Political Correctness Applied: Multiculturalism in Northern Ireland

Michel Savaric, Université Toulouse-le-Mirail

At least since the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985, it is possible to say that the search for a solution to the conflict in Northern Ireland has been guided by the principles of multiculturalism. Particularly since the peace process began in 1994, a new political vocabulary has become commonplace with phrases such as the 'two traditions,' 'parity of esteem,' 'cultural diversity,' or 'pluralism.'

This is a form of political correctness which all the actors of the conflict now accept as the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 shows with, for instance, the recognition of 'linguistic diversity, including in Northern Ireland, the Irish language, Ulster-Scots and the languages of the various ethnic communities, all of which are part of the cultural wealth of the island of Ireland' (Deutsch, 157). As we will see, multiculturalism amounts to a justification of the segregated social structures that are prevalent in Northern Ireland. This approach leads to a theoretical and practical dead-end which can only be overcome if we question the meaning of culture.

The concept of 'cultural diversity' is first of all being promoted by the Community Relations Council (CRC). The CRC is an extra-governmental structure which was created in 1990. It is dependent on the Central Community Relations Unit which depends itself on the Northern Ireland Office. [Hutchinson, 165-75]

In 1990, Dr Maurice Hayes, Chairman of the Cultural Traditions Group of the Community Relations Council, expressed the philosophy of his administration:

The Group's philosophy involves a general acceptance of the validity of all cultural traditions, the importance of tradition in the creation of a sense of identity, the importance of group identity as a means of self-fulfilment and to give a sense of security to the individual, that difference is not necessarily destructive or damaging, and can be positively enervating in the society, that Northern Ireland cannot ignore or suppress any of the cultural values, that there has been such a degree of interaction between the various elements of the culture that there is unlikely to be a pure-bred or pedigree version of anything and that life is likely to be richer and conflict more likely to be contained in a multi-cultural society with pluralist values. [Hayes, 19]

So we can discern some of the Community Relations Council's guiding principles: all cultures are legitimate, all communities have a right to celebrate their distinctive cultures and traditions. Maurice Hayes also implies that social groups secure in their identities and free to practise their cultures have nothing to fear from each other. In a nutshell, cultural diversity is a positive thing for society and the CRC welcomes it.

So the CRC aims to reassure communities as regards their identities in the hope this will bring about a reconciliation. For others, such as historian Roy Foster, reconciliation has to happen within a more political framework. This framework could be the European Community as he explained in a conference given by the Cultural Traditions Group at the Queen's University of Belfast. The Cultural Traditions Group was in fact in charge of defining the policy of the Community Relations Council.

Foster's main argument was that cultural diversity does not necessarily lead to conflict. Arguing against any form of historical determinism, he endeavoured to demonstrate that nationalism and cultural exclusivism are in fact recent phenomena (end of the 19th century) which were far from being inevitable.

The very notion of indivisible sovereignty is now being questioned; feasible or not, the concept of dual allegiance and cultural diversity are surely associated. Other areas where comparative history study might open up new perspectives involve the practice of jurisdiction over designated individuals rather than specific territories: allegiance, in a sense, as an option rather than an imposition. Already it is being suggested that ethnic identification might be interpreted in a more flexible and contingent way, which might query the old zero-sum game, and break up some of the supposed congruencies. We might even be beginning to question whether nationalism need imply the politics of old-fashioned separatist republicanism. [19-20]

Foster's reference to Republicanism is interesting and could give the impression that there lies the only cause to the 'problem' in Northern Ireland. So Foster defines an approach based on a change of mentalities as a way out of the conflict.

Multiculturalism, in its specific Northern Ireland formulation, is a theory which posits that the two communities in Northern Ireland have their own cultures. Northern Ireland is therefore a multi-cultural, diverse, or plural society. Multiculturalism is not in itself problematic, what is problematic is the politicisation of cultural differences. The Community Relations Council aims at a de-politicisation of culture. Thus Maurice Hayes summarised the main object of the Cultural Traditions Group: "to help Protestants to contemplate the Irish language without necessarily feeling offended by it, or for Catholics to look on Orange processions without feeling intimated" (p. 18).

If multiculturalism seems to reign supreme, it would be wrong to assume it has not been criticised. Thus David Miller has edited a book openly intended as a challenge to this approach he judges pro-British and influenced by Unionist ideology (xx). Bill Rolston in particular specifically denounces multiculturalism . According to Rolston, multicultural theory eludes the historical and structural causes of the conflict as well as stakes of power. Behind the CRC initiatives he discerns an attempt at de-politicising Irish, Nationalist culture. This is certainly true but does not solely apply to Nationalist culture.

Concerning the Community Relations Council, other authors such as Finlayson have brought to light a certain contradiction in its guiding principles. Indeed Hayes on the one hand referred to "group identity" and its accompanying culture and on the other hand to the individual and the fact "group" culture does not really exist in Northern Ireland. According to Finlayson, this is a contradiction typical of liberal, post-modern thinking.

