‘Building anew’: sharing lessons of transition in Germany and Ireland
by Allan LEONARD
4 October 2023
A conference to mark Germany Unity Day was held at the Royal Irish Academy, co-hosted by ARINS (Analysing and Researching Ireland, North and South), Maynooth University, and the Embassy of the Federal Republic of Germany in Dublin. Two panel discussions explored practical matters of transition in Germany while being alert to and making attempts to avoid and/or counter societal polarisation in any transformation process.
The German Ambassador to Ireland, Cord Meier-Klodt, said that for him the focus of the day’s event was to look at what happened after the 1990 unification of Germany and particularly the experiences of the city of Leipzig, “an interesting case study”.
Peter Burke TD (Ireland Minister of State for European Affairs and Defence) gave an encompassing speech that tied in recent and current relations between Ireland and Germany, referencing a visit by Ireland’s President Michael Higgins to Leipzig in 2019. Burke referenced Leipzig University’s Paulinum — a modern structure with homage to previous architecture that was demolished during the regime of the German Democratic Republic (GDR) — as an example of “building anew” with a view to the future, “while never forgetting to acknowledge the divisions and scars of our past”.
He said that the European Union (EU) has been a peace project since its inception and that Ireland’s story is a European story, “especially when both the UK and Ireland were in the EU”; he thanked European partners for their enduring support for the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, “especially through the Brexit negotiations”.
Burke cited the Irish government’s Shared Island initiative, with 1bn euro funding and projects including a dialogue series and a youth forum, with 80 participants aged 18–25 from both north and south.
He finished by quoting John Hume, who said: “When people are divided the only solution is agreement.” Burke concluded:
“There’s nothing quite so dangerous than ignoring our history. It’s only through exploring our past and applying what it has taught us to the present that we can work towards a better future. Like with the Paulinum, we need to build upon our history, using it as a foundation for where we go next.”
Professor Mary Daly (Emeritus Professor of History at University College Dublin) remarked that Ireland and East Germany were once tied together in a story, citing a Belfast News Letter article in 1961 that described the two as “failed states in Europe”. She also recalled that just after the 1989 Berlin Wall openings, she attended a conference where a political scientist did not support the call for unification: “He was very comfortable as a citizen of the Federal Republic and he saw all kinds of complexities and dangers. I found that to cause me a serious moment of reflection.”
She explained that an outcome of the post-First World War Treaty of Versailles was minorities being stranded on the wrong side of borders. With the 1921 Anglo–Irish Treaty, “this was much the case in Ireland”. Another point she made was that pre-1940 autonomous Germany is not the same as pre-partition Ireland, which was not autonomous: “A 32-county Ireland would need to be seen as something entirely new.”
Daly concluded: “We need to do a lot of tough thinking about Irish unification. The learning is the other way, from Leipzig to Ireland.”
The first panel on politics was moderated by Caitriona Mullan (Cross-Border Cooperation and EU Affairs Specialist), with Burkhard Jung (Leipzig Mayor), Mark Durkan (former deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland), and Professor Jennifer Todd (Geary Institute at University College Dublin).
Burkhard Jung set out three main points. First, local government has an important role in the German story: “Without cities, you can’t make a state.” Second, there was much change in a short period of time — two years — in terms of social culture and government institutions, along with the economic collapse of the East German economy. He spoke of mass migrations of East German youth to the west, and West German specialists to the east: “Sometimes we overdid the exchange.” Third, east Germans still have an important role in unifying Germany. Jung spoke of the high level of dissatisfied east Germans, who he said felt like second-class citizens. He noted that east Germans make up 20% of the country’s total population but are underrepresented in leadership roles, for example, 8% of management positions in the media sector.
Jung concluded with a piece of advice; when uniting two countries, don’t underestimate the cultural and social dimension of the unification process: “Both sides bring experiences that want to be taken into account.”
Mark Durkan opened with a remark about politics and change:
“Not all change happens because of politics, but by the power of people, which creates dynamics that need to be managed and steered. In Germany, it was quick and needed to be managed quickly. In Ireland, it is not quick but we need to have discussions of what unification will be.”
Durkan spoke not of “a united Ireland” but “an agreed Ireland”, arguing that the 1998 referendum delivered an agreed Ireland, where 85.49% of the people on the island voted “yes”: “That’s the high-water mark of Irish national democratic expression”, adding that it was a result of recruiting support of unionists (to reach majority vote in Northern Ireland) and Irish nationalists in the Republic (in its simultaneous vote).
