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THE NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE PROCESS RECONSIDERED RICHARD ENGLISH several years ago I wrote an essay ostensibly about the Northern Ireland Cultural Traditions Group, but really addressing what seemed to me to be the problems inherent in British-government policy towards Northern Ireland during the preceding decade. In that essay (which was published in the Irish Review in 1994)1 I discussed what I called the “equal legitimacy” thesis, which has underpinned British-government thinking on Northern Ireland, and argued that this thesis was seriously misconceived. The equal-legitimacy thesis demands that the two broad political and cultural traditions in Northern Ireland—unionist and nationalist—be publicly accorded equal legitimacy. As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew was repeated in his declarations to this effect. In April 1993, he declared that “each of the main components of the community will need to be given recognition by the other, and in any settlement each must be accorded parity of esteem, the validity of its tradition receiving unqualified recognition.” In December 1992, Mayhew assured people that the nationalist aspiration to a united Ireland was “no less legitimate” than the unionist desire to maintain Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom.2 My argument was that such an approach is intellectually incoherent (How can two traditions be equally valid when each rests for its validity on the fundamental invalidity of the other’s logic?), and that it has been politically dangerous (encouraging unionist fears that the government considers nationalist ambitions as valid as those of the unionists, and encouraging nationalist hopes of major political change, which are simply infeasible and therefore bound to be disappointed). THE NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE PROCESS RECONSIDERED 270 1 Richard English, “‘Cultural Traditions’ and Political Ambiguity,” Irish Review 15 (Spring 1994): 97–106. 2 Ibid., 98. Thus, we have the daft, in the form of parity of esteem—a concept that has become extremely pervasive despite the fact that nobody really believes in it; and we have, in the form of heightened unionist fear and disappointed nationalist expectation, a dangerous mixture (as we saw in 1996 at Drumcree ) in a region such as Northern Ireland, in which insecurity and uncertainty continue to have damaging consequences. Such interventions by academics into contemporary political debate carry with them certain risks. One such risk is that people will simultaneously misunderstand and vilify you. Thus, for example, in an article in the Sunday Tribune, Luke Gibbons accused me of supremacism, wrongly attributing to me the view that “the ‘minority’ culture . . . must always be subordinate to the unionist tradition in Northern Ireland.” Authors more intimate with the details of Northern Irish politics, such as Norman Porter and Richard Kirkland, have had no problem in understanding my central argument. And it should be stressed that I was not advocating any form of supremacism, but rather was asking what a state should do in the face of a serious public-order problem. Neither Gibbons nor Declan Kiberd, who made a similar attack on me in the Sunday Press,3 appear to have understood this point. As Charles Townshend has argued, “[o]rder maintenance is probably seen as the elemental task of government.”4 My argument was that the policy of the British government in the period since the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement has been characterized by the dangerous and incoherent attempt to reassure unionists while raising nationalist expectations . Disaffection has been deepened in both communities, and the consequences of this trend have been (and will again prove) dangerous. The notion of the equal legitimacy of unionism and nationalism underpinned the Anglo-Irish Agreement; it was influential in molding Britishgovernment thinking during the late 1980s and early 1990s; and it pervaded the Peace Process period of 1993–1996. As the December 1993 Downing Street Declaration envisaged it, there would be “a process of dialogue and cooperation based on full respect for the rights and identities of both traditions in Ireland.” This current article aims to pick up where the previous THE NORTHERN IRELAND PEACE PROCESS RECONSIDERED 271 3 Norman Porter, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland (Belfast: Blackstaff, 1996), 136; Richard Kirkland, Literature and Culture in Northern Ireland Since 1965: Moments of...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1550-5162
Print ISSN
0013-2683
Pages
pp. 270-276
Launched on MUSE
2017-08-31
Open Access
No
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