The Good Friday Agreement and the Two Solitudes

John Wilson Foster

In the many months since Stormont was evacuated by our devolved government, the Good Friday Agreement (GFA) of 1998 has receded from the forefront of our attention with surprising and disturbing speed. It seems almost to belong to another era: events have simplified, accelerated, transmuted, and overtaken both 1998 and even 2017. From our recent and radically altered perspective, the Agreement now seems like an extraordinary Swiss-watch-like mechanism, as though an analogue solution to what has since become a digital problem. 

Perhaps the Agreement’s problem arose because the ingenious intricacy of the checks-and-balance mechanism was not equal to the contra-simplification of subsequent events.  It was invented by committee, as it were, with the best of intentions, and meant to cover many political eventualities and shades of opinion. Moreover, the GFA presumed a coalition of the sincerely willing; the Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) and the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP) were the ideal partners across the political divide. But over the years the reality degenerated (especially after the death of Ian Paisley, whose caricatural personality ironically held it all together after the Democratic Unionist Party eclipsed the UUP) into a coalition of the increasingly unwilling. By dint of amiable personality Martin McGuinness, late of the IRA, at first played his new role winningly and for a few years we thought that at last we had come into harbour, albeit in a ship whose dazzle livery distracted us from the point of that livery: the war that hadn’t gone away, you know. For a few heady years it seemed as if the cooperation sponsored by the GFA might even strengthen a Northern Irish identity that would satisfy both political and cultural traditions. In any case, McGuinness for whatever reason decided to scuttle the ship, which was listing badly in any case and not wholly due to him and his party. By doing so (and to mix metaphors), McGuinness let something out of the bottle that might be hard to get back in. 

Sinn Féin (who eclipsed the SDLP) and the DUP had become forcibly conjoined twins seeking their diametrically opposed ways of life and something eventually had to give. Increasingly, policies and events became pretexts for advancing the long-haul project (Sinn Féin’s core objective of a united Ireland) or obstructing that project (DUP).  Effective day-to-day governance assumes a constitutional status quo (the GFA as an agreed terminus for the foreseeable future) and cannot proceed when endlessly motivated by thoughts of tomorrow (the GFA as a staging-post to the unification of the island).

*Sinn Fein withdrew from Stormont, thereby collapsing the devolved government, over the so-called cash for ash scandal and demanded the promise of an Irish Language Act before they would return; this was duly promised by the British (central) government and the NI government staggered to its feet again.

The evacuation of Stormont has, of course, left a terrible vacuum. There is no alternative to the GFA on the near horizon: not direct rule from Westminster, not a united Ireland (despite the giddy talk of such), not Northern Ireland independence, not the simple majority rule of the rest of the United Kingdom. It is as if we are between dispensations, but know only what the past one consisted of. We are now at sea, a Lilliputian version of the dangerous between-times that W.B. Yeats recorded in “The Second Coming” (1919), though in his customary excited reverie.  

Lilliputian, but still a version.  The Northern Ireland Civil Rights campaign of 1968-69 was motivated by local grievances but given impetus by the Zeitgeist, by events in Paris and on American campuses, before forcibly morphing into a continuation of the Easter rebellion’s unfinished business. During the Stormont hiatus (to use an optimistic word), republicans are agitating for a border poll. Beside the prospect of a united Ireland, a return to Stormont, at least at the present moment, must seem to them small beer.  The real trigger has been Brexit, of course. Yet even Brexit is both honouring as well as fuelling the Zeitgeist since it is part of a European convulsion that encompasses more than the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union.   And the influence of a volatile Zeitgeist makes it more difficult to bring more immediate and proximate concerns into focus, distracting stake-holders with the lure of bigger game. Can the regional problem of Northern Ireland be solved in isolation when the big world beyond it is itself riven on such a large scale?    