This is a neat expression of the attempt to combine enlightened liberalism with a valorisation of tradition. At the same time as welcoming group identity, it is suggested that there isn't really any such thing. In this argument the condition for liberal tolerance, once thought hampered by arcane tradition, becomes tradition itself; while the condition for the maintenance of, and respect for tradition, is liberal tolerance. This is a neat circularity and would be extremely attractive were it not for the fact that it is contradictory and bypasses the problem entirely. Traditionalism proscribes liberal openness and tolerance because they undermine tradition and identity. [80]

Such liberal, post-modern approach also aroused criticism from Jim Smyth in an article in which he answered the comments Foster made during the Cultural Traditions Group's conference. The 'European' ideal for Northern Ireland was for him closely akin to a myth.

This argument has considerable appeal, at least superficially. It holds forth the vision of a painless transformation at every level of reality: economic, political and cultural. According to this approach, the cornucopia of EEC funds will transform society, bringing forth a blossoming of local and regional initiatives which will emerge, like Athena from the head of Zeus, to present us with a new pan-European consciousness to replace our outmoded and irrelevant mentality. [145]

Indeed advocates of the multiculturalist approach hoped that the European Community would bring about more democracy, encourage local initiatives and challenge all forms of nationalism. We have to acknowledge nationalism in Europe has not lost any of its appeal since 1992. The European Union has not fundamentally changed the mentalities.

Lastly, others consider the Community Relations Council has a negative influence on social structures which ultimately proves counter-productive. Such was the opinion of Paul Burgess, a Protestant from the Loyalist Shankill Road in Belfast who had moved to Cork. Burgess was speaking at a conference on Protestant identity in October 1994:

The consistent trend of government of defining the two communities in terms of politics, religion and cultural/ethnic identity, inhibits rather than enhances programmes of community relations and reconciliation. A limited definition by power-holders may straitjacket communities in a restrictive, fixed manner. The claim by those working in the cultural traditions arena, to be wholly reactive to the wishes of the community, should be taken with a pinch of salt. We should be wary of funders who firstly seek to shape what a community perceives as its own cultural identity ­ and subsequently its own needs ­ and then offer provision to that same community in response to this. Communities are encouraged to be inward-looking and to construct narrow and exclusive parameters of community identity. [18]

It could be argued that far from contributing to the elimination of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, the CRC actually reinforces the division of society by granting it legitimacy.

For my part, I would like to come back on the concept of culture as it is defined in multiculturalist discourse. Multiculturalism deems any culture to be legitimate, it is a positive value. Within the particular context of Northern Ireland, multiculturalism makes a distinction between cultural and political demands. Being an emanation from the British government, the Community Relations Council does not recognise, of course, the opposing political aspirations of the protagonists of the conflict. It operates on the principle defined by Foster that an accommodation must be possible between the different cultures and can form the basis of a political settlement.

Such a distinction between "culture" and "politics" is highly questionable. Cultural difference always has a political meaning: social groups become social actors through the formulation of an identity through ideologies and collective myths. Cultural difference inevitably bears an element of conflictuality as Michel Wieviorka has pointed out.

To think the conflictuality culture implies, even if it is not necessarily built practically, put in shape on the ground, expressed and lived as such, enables us to overcome the simplistic or partial conceptions of what a politics of alterity or an acknowledgement of otherness could be. Indeed if such acknowledgement is nothing but a mere ethical operation, or is reduced to the a-sociological, a-historical, or a-political idea of a moral exigency to learn to live together with our differences, it ignores the necessarily conflicting reality of social life. [57]

Penser la conflictualité qu'implique la culture, même si elle n'est pas nécessairement construite pratiquement, mise en forme sur le terrain, dite et vécue comme telle, permet de dépasser les conceptions trop simples ou partielles de ce que pourrait être une politique de l'altérité ou de la reconnaissance de l'Autre. Si cette reconnaissance, en effet, n'est qu'une opération éthique, ou si elle peut être réduite à l'idée asociologique, ahistorique ou apolitique d'une exigence morale d'apprendre à vivre ensemble avec nos différences, elle passe à côtreté de la réalité nécessairement conflictuelle de la vie sociale.

In this respect, we can examine the political significance of the two instances of cultural expression quoted by Maurice Hayes: the Irish language and Orange marches. Since the end of the nineteenth century, the Irish language has been closely linked to Irish nationalism. The very use of the term 'Irish' to refer to the Gaelic language betrays a rather narrow conception of the nation, restricted to its 'Gaelic' core. Orange marches on the other hand have been a form of political expression since the eighteenth century. They became a real 'state ritual' after 1921 and continue to express support to the existence of Northern Ireland as a polity cut off from the rest of the island.

Thus multiculturalist theory does seem caught in a contradiction for it denies on the one hand the political significance of cultural demands while at the same time presenting itself as a possible solution to political differences.

