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  • irishtimes.com - Posted: April 3, 2009 @ 9:32 am

    Shakespeare vs Chekhov in Northern Ireland

    Deaglán de Bréadún

    Talking to a friend about Northern Ireland yesterday we mulled over the dangers and possibilities that exist, or in some cases lurk, in the present situation. The killings of the two British soldiers and the (Catholic) police officer as well as the recent street disruption suggested there are more deadly dangers than hopeful possibilities at the moment.

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    Easter is coming up shortly. It’s the anniversary of the 1916 Rising, of course, so the dissident republicans will be endeavouring to bring off a big “spectacular”. The blood is up over Easter in republican circles and it is seen as a time for renewal of vows to the cause. The morbid accountancy of these matters is that a fatal shooting at this time of year generates greater support than at any other.

    I am sure the dissidents are well aware of this stark and terrible reality. Likewise the mainstream republicans in Sinn Féin who have opted for a very different course of action.

    After 25 years of war and a campaign that made the 1956-62 endeavour look like an afternoon picnic they chose the path of persuasion. Unlike the area freed in the War of Independence, there is a very large majority in the North which wants to remain in the United Kingdom. The bomb and the bullet won’t change that and the only way to do it is through politics.

    Personally, I believe it can be done but it will take time and, more importantly, leadership. Politics is long hard road and can be very frustrating at times. Enoch Powell, a largely-forgotten Tory maverick in the House of Commons, said that all political careers end in failure. It’s a sobering thought, especially for republicans inspired by the apocalyptic vision of Patrick Pearse.

    But some 20 years ago the unification of Germany – a very different country with a very different history it should be said – was achieved without a single shot being fired. Apartheid was overthrown in South Africa, mainly by political means rather than armed actions.

    There are some parallels between the North and the longrunning Israeli-Palestinian stand-off. The Israeli novelist Amos Oz has said that there are two types of resolution to a conflict: Shakespearean and Chekhovian.

    In a Shakespeare drama, the stage may be littered with bodies but all the wrongs are righted, all injuries revenged, all loose ends tied-up. In the dramas of the great Russian writer Anton Chekhov everyone is brokenhearted, embittered, disappointed, sad and disillusioned – but they remain alive.

    We are in the middle of a Chekhov play in the North at the moment but there are signs that the audience – including perhaps sections of the media – is getting bored and feels tempted to go next door to see the sword-fight in Hamlet. Meanwhile someone is phoning in a warning to say there is a bomb in the theatre but, as is supposed to have happened in Omagh, the correct message isn’t getting through.

    • Ireland should try bring the DEATH PENALTY back for thoes found guilty for MURDER CASES after the guilty person has ONE APPEAL, to show IRELAND means business. What a waste of tax money to keep these worthless ones alive with a life sentence. I feel the do-gooders have to much say in IRELAND and the people should get active in their goverment.

    • Sean O'Loinsigh says:

      A fundamental problem with Northern Ireland, as distinct from the old German Democratic Republic (East Germany) and South Africa, is that the majority view (continued union with Great Britain) is not accorded the finality which is accorded to the relevant majority views in those other territories. In a way, this is reasonable; the minority view in N.I. (a United Ireland) deserves – in my subjective opinion – more leeway than the minority views of discontented Stalinists or White supremacists; also the N.I. minority is not so very small. But it leaves us with the problem of continued instability in N.I., which seems like an invitation to terrorists to play another hand and see what happens. What N.I. desperately needs, I think, is constitutional finality. The principles enunciated of parity of esteem and so forth seem to me to imply, at present, that if a majority of the people of N.I. should desire a United Ireland, then a constitutional transformation should accordingly proceed; but if a later majority should again prefer to resume the old Union with GB, a further corresponding constitutional transformation would be required, and so on toties quoties. There is inbuilt instability, leaving extremists with all to play for, at the expense of the ordinary people of the province, who wish to get on with their lives. What is needed, I believe, is for erudite observers in the old Republican tradition, such as Deaglán, whose above essay prompts my remarks, to conceive of a solution which is both just and final; which is democratic; which acknowledges the right of Irishmen to their shared heritage with England as well as to their older, separate Irish heritage; which requires, throughout the island, those Irishmen of one predominant view to respect those of the other predominant view; and that Irishmen would have, as each one chooses, a voice in London or a voice in Dublin. I wonder if the old Anglo-Irish Agreement of the 1980s wasn’t in some ways close to the mark – especially if it were extended to include the whole of the UK, and also to apply to the Republic in reverse. The challenge is to crystallize the Republican Dream short of a United Ireland, pure and simple.

