Fellow liberals – this is an opportune time for me to address you on the relationship between devolution and identity as I see it from a Northern Ireland perspective. After a wait of over 25 years, devolved power-sharing government has finally arrived in Northern Ireland.
Northern Ireland is often described as a problem of ‘two communities’.
It is true that two powerful ethno-nationalist blocs – Unionism and Nationalism – dominate our politics. Each bloc not only articulates a particular national aspiration, but also seeks to serve the interests of their own group. Election results are determined primarily on tribal rather than ideological or issue bases.
This is however too simplistic a description of identity within Northern Ireland. It overlooks both that there is considerable diversity within these two blocs, and that there is also a substantial number of people, including many liberals, who do not choose to associate with either.
It is helpful to view identity in three different respects.
The first is that of national identity. People variably describe themselves as primarily British, Irish, both British and Irish, Northern Irish, or even, for a small number – European.
There is obviously a strong correlation between those who see themselves as Unionists with Britishness, and those who see themselves as Nationalists with Irishness. Those of us who occupy the political centre tend to proportionally describe ourselves as Northern Irish.
It is fair to say that for both Unionists and Nationalists, their sense of Britishness and Irishness is not exactly reflective of how people in Great Britain or the Republic of Ireland see themselves.
It is surely baffling to people in Britain to see Orangemen protesting their supposed rights to parade down the Queen’s Highway, at the same time violently confronting the representatives of the Crown who are maintaining the rule of law.
The second aspect is that of political identity. Within Unionism and Nationalism, there are different strands. Each bloc contains extreme and more moderate political parties. The pro- and anti- Agreement factions within Unionism are most immediately obvious.
There are also a sizeable number of people – up to 15% of our population – who choose not to associate with either tribe. This ‘third tradition’ is admittedly diffuse. It is largely held together by what it is against – sectarian politics – rather than what it is for. But it was in recognition that Alliance represents this strand that we designated ourselves as “Centre” within the new Assembly.
The final aspect to identity is religion. The conflict in Northern Ireland has been primarily not about religion. Protestant and Catholic are frequently convenient labels for Unionism and Nationalism.
Once again, Protestantism and Catholicism are not monolithic blocs. Many Protestants often have more in common with many Catholics, and vice versa, than with each other. The Alliance Party especially is living proof of this.
Alliance has argued for devolution in Northern Ireland on two grounds.
Firstly, we believe that Northern Ireland constitutes a natural unit of governance. We share in the logic that while certain decisions are best taken at a national level, some are best taken at an international level, and others are best taken at a regional level.
In today’s world, this logic is more true than ever. The efficacy of the state is being challenged by both integrative and disintegrative forces. Devolution is simultaneously a natural response to both globalisation and the demands for greater decentralisation.
Devolution is now the norm throughout Europe. Until recently, Britain and Ireland had been the odd men out in Europe. There is now a heavy emphasis on a Europe of the Regions. I, myself, have represented Northern Ireland within the EU’s Committee of the Regions.
Regions have clearly become actors in their own right. They often co-operate together, bypassing their own national governments. Northern Ireland will fit particularly well into this model, especially as strong institutional links between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland were set out in the Good Friday Agreement.
In addition, this Agreement provides for a ‘Council of the Islands’. This will institutionalise relationships between what will become the regional governments of the British Isles.
Devolution to address the demands of minority groups within national societies has been commonplace across Europe. Often, minority groups are sufficiently concentrated in specific geographical areas; the devolution of power is often effective in dampening dangerous secessionist or independence movements. For example, this has been the case in Spain with both the Catalans and the Basques.
Northern Ireland is different however in that there are two competing ethno-nationalist identities co-existing on the same piece of territory.
The second reason why Alliance advocated devolution was that it could provide a framework for addressing the divided society of Northern Ireland.
Our communal differences could not be bridged if Northern Ireland was totally integrated into either the United Kingdom or a United Ireland.
A genuine settlement in Northern Ireland would only be possible if all sections of the Northern Ireland community shared in government.
A regional government provides this opportunity for power sharing. Even the Tories accepted this rationale for devolution!
Alliance faces a number of political challenges in the aftermath of the Agreement.
As a liberal party, we are naturally keen to promote individuality within Northern Ireland society. In itself, this is difficult within a polarised society.
But it is made much more difficult in that Unionism and Nationalism are recognised and entrenched, through special political rights, in the Agreement. The Alliance Party is not about managing Northern Ireland’s problems: it’s about transforming them.
However as many of Alliance’s ideas are reflected in that Agreement, we are keen not only to make it work but to build the Agreement.
My party has looked at a number of power-sharing experiments throughout the world. Some such as the Netherlands and Switzerland have worked. Others such as the Lebanon and Cyprus have failed.
Self-evidently, the moderate a conflict is to begin with then the easier it is to ameliorate. The greater that the different segments within a divided society interact with each, the more crosscutting cleavages are introduced and more stable a society becomes. Northern Ireland sadly remains a sectarian and segregated place.
Even more fundamentally, the parties need to agree upon the boundaries of the state. In Belgium, despite their deep divisions, both the Flemings and the Walloons by and large wish to remain part of Belgium. In contrast, the same cannot be said for the Greeks and Turks in Cyprus.
Notwithstanding the near universal acceptance of the Principle of Consent, Unionists want to maintain the Union, while Nationalists want a United Ireland. Indeed both believe the Agreement can deliver this for them. This poses a threat in the long term to the Agreement.
Therefore, rather than arguing over territory, it is important that we discuss how to unite people. Consequently, I want to focus upon the promotion of a common regional identity for Northern Ireland.
This would go some way to dampening the demands of Unionism and Nationalism, and would make Northern Ireland’s constitutional status less significant.
The track record of common identities in Northern Ireland is not good. Both Unionism and Nationalism have at times expected the other to feel perfectly at home in the United Kingdom or a United Ireland.
There would be great sensitivities over the terminology used to describe any such common identity. The use of the term ‘British’ and to a lesser extent ‘Northern Irish’ would alienate Nationalists. For many Unionists, the term ‘Irish’ can off-putting.
Furthermore, it is much more difficult to develop a common identity in places where strong identities already exist. By contrast, in immigrant societies, such as the United States or Australia, it was much easier to forge a new identity.
It is perhaps possible that loyalty to the Agreement could act as a substitute for this lack of common regional identity. Certainly within the United States, loyalty to the constitution and to the rule of law provides much of the glue that holds it together.
Elements of Unionism and Nationalism, alongside the political centre, have powerful vested interests in preserving the Agreement.
After some time, Unionists and Nationalists may become conditioned to working together in government.
Furthermore, a large portion of the population, after almost thirty years of violence, accepts the need for co-operation in government.
Finally, the strong protections for human rights and aspirations for equality of opportunity contained in the Agreement could help make people feel more comfortable within Northern Ireland.
Many of these possibilities would not be possible without devolution.
Yet, my instincts tell me that a more solid basis for a common regional identity in Northern Ireland will be required than merely loyalty to the Agreement.
Policies will have to be developed to help in fostering this sense of shared destiny among our people.
The truth is that the problem is glaring but that there are no easy answers.