Besides, the specific Northern Irish version of multiculturalism works on a series of presuppositions that deserve to be questioned. It establishes that 'culture,' 'community,' 'ethnic group,' and 'identity' are similar concepts. Such a theoretical standpoint which conceives of cultures as stable, self-enclosed wholes leads to a reification of communities in practice. Instead of this static conception of culture, I would put forward a dynamic conception: culture fundamentally is a human production.

If we adopt such a view, we become able to take into account the very process of construction of social actors. In Northern Ireland, social actors are formed within the phenomenon of segregation. Multiculturalist thinking does not conceptualise segregation. It simply considers segregation exists because in Northern Ireland, there are Catholics and Protestants. It fails to take into account the deep political significance of segregation.

There lies a major difference between multiculturalism as it is applied in Northern Ireland and in the rest of the United Kingdom. In Great Britain, the issue is the place of 'ethnic minorities' in society. The existence of society itself is not in question whereas in Northern Ireland, the whole point of the conflict and segregation at the same time is the existence of Northern Ireland itself as an entity separate from the rest of the island. In so far as it functions as an institutional practice, multiculturalism requires a certain form of consensus as regards the national, political limits of society. Such consensus is nonexistent in Northern Ireland.

It is now possible to replace the cultural demands of social groups within a set of power relationships. We are dealing in fact with a strategy of social interactions. In Northern Ireland, there is a very strong correlation between social practices and political conflict as Ruane and Todd noted:

ideological opposition remains intense, reproduced through the wider pattern of cultural division, social relations and communal conflict in Northern Ireland. The conflicting groups construct social practices which condense and crystallise ideological oppositions. [115]

I would add the conflicting groups construct themselves through the construction of those social practices. The outcome of those social practices is segregation.

So it is possible that the concept of culture has no great heuristic value when it comes to tackle the question of segregation. For instance John Whyte, in his remarkable guide to all the research produced on Northern Ireland, quoted two seemingly contradictory statements. One was psychologist Geoffrey W. Beattie's viewpoint that 'segregation was, and is, almost total' (14-15). The other one was anthropologist Anthony D. Buckley's:

With only very limited and specific exceptions, the cultural heritage for the Catholic is likely to be much the same as that of a Protestant of the same social class living in the same geographical area. There are no distinctively Protestant or Catholic dialects, nor agricultural practices, nor housetypes, nor pottery techniques, nor styles for cooking. Family life is much the same on both sides, as indeed is the broader social morality. [54]

The only way out of this apparent paradox could be that cultural differences do not explain segregation in Northern Ireland.

Another consequence of putting culture at the forefront could be a denial of the complexity, depth and diversity of social relationships. Multiculturalism often seems to consider segregation is a deliberate choice. It has been suggested for example that if communities wish to be separate, then the government should do everything it can to support them and alleviate their feeling of insecurity.

We should remember here that according to Durkheim the primary characteristic of social facts was their prescriptive aspect, the constraints they impose on individuals. The limitation of individual freedom that is segregation was very clearly expressed by an ordinary citizen in a book of interviews:

The way that we're brought up in this tribal mentality, maybe you haven't thought about it before, but I've always thought of it as one of the most terribly powerful restrictions on your personal liberty as an individual. It doesn't matter what kind of divided society it is, it could be Arab­Jew or Hindu­Moslem. The tribal, the divided society dictates to you who you can play with as a child, who you can marry as your spouse, and from the latter we get the term 'mixed marriage'. It's an impingement, it's a terrible restriction on your freedom of choice, and in many ways it's an unconscious thing. Because you're constrained you can't grow up and mix with, make friends with the opposite community, the other sort. If you do then you're tarred with the brush of being a traitor. [McNamee and Lovett, 498]

For the person interviewed here, there is no question of 'pluralism' or 'cultural diversity' in segregation.

So to consider segregation in Northern Ireland in terms of culture leads to neglecting the dialectical relationship that binds the two communities together. This a conception of social relationships as static. In order to restore the fundamental dynamics of social organisation, we can call on ethnologist Fredrik Barth.

Barth has shown the necessity of focusing on what constitutes the limits of ethnic groups rather than the 'cultural stuff' that they enclose. If as Barth said we assign culture a central place 'One is led to identify and distinguish ethnic groups by the morphological characteristics of the cultures of which they are the bearers' (12). Barth conceived of ethnic groups as a form of social organisation, culture is then a means through which such groups construct themselves:

The boundaries to which we must give our attention are of course social boundaries, though they may have territorial counterparts. If a group maintains its identity when members interact with others, this entails criteria for determining membership and ways of signalling membership and exclusion. [p. 15]

In the Northern Ireland context, 'ways of signalling membership and exclusion' are part of a very elaborate social knowledge. This social knowledge and practices constitute the institutional order that is segregation. We can therefore conceptualise segregation as the social and territorial limits of the two social groups, Catholic and Protestant, with the particularity that these two social groups occupy the whole social and political space.

Segregation in Northern Ireland is deeply political and therefore conflictual. So segregation cannot be envisaged independently from its political significance and manifestation. Multiculturalist discourse, which considers communities purely as cultural communities is then highly questionable.


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Last modified: 7 May 2001