepen sectarian consciousness, and that to see the preservation of the Agreement as the most compelling imperative in politics would be to ensure that sectarianism continues to fester and to erupt regularly into violence.
This analysis was confirmed by the manner in which the Executive and the Assembly were saved from collapse at the beginning of this month – even as initiatives to resolve the Glenbryn crisis collapsed in failure.
Anti-Agreement Unionists had a field day at the farcical scenes as the Assembled was rescued: first the Women’s Coalition and then the Alliance Party had to re-designate some of their members as Unionist in order to deliver David Trimble a majority of Unionists in the election of First MInister. Privately, many in the pro-Agreement camp cringed with embarrassment at the manoeuvres they had to go through.
The more serious point had to do with the truth which the saga illuminated – that on key issues, those who are neither Unionist nor Nationalist don’t count. Or to be more exact, aren’t counted. Within the structures laid down by the Agreement, if you don’t champion the cause of one side or the other, you’re irrelevant.
In this perspective, the response of the parties to the Glenbryn money was perfectly in line with the assumptions underlying the Agreement.
Similarly with every development or initiative – location of jobs or social facilities, appointments to public bodies, spending on schools, health, whatever – everything is automatically scrutinised on each side to make sure the other side hasn’t gained advantage.
The legacy of history and the activities of hate-fuelled bigots ensure that there would be a continuing high level of sectarianism in Northern Ireland whatever the nature of any settlement put in place. What’s relevant here is that the Agreement offers no counter to sectarianism, no incentive to move beyond the sectarian template. On the contrary, the Agreement provides a context in which sectarianism flourishes.
The theory underlying the Agreement is known to academics as “consociational democracy”. The modules in university courses dealing with “peace studies”, “conflict resolution” and so forth feature an impressive and growing literature on consociational democracy. It has been typically applied in societies distorted by colonialism. There is a veritable army of 30-year-olds on UN salaries with degrees in consociational democracy running around Bosnia – indeed, running Bosnia – at this moment. Burundi and Nigeria are among other countries currently enjoying such attentions.
The core idea has to do with “respecting difference” – a phrase which has come to trip easily and often from the lips of all mainstream Irish politicians and commentators. In practice, consociational democracy means that each of the fragments of a shattered political system is formally enshrined in a settlement and given a weight and value proportionate to the size of the relevant group. Each community has its own representatives at the top of the structure and distributed down through the various layers. The separate beliefs, traditions, habits, practices of the communities involved are elevated into full-blown “cultures”, each of which is guaranteed “parity of esteem”. This is where the nonsense of an “Ulster-Scots” language and the notion of aggressive political marches as an expression of “culture” comes from.
The leading theoretician of consociational democracy, Arend Lijphart, explains: “(It) means government by elite cartel designed to turn democracy with a fragmented political culture into a stable democracy”. The elites share power, or at least office, at the top. But in order to maintain themselves as elites, they have no option but
continuously to reinvigorate their own community’s separate sense of itself and attitude of wariness towards
It is possible to deliver stability through this approach. But it cannot be the stability of people at ease with themselves and each other. Always, it will be the stability of sectarian stalemate.
Even in times of stability, however, abrasion at the interfaces will be a permanent feature of political life, and always with the potential to spark new conflagration.
For more than three years now, one of the main features of Northern politics has been constant pressure from the great and the good on communities, parties, sports bodies etc. etc. to conform to the requirements of the Agreement. The alternative, we are told, is a society consumed by sectarian hostility.
But the evidence mounts that these are not alternatives at all, that the Agreement does not provide a means of diminishing sectarian hostility, but offers, at best, a means of channeling and managing sectarianism. It doesn’t get rid of sectarian ideas but tries to use them as the sinews of a restructured system.
Going into opposition in the Assembly, eschewing office and refusing to play the game by the Agreement’s rules, mobilising on the basis of class rather than community, these are ideas whose time has
Since we hit the shelves this issue on November 22nd, can I ask anyone out there who remembers where I was when I heard that John F. Kennedy was killed to write in and let me know. Damned if I can remember a thing about it.