There is a restiveness in Northern Ireland, in the UK, in the United States, in Europe. And vast though the western world is, this restlessness is larger than the sum of specific discontents and grievances, which involve mass immigration, multiculturalism, the spread of Islam, the sudden seeming instability or inadequacy of democracy. There is a drunkenness of things being various. I recall a phrase from C.P. Snow’s 1954 novel, The New Men, set during World War Two: “events too big for men”. It seems an apt recall, for there is a sense of things in the West being out of control: dispensations ending and only the ominously slouching outline of the new.

Under these influences, the two “communities” in Northern Ireland, the unionist and the nationalist, have polarised politically in an almost literal sense: each side magnetically drawn back to its pole of origin and aspiration.  The UUP and SDLP are in the long grass. Against the grain of history, Irish nationalism and Irish republicanism are converging. Unmoored from the interlocking obligations of the GFA, the two sides in Ulster have drifted even farther apart, the law of the excluded middle becoming more draconian.  This is not, yet, thankfully, a social polarisation among the middle classes but that could still come if the political pathology metastasises. We are in danger of becoming two solitudes, at least as political collectives, though I hope not as friends, neighbours and workmates. 

Two Solitudes. Hugh Maclennan published his novel of that title in 1945, and through his main characters he tracked relations in Quebec between the majority French-Canadians on the one hand and on the other hand the English-Canadians, a ruling minority in Quebec but a ruling majority in Canada as a whole, and both founding cultures of the nation.  The historical homology with Ireland, especially the north of Ireland, is for the most part striking. The problem of Two Solitudes essentially arose at roughly the same time in each country: the early 17th century.  In Two Solitudes, Maclennan’s Quebecois are Catholic, rural and agricultural, nationalistic, conservative, and determinedly French-speaking; his English-speaking Quebeckers are urban, progressive, industrialised and capitalist. The foreground denouement of the saga, with its modicum of optimism, is also familiar: what we call a mixed marriage (called that even in the novel) between the Quebecois youth (French father though Irish mother) and English-Canadian girl, though both are preceded by parents or grandparents who have in a sense courageously, and alone, crossed the sectarian divide.

Two Solitudes is set across three generations from the Great War to the onset of the Second World War. Maclennan closes his novel with the hope that the war will bring the two sides together, somehow dissolving “the two race-legends . . . remembering their ancient enmities”.  Maclennan imagined that the country Canada was about to know itself for the first time, becoming a “super-group” in Amy Chua’s recent formulation when she talks about national entities that can claim the allegiance of opposing tribes. It didn’t happen. The dreary tribal steeples of both Quebec and Fermanagh survived the war; indeed, the Second World War drove a wedge between the two Irelands and conscription was a bone of contention in both provinces, Quebec and Northern Ireland.  

Yet in an historical unfolding we might do well to take note of, the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s saw a sharp decline in the power of the Roman Catholic Church in Quebec which was followed by (and perhaps in part released) a surge in Quebec nationalism.  Despite the previous intimacy between Catholicism and nationalism, the latter had a clearer run when its intimate was out of the picture. The nationalist surge compelled the two border polls (sovereignty referenda) in 1980 (in which independence was rejected by 59.5% of the voters) and 1995 (rejected by 50.5%). The campaigns and the years between were divisive and disturbing. No “Quebec City Agreement” or “Bon Vendredi Accord” conjoined the two solitudes.  Instead, the problem was solved by an epic of social engineering that dissolved one of the two Solitudes, freeing the remaining Solitude from fear.  It was contrived by Pierre Elliott Trudeau, Quebecois-Scots father of the current Canadian prime minister.   

Likewise, the decline of the Catholic church in Ireland has not weakened nationalism, though Catholicism was long thought to be with the Gaelic language an essential  girder of Irish nationalism. Once upon a time, Home Rule did indeed mean Rome Rule (the Ulster Protestants were proved absolutely correct when they asserted that and nowhere have I seen that acknowledged), but that is no longer an argument against unification. If anything, Irish republicanism has strengthened, clarified and become more assertive and sophisticated, no longer held back by what has proved to be a wounded church; indeed, able to promote itself as a reasonable, progressive, secular force. The aim, however, remains the same: imminent unification of the island. 