    • John Doherty says:

      It is not quite right to say Shakespeare always ends up with all wrongs righted. There are numerous innocents killed in Shakespeare’s plays. For example: Rosencrantz, Guildenstern, Ophelia, Mamilius, Antigonus, Gertrude, Polonius, Henry VI, Princes Edward and Richard, Hastings, Vaughan, Grey, Gloucester(Not the Richard III one.), Arthur, Lavinia, etc. These are few from a long list. There is no reconciliation for Malvolio, Shylock, Troilus, Cressida, Timon, etc., another long list. What happens in a Shakespeare tragedy is that all the trouble-makers, including innocent ones (eg. Hamlet), are killed off or die so there is peace, if not resolution in the end. For a fresh look at Shakespeare, including answering the question as to whether he wrote the plays or not, read the new book, The Ignorance Of Shakespeare, Eloquent Books, New York.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for that erudite contribution, John Doherty. Not sure Hamlet was an innocent trouble-maker. In today’s Dublin parlance he was “a bit of a messer”. If he had simply dispatched his father’s killer instead of hemming and hawing, Ophelia, Polonius, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, et al, would have lived. But then we wouldn’t have one of the great plays of all time!
      Sean O’Loinsigh: Your contribution is thought-provoking. You seem to be suggesting what the late nationalist leader in the North, Eddie McAteer described as “a little United Nations of these islands”. He got into a lot of trouble for that at the time with the republican element. But maybe it is time to start looking at the bigger picture. Unlike McAteer’s time, we have devolution in Scotland and Wales and the Scots could well vote for Independence. Everyone’s in the European Union too, which should be a help in this context. Are you suggesting that the North could have simultaneous representation in Westminster and the Dail? That should please republicans because it would be a step closer to unity whereas unionists would still have a living, tangible link with the UK. The somewhat-neglected British-Irish Council is a body that brings the two governments and the devolved assemblies together under one roof. It is mainly a talk-shop but talk sometimes leads to action. Jaw-jaw is better than war-war.

    • Sean O'Loinsigh says:

      In reply to Deaglán:

      Does the political unity of Ireland have to be a Holy Grail? One would expect republicans to be more concerned with the form of government than the extent of the relevant territory. On the other hand, a unionist would seem to be more concerned with the territory than the form of government (quite a few ancestors of unionists arrived in Ireland on the back of the republican tyrant, Cromwell). Yet, I imagine, a United Ireland within the Republic of Great Britain and Ireland would be as unsatisfactory to the majority of all Irish people, as a United Ireland comprising a separate kingdom (with even, say, our popular president as queen) would be to Irish unionists.

      A classic republican (such as I understand Deaglán to be) is a conscientious believer in a certain form of government. In the Irish context, if twenty-six thirty-seconds of the land are delivered over independently to this system as per the wishes of the majority inhabitants there; if the remaining six thirty-seconds are delivered over to a larger democratic monarchy as per the wishes of the majority inhabitants there; and if the minorities in both parts should become fully protected from majority oppression (by structured relationships with the government of the other part – of which the Anglo-Irish Agreement was a model of sorts), I should say that such republicans would have the basis of a good night’s sleep.

      But a majority in the Republic is dissatisfied (at least now, if not in 1922) in another sense: that they don’t also control N.I. This is surely less a matter of republicanism, than nationalism: the belief of the majority in the Republic that they are deprived of something rightfully theirs. The issue is worthy of enquiry. Does the territory of N.I. more rightfully belong to the Republic (say in trust for all of the people of Ireland) than belong to its inhabitants, or to the people of the UK as a whole? When – I don’t know – was Ireland last politically united outside of British sovereignty? Such a territorial claim would need to be argued on its merits beyond the bald claim made in the original 1937 Constitution; an expert apologia along these lines would be interesting; and also worthwhile as it might help to focus (open) minds on the possibility of regarding any existing or future settlement as both final and just. The 1922 partition is, I think, regrettable (not least because of its arbitrariness), but it is the constitutional basis (in an international sense) not just of the controversial N.I., but also of the Republic.

