Imagining a shared and inter-connected future
Haass striving for an Ulster at ease with its various ‘othernesses’
US diplomat Richard Haass (centre) assisted by Harvard professor Meghan O’Sullivan (right) during round table talks at the Europa Hotel in Belfast – “Haass’s agenda shows how difficult issues were parked to get the executive running and how limited reconciliation has been at base level.” PHOTOGRAPH: PAUL FAITH/PA WIRE
Trí na chéile is an Irish phrase meaning things mixed up among themselves, in disorder, confused, and also upset or worried. The English translation of trí is through and of a chéile, each other (in reference to two or more persons or things or to parts of things taken together, as my dictionary notes). Céile itself means companion or spouse, but also opponent in a battle or game.
An English language phrase common in Ulster is “through-other” meaning physically untidy or mentally confused and also unplanned, formless or chaotic, according to Terence Dolan’s estimable A Dictionary of Hiberno-English. He says it is a direct translation of trí na chéile, in which case it might be better expressed as “through each other”. The phrase is used universally and not only by one or other community there – and is also well-known in Scotland.
In the week when Richard Haass began his hearings on flags, parades and the past in Northern Ireland and three weeks on from the death of Seamus Heaney it is worth recalling Heaney’s reflections on the phrase as a possible metaphor for an Ulster more at ease with its various othernesses and more willing to acknowledge how they mutually determine each other.
His lecture “Through-Other Places, Through-Other Times: The Irish Poet and Britain”, delivered in the University of Aberdeen in 2001, explores the theme. It hinges on a poem by Bertie Rodgers which begins: “There is a through-otherness about Armagh/ Of tower and steeple/ Up on the hill are the arguing graves of the kings/ And below are the people.”
Heaney notes that for Rodgers, whose father was of indigenous Irish stock Irish and mother of Scottish planter ancestry, it “wasn’t a question of the otherness of any one part of his inheritance, more a recognition of the through-otherness of all of them”.
He resists the poem’s last two lines: “Up on the hill are the graves of the garrulous kings/ Who at last can agree” as perhaps too winsome, dodging the dangers and difficulties with the comforting notion that there are faults on both sides - “the old palliative catchphrase that has got Northern Ireland people through embarrassing situations for years and at the same time got them nowhere”.
True through-otherness would only be possible when the “imperial, othering power” of British becomes Britannic, allowing equal status for Celt and Saxon, Scoti and Cymri – a process begun by devolution, he believed.
Northern Ireland’s deputy first minister Martin McGuinness recalled being inspired by Heaney’s idea of through-otherness after the poet’s death. He referred to it when taking office in 2007, by imagining a shared and inter-connected future. The executive is based on a consociational model of compulsory proportional power-sharing among separate ethno-political blocs as a means of providing equal status and containing conflict.
Haass’s agenda shows how difficult issues were parked to get the executive running and how limited reconciliation has been at base level. The power-sharing approach tends to freeze out otherness rather than allow it penetrate the ethnic self, so reproducing sectarian divisions. This enables transition beyond violent conflict but cannot transform the conditions that gave rise to it. Power-sharing thus needs time limits, according to critics, like quotas to encourage gender equality; alternative political and social identities need more space to develop than it allows.
Hence there is a widespread desire to find respectful compromises on flags and parades, but less optimism about dealing truly with the past. In a recent speech Eamon Gilmore signalled the Government’s determination to remain centrally involved with the British as co-guarantors of the Belfast Agreement. He indicated a willingness to confront the Republic’s role in the Troubles. He spoke of “the need to provide a space in which civic society organisations can play a role in building a reconciled and prosperous society, free from political patronage or influence”. And he underlined the role of the Bill of Rights and the Civic Forum as essential parts of the Agreement.
Such issues should become more prominent after Haass’s report due in December. Some support another Opsahl Commission like the 1990s one to articulate them. Their potential is heralded by the gradual if hesitant emergence of a Northern Ireland identity claimed by up to one third of respondents in recent surveys, distinct from unionist or nationalist ones and drawing on all traditions.
Such a through-otherness needs to be encouraged as the real field force of that identity, a more comfortable state of untidiness not afraid of its confusions.