Trudeau’s remedy to end the Two Solitudes was to impose (I believe the verb justified) multiculturalism on what is called the Rest of Canada (RoC) while permitting Quebec to opt out of the policy and impositions of multiculturalism and to retain control of its immigration.  A Quebec legate told me in 1993 that Quebec would never accept multiculturalism and so it has proved. The province replaced the Canadian bilingualism legislation of 1969 with the Quebec Official Language Act of 1974, reinforcing official French unilingualism with the Charter of the French Language of 1977. Quebec sovereignty aspirations have indeed subsided as Trudeau wished, but that is because Quebec is allowed to conduct itself in several vital respects like an independent country and today is quietly de-Anglicising in a manner than would have warmed the cockles of Douglas Hyde’s heart in 1892.  Meanwhile, the RoC through planned mass immigration from non-traditional cultures is trumpeted as a pioneering and completely successful multicultural society.  The aim is, in the ostensible cause of harmony across the country, to dissipate the European, and especially British, identity of Canada (the other Solitude) and hey presto! the Two Solitudes are no more. In fact, the Two Solitudes remain, save that one of those Solitudes is increasingly composed of multiple solitudes. (Indeed, the jury is out, and there is an intense dispute largely on social media, on whether Canada is indeed a successful, happy and coherent multicultural society.) 

Quebec proves that its nationalism does not need its historical intimate, the Catholic Church, and that language is a more important driver of its ethno-nationalism. The licence-plate on every Quebec automobile proclaims Je me souviens. The memory of defeat and the aspiration to independence survive secularism.  They may even have survived significant multiculturalism. That anyway seems to be the lesson of the Republic of Ireland which has managed thus far, unlike Quebec, to combine a sincere desire to become a multicultural society (though chiefly a European one) with no lessening of patriotism or of the nationalist desire for completion of the republican project, a 32-county independent state, that is identical to its 1916 and 1922 selves except in so far as that state would be an EU member. (Whether in the eventuality of a 32-county republic Ireland would be as dutiful a subscriber to the EU doctrine of ever-closer union is a moot point.)  

But multiculturalism (a largely improvised affair unlike the Canadian policy) is no more an answer to Irish unity as we imagine it today (unionists and nationalists reconciling in an Irish republic) than it is to Canadian unity (French and Anglo-Canadians interwined and intertwining with other ethnicities). Northern Irish Protestants (who regard themselves as a “founding” culture) do not come in under the umbrella of Irish multiculturalism any more than the Quebecois come in under the umbrella of Canadian multiculturalism. Neither group is sincerely invited to and neither wishes to. The lesson from Quebecois nationalism for Irish nationalism is that Northern Ireland must have its identity diffused through multiculturalism and immigration; Irish as an official language in Northern Ireland would advance immeasurably the republican project, and both strategies would loosen Northern Ireland’s cultural and constitutional ties with the rest of the United Kingdom just as multiculturalism has loosened Canada’s cultural ties with the UK and indeed with its own history as a senior dominion of the British Empire. Through it all, Irish like Quebec nationalism will persevere. They are not for turning.

That one can think like this is evidence of the flux at work in western societies. There is an impatience that generates scenarios and wishes to see them reach development quickly. The Good Friday Agreement by contrast was a painstakingly constructed bulwark or bridge combining enough flexibility, it seemed, to absorb vicissitudes and with an intensely local applicability. But we may be beyond the local and merely vicissitudinous now. I believe the GFA’s restoration to full working order and in sincerity on the part of the main parties is an outside chance, at least in the current swirl of politics inside and outside Northern Ireland. The new tribalism that Amy Chua identifies in the United States is old tribalism here and is if anything recently refreshed. Also, it may be that a disaffection with a government structure that compels the coalition of enemies and does not provide for the genuine opposition of parliamentary politics is too great to reverse. 

What is required for the GFA to be restored is not the undignified triumphalism of the demographic contest (we witness it aghast during Brexit), now played with vim by some northern nationalists, but something alas quite alien to the current political climate. 

