Haass talks destined to end in fudge as they continue to endorse sectarianism

Opinion: waving a flag or backing the Provos’ war is not the only possible identity marker


Any time I feel depressed about the North, which is regularly, I think back on the occasion I marched up the Shankill and down the Falls and was greeted at every turn with smiles.

The march, in February 2006, was in support of a strike by postal workers against the sacking of a sorter at the Shankill office. The Falls depot came out within hours.

Communication Workers’ Union branch secretary Eoin Davey told me as we marched of the Falls vote to stop work. “The idea of the action crossing the divide didn’t come up. This had nothing to do with the community anybody came from.”

And there’s the point. The relationship of the work stoppage to the sectarian division was of a different character to the relationship to sectarianism of the conferences, away-days and programmes of action organised by “consultants” who seemingly believe togetherness can best be achieved through each community defining itself by reference to those elements which distinguish it from “the other side”.

Complexity of respect
A little while ago, a friend attended a session of non-sectarian training sponsored by her employer. Each must respect the “culture” of the other side, it was explained. For example, the Orange Order was an expression of the identity of the Protestant community: to disrespect the order was to disrespect Protestants.

My friend intervened to say that she regarded the order as a bunch of bigots quite undeserving of respect. Shock and dismay all round. Such hostility to the Protestant community was intolerable. “But”, she piped up, “I am a Protestant.”

She was told to take a course in “single-identity work”. She’d have to learn to love her local lodge before she could engage fully in efforts to bring the communities together.

This approach is par for the course in the North. It was set out by senior Sinn Féin spokespersons defending the IRA’s armed campaign as the essential story of the Catholic community and DUP leaders associating themselves with nightly flag-waggers and councillors who openly call for the killing of republicans. All we ask is that they respect our culture . . .

As if reverence for the war record of the Provos and blocking roads to force the flying of the union flag all day every day can encapsulate the aspirations of the people of neighbouring districts.

This is the understanding of sectarianism which will inform the imminent negotiations, particularly on parades, to be chaired by US envoy Richard Haass – which makes it certain the talks will end, as ever, in fudge or failure – most likely fudge since none of the parties, particularly Sinn Féin, can afford failure.

A naive person might assume that instead of another trudge around the concentric circuits of the peace process in the hope of chancing on a new idea, we might ask what had worked or come closest to working in the past and how this might be replicated. On what occasions have sizeable numbers of Catholic and Protestants sloughed off their Orange or Green identities to make common cause?

Trade union historians can rhyme them out: 1907, 1911, 1919, 1932, and, in modern times, the marches, rallies, work stoppages and other manifestations of discontent which have marked defence of jobs and working conditions, protection of pensions, the NHS, etc. On each occasion, people came together not because they’d been preached at or put under pressure to “support peace” but because the business at hand required them to link arms.

In what other context could a march of Catholics and Protestants proceed up the Shankill and return by the Falls, no rancour and no end of workplace banter?

In what other circumstance would I be able to walk unworried along the Shankill and people step off the pavement to say – virtually the same words every time: “You are very welcome on the Shankill Road, Mr McCann”? Those who dismiss these thoughts as wishful thinking should be asked how they answer this question.

Had any of these occurrences lasted, there would have been no call for the return of Richard Haass. Each was a glimpse of what’s possible, always snuffed out by a resurgence of sectarian feeling drummed up and drawn out by those who saw unity along these lines not as a harbinger of hope but as an appalling vista. But these things happened and will happen again. The task is to make them happen on a more sustainable basis.

Community vs social being
None of this means it would be possible or even perhaps desirable to swamp communal consciousness in a sudden efflorescence of proletarian fervour. As far forward as it is possible to see, people in the North will be aware of the community they come from. But this needn’t be the sole or main determinant of their politics or social being.

The best strategy for building peace would be to urge support for those who follow the lead of the postal strikers. Some of the most passionate peacemongers prefer things the way they are and wouldn’t be seen dead at a strikers’ demo.

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