Northern Ireland: policing the public’s self-esteem

The insistence that all parties clearly and continually condemn the splinter IRA attacks reveals much about the peace process.

Brendan O'Neill

Brendan O'Neill
chief political writer

Topics World

Following the recent acts of violence by IRA splinter groups in Northern Ireland, many seem more obsessed by the language used to condemn the attacks than by the attacks themselves.

Sinn Fein’s choice of words has been subjected to frontpage, high-level scrutiny. The Telegraph felt that party president Gerry Adams’ description of the Real IRA shootings at Massereene barracks on Saturday – which Adams said were ‘wrong and counterproductive’ – was ‘weasel-worded’, possibly implying that ‘some strategic error had been made rather a callous act carried out’. Others want to know why it took Sinn Fein 14 hours to issue the statement and why the statement was so ‘cold’.

The Irish Independent summarised the discomfort over Sinn Fein’s statement on Massereene: ‘SF leadership under fire for the “ambiguity” of their reaction.’ Commentators complain the statement was too ‘dispassionate’. In an attempt to get Adams to make a clearer condemnation, one journalist asked him if he was ‘sickened’ by the shooting of soldiers and pizza delivery boys; Adams said the ‘dreadful nature’ of the attacks was certainly ‘horrific’. Such has been the concern in Ireland that Sinn Fein’s statement on Massereene wasn’t clear enough that Irish PM Brian Cowen phoned party vice-president Martin McGuinness, to see what he really thought of the attacks, and reported back that he was ‘satisfied there was no equivocation’.

Sinn Fein quickly learnt the lessons of the post-Massereene interrogation of its language. When there was a second IRA splinter attack on Monday – the killing of a policeman by the Continuity IRA in Craigavon – the party became the epitome of unequivocal outrage. McGuinness said the killers were ‘traitors to the island of Ireland’. When pressed, he said that, yes, the killing of the policeman was ‘murder’. Where the media had been so concerned about the coldness of Sinn Fein’s Massereene statement, they now got overexcited about its Craigavon statement. One BBC journalist said the ‘symbolism’ of Sinn Fein using the ‘M-word’ is ‘in some ways even more remarkable than some of the events thrown up the peace process’.

Remarkably, the language debate ain’t over yet. There is a lurking suspicion that the reason Sinn Fein took 14 hours to issue a dispassionate statement about the killing of soldiers at Massereene, while it much more quickly condemned the killing of a policeman in Craigavon, is because it still sees the British Army as an illegitimate presence in Northern Ireland but is supportive of the newly named Police Service. So has Sinn Fein really changed, experts want to know? And might its use of insufficiently condemnatory language even ‘encourage more people to join the terrorists’ cause’, as one newspaper fears?

I have a different question: why this concern with the language used after the attacks rather than with the nature and meaning (if there was any) of the attacks themselves? The myopic focus on wording, on phraseology, on levels of condemnation, on the tone of the passion/dispassion used by politicians is striking. It provides a telling insight into the post-political, managerial and anti-democratic nature of the ‘peace process’ that governs post-conflict Northern Ireland. Ultimately it confirms the elevation of symbolic gesture over political debate, where what one says and how one says it is more important than what one believes or what action one takes. In the peace process, gesture and reassurance are all, and the role of politicians is to contribute to ‘confidence-building measures’ by making statements that are to everybody’s taste. This is politics as an illusionist’s trick.

In its own terms, the insistence that Sinn Fein’s leaders make a wordy performance of their opposition to the splinter attacks, in order to convince us that they have changed and are committed to the peace process rather than to the old violent ways, is utterly bizarre. Anyone who knows anything about recent Anglo-Irish history will know that Sinn Fein is a completely different party to the one that it was 20 years ago. Its military wing, the Provisional IRA, stopped fighting against British rule in Ireland in 1994. Since then, the PIRA has reportedly buried all of its weapons in inaccessible vats of concrete (the only PIRA guns still in use are those which members of the Real IRA took with them when they split from the PIRA in 1997).

Even more important than this fact of irreversible military defeat is the fact that the Irish republican movement no longer politically objects to British interference in Ireland. It has abandoned, wholesale, its goal of expelling British forces and reuniting Ireland. Sinn Fein and the IRA once claimed to be the ‘legitimate government’ of Ireland, the true heirs to the 1916 declaration of an Irish Republic, who were upholding ‘the right of the people of Ireland to the ownership of Ireland’. Now Sinn Fein accepts its position as just another political party representing Northern Ireland’s Catholic minority in the peace process.

