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Nov 27

Northern Ireland: Trapped between the impossible and the not-possible

Arthur Aughey is Professor of Politics at the University of Ulster and has published widely on various constitutional issues affecting the United Kingdom and we are grateful that he has given us his kind permission to post the following:

To talk of a new dispensation or a new and widely shared democratic narrative is to put words into the mouth of history. Certainly, it is difficult to accept with equanimity any confident assertions about Northern Ireland’s future. Today Northern Ireland appears trapped between the politics of the impossible and the politics of the not-possible.

It is impossible for terrorist organisations to return to the sustained campaigns which disfigured society here for nearly 30 years. Equally it is not possible for power-sharing to be as dynamic as reformers would hope if only because, at the moment, the basis for trust and cooperation remains weak. And it is weak because there has been no fundamental agreement about the future of Northern Ireland, more an exhaustion of alternatives which leaves political leaders as the guardians of their communal mandates. In sum, Northern Ireland seems to be in democratic ‘neutral’, with little constructive politics but also little destructive terrorism.

Yet, as Richard Rose showed 40 years ago, there had been no consensual Garden of Eden from which politics in Northern Ireland fell and so there is no consensual promised land to which it can return. For all the grandiloquent language that accompanied it, the Belfast Agreement was a contract to facilitate communal politics of a moderated, less murderous sort and the blessing of the new would inevitably be mixed with a reformulation of the old.

Here Schopenhauer’s fable of the porcupines suggests a narrative for Northern Ireland’s democracy which combines both actuality and possibility. A number of porcupines, Schopenhauer wrote, huddled together for warmth on a cold day but as they pricked one another they were forced to disperse. The cold drove them together again but the process of dispersal was repeated. After many turns of huddling and dispersing they discovered that a comfortable relationship involved maintaining a little distance from one another. It is only when we discover such a moderate distance, Schopenhauer believed, that life becomes tolerable: our mutual needs can be reasonably satisfied and, as far as possible, we can avoid violently pricking one another[1]. If porcupinal warmth stands for sharing or integration and porcupinal pricking stands for separation or disintegration then the following readings can be made.

Collective warmth can be generated by acting according to the principle of conciliation in which the porcupines can adjust their relationship without violence. Reformers need to build on that potential, develop an appropriately convincing narrative and giving practical evidence that it works. Sectarian pricking will continue to afflict politics but so long as ends and means are kept in proportion (the priority of democratic procedure) then an imperfect but workable association of mitigated communal division is about as good as it can get – for now.

It is the balance between a sense of improvement and a sense of possible deterioration that counts, what one journalist described as that ambivalent condition in Northern Ireland where ‘the aspirational co-exists with the precautionary’[2].

This is not the best of all worlds but it is not the worst and provides the space for democratic improvement, to ensure that ‘unchanging constancy’ is no longer a description of the quarrel in Northern Ireland.


[1] Schopenhauer 1892

[2] McKitterick 2003

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