“To change the riverflow of history”: Constitutional pasts and futures
by Allan LEONARD
8 May 2018
Political and legal scholars, peacemakers and peacebuilders convened at the Royal Irish Academy to review and discuss potential constitutional relationships between Ireland and the United Kingdom, especially vis-a-vis Northern Ireland and the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and the import of Brexit.
Organised by the Institute for British Irish Studies at University College Dublin, the panel sessions reviewed how the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement reframed the debate about Northern Ireland (from irredentist claims to complex, interdependent relationships), how the language of human rights and equality became the sine qua non of public life in Northern Ireland (perhaps practised more or less by politicians, but incorporated in statutory agencies), how Brexit may or may not alter constitutional arrangements (how could Brexit affect the British constitution? how could Ireland adapt?), and how we should consider a better approach to reconciliation and resolving the present stagnation in the political process.
The keynote speaker was former An Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, who said that he sees the Agreement as a means of shaping new relationships within and between the islands. For him, it was “to change the riverflow of history”.
Evoking Yeats’s famous poem about peace coming dropping slow (“The Lake Isle of Innisfree”), Ahern made the plea for everyone to continue this path: “Peace has been built by everyone, and everyone has responsibility for peace, however slowly it comes.”
While recognising persistent segregation and sectarianism in Northern Ireland, he gave examples of the Agreement’s successes — such as him meeting young people participating in sports and art activities across the communal divide.
“It would do well for people to go out and see good things,” Ahern said.
He repeated his views that “Brexit is a terrible choice” and how Ireland would not be “collateral damage, to jeopardise a hard-won peace”. Here he called on the British and Irish Governments to utilise the existing structures provided under Strand 3 of the Agreement (e.g. British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British-Irish Council). Ahern later said that the latter could be a useful forum to discuss integrated education and societal desegregation.
Speaking to the conference’s theme of constitutional pasts and futures, Ahern argued that James Craig’s view on partition was more pragmatic, citing biographer Patrick Buckland’s claim that he could tolerate a united Ireland but would not participate in it. Ahern acknowledged that Craig’s successors were less sanguine.
Some interesting insights were revealed during a generous question and answer session. Ahern replied that, as leader of the party (Fianna Fail) that historically introduced Articles 2 and 3 in the Irish constitution (i.e. territorial claim to the whole island), it was a hard sell within the party to remove the articles, as part of the Agreement’s negotiations.
In the next panel session on constitutional pasts, academics Stephan Wolff and Dawn Walsh provided a topology of the nature of international interventions in peacemaking processes. Walsh made a convincing point that peace agreements are more likely to be successful when there are respected, agreed internal voices alongside the external members of any international committee overseeing implementation provisions.
For Walsh, the current political crisis in Northern Ireland is because there is not a unified position by both the British and Irish Governments.
Similarly, Wolff explained that in many cases peace agreements fail not because of their design, but because they aren’t implemented.
Colin Harvey argued how human rights and equality are core tenets of the Agreement, and that any reformed or revised agreement will have to continue this. He added that while the Agreement envisaged the enhancement of human rights in Northern Ireland (exceeding provisions in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR)), the Brexit debate is making advocates defend existing rights, with the expectation that post-Brexit, the British Government will deviate from ECHR.
Jennifer Todd explained what has and has not worked with the Agreement. Positively, the ethos of human rights and equality has been incorporated in statutory agencies such as the reformed Police Service of Northern Ireland. Also, there have been some observations of better relations between the British and Irish governments, but added that these can be “the most ephemeral” and can quickly go negative. What particularly mattered, she argued, was observing how indigenous and exogenous events and factors affect the “group identity process”, which will encourage or discourage more or less cooperation.
Christopher McCrudden, a legal scholar from Queen’s University Belfast, went into legislative detail about how a border poll will come about. He reminded all that, legally speaking, under parliamentary sovereignty, MPs need not approve any legislation to facilitate a united Ireland. (Alas a back-to-the-future moment of Home Rule?)
There was further discussion on how to start a conversation about constitutional futures among the islands, particularly with those who do not see a united Ireland in any other way than through an irredentist lens. The debate among the academics was between a call to action and a call to inaction. Yet a community worker in the audience asked how to animate the current voices of civic society.
The final session was a roundtable discussion, led by a sociologist (John O’Brennan), a religious studies researcher (Gladys Ganiel), and a politician (Alasdair McDonnell).
Ganiel, who has worked much with churches and faith organisations, spoke to the Stormont House Agreement and specifically its section on reconciliation. She said that a challenge with promoting reconciliation is that there is disagreement on what reconciliation is. This is also the case, she said, with forgiveness; some people are willing to forgive, others are not.
Ganiel’s central argument is that reconciliation is not possible without acknowledgement of the pain and hurt, whether the acknowledgement is shown publicly or privately.
Her criticisms of the Stormont House Agreement were that it could hinder reconciliation because of a lack of definition (not recognising the plurality of reconciliation), not acknowledging the honour held by those who participated in the RUC and UDR, and the unclarity of when and how contributions to the Oral History Archive will be shared.
The next event was the launch of the UCD IBIS John Whyte Archive, a collection of taped and transcribed elite interviews and witness seminars dealing with the process of British-Irish and Northern Ireland negotiations from 1973. In his introduction speech, Mark Rogers (Deputy President, UCD), kindly cited my classmates Mark Crystal, Muiris MacCarthaigh, Claire Mitchell, and me, as interviewers covering the years 1998-2001, under the supervision of Jennifer Todd.
Rogers explained well the need for such an archive:
“It is the duty of scholars to dissect the past, to reflect critically on the present, and to look over the horizon at possible futures. It is the responsibility of our legislators and government to make the associated political choices about the path forward. There is sometimes a creative tension between these two rolls — but it is one which can and should deliver better policy outcomes. This archive is an important contribution to that process…”
The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Simon Coveney TD, addressed the audience:
“Clearly, in addition to the political challenges which currently face us, we must also recognise that we have a long way to travel on the path to reconciliation. That process must involve a discussion and acknowledgement of the past.
“I have quoted before Shakespeare’s rather apt line that ‘The past is prologue’. We cannot escape what happened on these islands. It is our history in all its intertwined strands. We do need to find ways to be informed rather than bound by it though.
“Access to the interviews which are gathered in the John Whyte archive will be vital to analysis and appreciation of the key political events in the past decades … It challenges our perceptions and contributes to our awareness of history as experienced through different eyes and ears.
“The archive adds significantly to the information on the conflict and peace process in Northern Ireland. And it gives us an enhanced understanding of the relationships within and between these islands.
“The voices of the past can both warn and encourage. We can — and we will — learn from both the successes and the mistakes, and they can guide us in our aim to continue our journey towards peace, partnership and a brighter future for all.”