      A settlement now – final and just – and so regarded by all concerned should be the aim, rather than concessions seen in terms of steps towards a United Ireland, or anything else. The settlement (even if it should not be a United Ireland) should be so final that even if a majority in N.I. were later to favour a United Ireland, it would still hold. Then we will have a foothold against terrorists from all quarters.

    • Deaglán says:

      Thanks for that thoughtful comment, Sean. I have to say that if you seek to close down the possibility of a United Ireland once and for all you will only drive a significant sector to violence. Good Friday offers the chance to persuade a sufficient minority of unionists that the unity path is the best. That is not an insurmountable challenge. After all, Wolfe Tone said the unity of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter was his “means” of achieving independence, did he not? At the same time there is no harm in looking at the paths taken in previous times. Could the Home Rule option have achieved the same as, or perhaps even more than, the tragic violence of the War of Independence and the even more bloody Civil War? Could a more measured approach in the North in the late 60s/early 70s have brought a better result than what happened in the end? Even the Treaty negotiators envisaged the gradual unification of the island, did they not?

    • The celtic tiger years brought their share of Revisionism to the fore.No amount of blather or west british meanderings will change the fact that a large number of Irish people still would prefer a united Ireland with the consent of the majority in the north, and what’s wrong with that? In response to a previous comment ,another west british, revisionist guilt ridden sop to the power of the United kingdom has been outlined by Sean O Loinsigh. How does Northern Ireland belong to the united KIngdom exactly? Such nonsense is laughable if the situation wasn’t so serious.

    • Sean O'Loinsigh says:

      Home Rule, which might originally have been a solution (avoiding the War of Independence and the Civil War), turned out – when implemented only in N.I. – to be part of the problem. I agree that N.I. was mismanaged in the 60′s and 70′s – I would add right up to the present time. Also, I fear that Deaglán is right in that any final settlement, short of a United Ireland, could result in a renewal of violence.

      But that threat of violence is no more an argument for a United Ireland than a counter-threat of violence would be for retention of the Union. My point is that if we can, by argument and reason, identify a solution, which does justice to both nationalists and unionists – a compromise based on the merits of historical and political considerations – we should also make it final. This finality, I suggest, is necessary to achieve long-term peace and stability, even at the risk of short-term violence.

      Because of the received principle in N.I. of parity of esteem, another received principle, the rule against ‘majoritarianism’, cuts both ways. If the majority preference for union with G.B. were to change to unity with the Republic, we would have the same problems in reverse, with the Republic and G.B. exchanging roles. And what happens if that new majority view should later become again a minority view? We’re surely not saying that sauce for the goose is not sauce for the gander? Or are we? Perhaps a case can be argued …

      A sounder approach would be, I think, to try to crystallise the notion of parity of esteem in a fair and lasting settlement, which holds – irrespective of whichever view (unity or union) commands, for the time being, a majority in N.I. Among ideologues, there would be no winners – but no losers either; among ordinary people of different loyalties, there would be a sense of relief in permanent compromise at the highest constitutional level, corresponding to the compromises which they have to make all the time with their neighbours; for actual and would-be terrorists, there would be, for the first time, nothing to be gained by bullets and bombs. They would be attacking a settlement belonging to the whole of the people.

      As to what that permanent settlement might be, we may be sure that it would have to be original, as there are aspects of the problem, which are unique. We would benefit, I believe, by looking at a number of international scenarios, which contain, in each case, some points of similarity to our problem, such as: Hong Kong, Cyprus, Alsace-Lorraine, Gibraltar, the old Soviet Union, Tibet, The Falkland Islands, Transylvania and the Republic of Moldova. (Romania is interesting in that it wears two hats: it’s a bit like the Republic of Ireland in relation to Moldova, and a bit like GB in relation to Transylvania.) In the Republic of Ireland, we need, I believe, to develop our thinking about the separate notions of people and territory; the purpose of government; whether a unitary government is a good test of a United Ireland; and whether there might not be better tests such as a unity in freedom for everyone?

      Mr MacDonagh may be right about ownership; but if so he would need to explain how hundreds of years, down to the present, of UK sovereignty over the territory of N.I.; massive investments of money in its administration and infrastructure (however incompetently executed); British blood spilled in its internal and external defence; the treaty with the Irish people as a whole in 1922, and later agreements; and the continuous support of a majority of inhabitants of the province (albeit mainly descendants of planters): leaves N.I. in no way belonging to the UK. By all means let us be prejudiced if we wish, but we should ground ourselves with better moral footholds than Mr MacDonagh is offering.