At present, that something has no voice and has not had a voice for a long time. We suffer here the tyranny of a threadbare political discourse which dominates the public sphere and drowns out other discourses. Certainly we have a fine literature, but between it and the banal discourse of our politics there is a vacant middle. We need the literary discourse of the individual: the discourse of memoir, diary, letter that interrupts the “smelly little orthodoxies” Orwell referred to at the end of his wonderful essay on Dickens. Moreover, we need not only candid conversations between acquaintances from opposite sides of the divide (“whatever you say say nothing” can be shackling as well as prudent advice) but to have those multiple conversations eventually rise to the surface of our public and social life, to end our enactment of the Two Solitudes. E.M. Forster’s “Only connect” might be a sovereign remedy applicable not only to the uneasy silences between strangers and even friends on the constitutional predicament but also to the disconnect between on the one hand individual opinions and feelings about Northern Ireland’s past, present and future and on the other the tired elementary political choices they are offered. This is a version of a gulf between the private and public, and in Northern Ireland we have often been afraid to say in public what we really feel or think; it is often fear of our own tribe. This is an Irish form of political correctness whereby you cannot say publicly what you are thinking or feeling rather than saying in public what you are not thinking or feeling. There are Northern Irish Catholics (perhaps many) who are happy enough in the UK but cannot say so because of a tribal injunction. (Then there are all those Irish correspondents and presenters working for the BBC and living in England who have no public opinion on English-Irish relations because the tribal injunction crosses the water.)  There are middle-class and professional unionists who can contemplate a united Ireland and some have said so, because the tribal injunction on their side is rather weaker. There are many more middle-class and professional unionists who cannot admit their unionism out of misplaced fear of being identified with tribal loyalists (though clearly many of them vote DUP). All in all, an unhealthy repression that aids the hegemony of political fundamentalism and sponsors the Two Solitudes.

The GFA tried in its own way to complicate in a mature way an otherwise simplistic political picture but did so through a complexity of political machinery and left untouched the moral maturity we also need. Orwell said of Dickens that in every attack he makes upon society “he is always pointing to a change of spirit rather than a change of structure”; “it is useless to change institutions without a ‘change of heart’.” Thinking at first that this is a conservative opinion, Orwell came to see that it carries its own revolutionary potential. The Good Friday Agreement was a radical change of structure but if there was a radical change of heart, an essential moral repositioning on the part of the chief participants, over time it reversed itself. Indeed, if anything the morality of our society, of our polity, of our interpretations of the past and actions in the present, has shrivelled even more since then. A change of heart requires the exercise of empathy (feeling as well as seeing the other’s experience and point of view – the source of Dickens’s mastery), something in short supply where we live. In the past forty-odd years I have seen the antinomianism, as Orwell calls it, the “native decency of the common man”, the “bourgeois morality” Orwell discerned and after raising an eyebrow allowed himself to admire in Dickens, stifled amidst the aridities of power politics, not only in Northern Ireland but in the UK generally, but in Northern Ireland also as the legacy of a terror campaign now retrospectively justified by its perpetrators. 

The Good Friday Agreement was a remarkable machine, motivated in its planning and development by a behavourist (and forgivably rather patronising) notion of stimulus and reward. Alas the politicians misbehaved; the adults in the room were too few.  As things stand, the GFA might be reactivated but unless there is a change of heart in Orwell’s Dickensian sense, it will fail again and Arthur Koestler’s ghost in the machine will reassert itself. I fully believe that only when Northern Ireland is through honest effort made to work (and the innate but inadequately voiced moderateness of the majority of the Northern Irish should be the exploited motive for that) can there be an agreed avenue to possible constitutional change: and who knows, perhaps a united Ireland. The strands of the Agreement offer that avenue. Monumentally, in an act of maturity, Sinn Féin must publicly postpone their destabilising call for an imminent united Ireland in favour of minding the store in which they find themselves, the here and now. If you like, they need to declare a ceasefire in their brittle demand for the endgame which lies outside the evolutionary spirit of the GFA. Otherwise, they are extending the lifetime of the Two Solitudes and the social as well as political stuntedness they maintain.

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