It might be true that Sinn Fein took 14 hours to comment on Massereene because it doesn’t want to alienate members of its community who are still against the British presence, and it might be true that Sinn Fein leaders still have a lingering, old-fashioned cultural objection to British soldiers more than they do to the Police Service of Northern Ireland (on whose board Sinn Fein leaders sit). But Sinn Fein absolutely does not question the legitimacy of Britain’s governance of Northern Ireland. On the contrary, it now continually calls for more British engagement in the peace process and for the British government to ‘face up to its responsibilities’ in finding a solution in Ireland, as it did again after the recent splinter attacks.

Yet all of the clear, on-the-record, indisputable facts of Sinn Fein’s principle-shedding over the past 20 years are ignored in the demand that it make clearer and clearer statements of its commitment to peace, in order to reassure Unionist leaders, reassure the British government, and prevent everyday republicans from ‘joining the terrorists’ cause’. This is because the peace process has transformed a political conflict into a clash of identities that has to be managed and massaged endlessly. It has rewritten the 25-year conflict in Northern Ireland – a war between the British state and the PIRA over sovereignty, democracy and the right to rule – as an inter-communal spat between two groups of people, Catholics and Protestants, who just couldn’t see eye-to-eye. And when Northern Ireland’s problems are understood in this way, not as a national clash but as a failure of respect for ‘the Other’, then the role of politicians is no longer to find a political solution but to manage relations between the two volatile communities.

The entire political process becomes re-focused around words and gestures and statements and postures. Everything is directed towards ‘building confidence’. This is why it is called a peace process, because it’s a permanent thing, a continual process of keeping and managing the peace. The peace process is not about moving towards a definable endpoint; in fact, definable endpoints are frowned upon as old-fashioned and exclusivist. Rather it is about making sure that each side’s voice is heard and respected at all times, and that both communities feel ‘confident’. All of the declarations and institutions of the peace process have emphasised the need to move away from any idea of solutions or the transformation of society towards ‘inclusivist agendas’ and the management of society’s alleged propensity for conflict. The peace process continually throws up declarations and frameworks rather than constitutions or programmes.

Even the Assembly founded in 1998, the heart of the New Northern Ireland, is not a traditional parliamentary chamber where political issues are resolved and programmes of action argued over and pushed through. It is a glorified talking shop and statement-producing machine. Everyone elected to the assembly must declare whether they are ‘nationalist, Unionist or other’ so that the assembly can continue the peace process’s central task of ensuring respect for both identities. And one of the assembly’s key aims is to reach ‘sufficiency of consensus’ on every issue, to show that all traditions in Northern Ireland are being respected and having their egos massaged. The peace process did not only defuse war in Northern Ireland – it defused debate, too, replacing politics, which is apparently a dangerous endeavour, with the management of aspirations and the policing of the public’s self-esteem levels.

The mad reactions to Sinn Fein’s statements should be seen in this light. When the two-traditions view of the Irish problem is instituted at every level, then politics becomes a performance of respect rather than a future-oriented search for answers, and politicians’ language is minutely monitored to ensure it doesn’t offend anyone. The endless wordplay of the peace process has made politics in Northern Ireland into an entirely elite endeavour, where British officials, republicans and Unionists make coded statements to please each other, and the media, and in order to keep in check the masses’ alleged emotional fragility and/or terroristic tendencies.

Brendan O’Neill is editor of spiked. Visit his website here. His satire on the green movement – Can I Recycle My Granny and 39 Other Eco-Dilemmas – is published by Hodder & Stoughton. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

Previously on spiked

Brendan O’Neill called Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams the ghosts of politics past and discussed the admission of government collusion with loyalist paramilitaries. Kevin Rooney described the IRA’s shift from insurgency to identity and railed against the way politics is being written out of the history of the conflict. Chris Gilligan revealed the impact of therapy culture on Northern Ireland’s police. Or read more at spiked issue Ireland.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics World


Want to join the conversation?

Only spiked supporters and patrons, who donate regularly to us, can comment on our articles.

Join today