    • The facts remain clear. The unique Gaelic structure of Ireland was broken up by a colonial policy, first under Elizabeth and then under Cromwell. The apartheid policies and imposition of colonialism deprived Ireland of its language, its laws and its right to self-determination. It has become fashionable to deny these facts or try to sweep them under the carpet in the interests of political ecumenism in a cloud of Revisionist claptrap, but the facts stand and they won’t go away! Yes, the IRA commited atrocious acts and that cannot be denied, nor can it be denied that the English policy toward Ireland throughout history has been colonialist and lamentable

    • Deaglán says:

      Had an interesting conversation with someone doing a media project on the Border. Had the nationalist MPs remained in Westminster, pro tem, they would have had a voice in, and a vote on, the final settlement. It is now 90 years since Dan Breen and his colleagues killed the two RIC men at Soloheadbeg. Are we any closer to a United Ireland? There is an argument that guerrilla campaigns actually suit hardline Tories and Unionists because they can ultimately be contained and defeated or at least neutralised. Remember how the Israelis promoted Hamas to undermine the PLO. The real threat, according to this perspective, is when uppity nationalists start infiltrating the State apparatus and “hollowing out the Union” in Martin Mansergh’s famous phrase.

    • John Doherty says:

      Hello Deaglán. You’re right, Hamlet wasn’t all that innocent. After all he was responsible in one way or another for all the deaths in the play except Gertrude’s. However, my point remains. What wrongs were righted when Juliet or Cordelia were killed? Sure, when the stage is littered with bodies an uneasy peace my be achieved simply because there is nobody left to continue the conflict.

    • Deaglán says:

      The original contrast between Shakespeare and Chekhov was drawn in the context of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict by Israeli writer Amos Oz. I am giving two lengthy quotes from him below. I don’t want this to get too academic, but there is definitely an air of finality at the end of Hamlet, say, that you don’t get in Chekhov. The bad guys (or gals) are dead at the end of King Lear and Hamlet – so, too, are the good guys unfortunately, but that’s what makes them tragedies. The deaths of Romeo and Juiet brought the feuding factions to their senses, did they not? I am desperately trying to remember my school Shakespeare now. Macbeth became a bad guy and ended up dead.
      Whether, in Oz’s phrase, “justice of sorts prevails” at the end of Shakespeare may be open to dispute, but I think it is broadly true. Indeed, his analogy may be a little crude but I still believe it is helpful. If I understand him correctly, he is saying that the two sides can fight each other until one of them achieves outright victory or until both are destroyed and/or suffer so many casualties that neither can continue fighting. Alternatively, they can conclude a peace agreement based on the two-state solution which represents a compromise for both sides but brings an end ot the fighting and allows life to go on, however frustratingly.
      You could apply the metaphor to the Irish situation where Collins and Griffith went for the Chekhovian solution of the Treaty which represented a partial advance towards complete unification and independence, whereas the anti-Treatyites opted for the “Shakespearean” approach of no compromise, on to the high ground of the republic, one side must triumph totally over the other. The stage was, tragically, strewn with bodies at the end.

      Amos Oz quotations:-

      1) “At the end of a Shakespeare tragedy,” Oz wrote in 1993, “the stage is strewn with dead bodies, and maybe there’s some justice hovering high above. A Chekhov tragedy, on the other hand, ends with everybody disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, disappointed, absolutely shattered, but still alive. And I want a Chekhovian resolution, not a Shakespearean one, for the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy. These, in a nutshell, are my politics.” http://www.thenation.com/doc/20050124/wilentz

      2) “The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been a tragedy, a clash between one very powerful, very convincing, very painful claim over this land and another no less powerful, no less convincing claim. Now such a clash between right claims can be resolved in one of two manners. There’s the Shakespeare tradition of resolving a tragedy with the stage hewed with dead bodies and justice of sorts prevails. But there is also the Chekhov tradition. In the conclusion of the tragedy by Chekhov, everyone is disappointed, disillusioned, embittered, heartbroken, but alive. And my colleagues and I have been working, trying…not to find the sentimental happy ending, a brotherly love, a sudden honeymoon to the Israeli-Palestinian tragedy, but a Chekhovian ending, which means clenched teeth compromise.” (PBS Interview 2002) .

    • brower says:


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