He said that any conversations on a future referendum have to respect the integrity of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, with two equally legitimate traditions and aspirations on the island of Ireland: “A future choice should not be, ‘United Ireland, “yes” or “no”’, but a choice between ‘United Kingdom’ and ‘United Ireland’, with each side having to make positive cases.”
Also quoting John Hume, Durkan said that in regards to rights and relationships, “We need to look at both lenses.” For example, whether within the Union or a united Ireland, “We need new and proper relationships within and across these islands, which need to be enduring.” He concluded by saying that the change in Article 3 of the constitution of Ireland “is perhaps the most undervalued aspect of the Good Friday Agreement”; Article 3 states: “It is the firm will of the Irish nation, in harmony and friendship, to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland, in all the diversity of their identities and traditions…”
Professor Jennifer Todd began with a cautionary remark:
“In Germany, it is said that West Germans had to change a little while East Germans had to change a lot. In Ireland, it is said that the south will need to change little while Northern Ireland will need to change a lot. This would be a recipe for disaster and delegitimisation.”
Todd made four points. First, a united Ireland would cause more cultural change in southern Ireland than it is prepared for. She cited an Irish Times/ARINS survey, particularly results from focus groups, which revealed participants’ lack of knowledge: “There was little thought about what unity would entail.”
Second, public engagement is essential for legitimacy: “Constitutional experts, legal theorists, and high politics have to come down to local earth… Don’t underestimate the cultural and social dynamics of such a process.”
Todd spoke about how the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement was meant to increase harmonisation across the island; she quoted an Irish civil servant, who said at the time, “If and when unification happens, it will be smooth.” Todd said that because the agreement hasn’t worked in this way, “If unification happens sooner than anyone expected in 1998, then it will be without this [harmonisation].” She gave the example of the dysfunction of cross-border health provision.
Third, Todd has a preferred order of national constitutional development: first, bring in widespread participation on the agenda, norms, and issues of constitutional change; move to the technical task of drafting a potential constitution; and only after this is clearly articulated, open to democratic decision in referendums. She thought that the Ireland government “thinks too much on the technical side, but is not engaging with people”, thereby risking legitimacy of what it proposes. Todd also argued that her proposed upstream process would help deal with objections from Unionist political parties, by disaggregating problems through engagement in cross-cutting ways, such as with women living in border areas.
Todd’s fourth and final point was on lessons from the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement: “Don’t overestimate lessons from the Good Friday Agreement; its broad outcomes were known in advance [through years of previous negotiations], but the details were hammered out in the [political] negotiations.” She said that during the multi-party talks, there was relative equality of the two main participants (“unionists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics”), but a different approach will be needed “because unionists will represent only a small proportion (much less than a quarter) of the population in a possible united Ireland”:
“There are many types of inclusion; don’t swallow what was put in place for the Good Friday Agreement, but what would work for a united Ireland.”
During the question-and-answer session, queries included how to ensure respect for unionists “as East Germans did not feel fully involved in the unification process”, and how to accommodate the “exceptionalism of Britishness” in places like counties Antrim and Down, “without breaking the mould for the rest of us”.
Burkhard Jung replied that while the timeline was short in Germany, Ireland has (at least) ten years to plan for unification. He repeated the importance of respecting the lives of everybody: “We try to find compromises in education, welfare, but not in a technical way; it’s emotions, their narratives.”
Professor Jennifer Todd responded that you don’t need reconciliation before you “can move anywhere”. She said that structural change comes with “systemic deliberation”, which can include local municipalities, north and south. So, she argued, you can develop reconciliation over time and not instead of any structural changes. Finally, Todd said that one can give respect for unionists, but not just to those with the loudest voices: “We have to listen to everyone.”
Mark Durkan similarly said that conversations should be done in a spirit of reconciliation, as it was during the multi-party talks, but not waiting until there is reconciliation first. Indeed, he added, Taoiseach Micheal Martin’s remark about any referendum being premature and “peace walls” needing to come down could give a signal for communities to argue keeping them in order to maintain the status quo, if they sense a reconciliation agenda only leads to a united Ireland:
“We have to be very precious about how we treat the concept and spirit of reconciliation. We have to imbue that into the conversation on the constitutional status.”
The second panel on legacies, histories, and polarisation was moderated by Professor Kieran McEvoy (Professor of Law and Transitional Justice at Queen’s University Belfast), with Dr Nancy Aris (State Commissioner, Saxony), Professor Kathrin Klausmeier (Professor for Didactics of History, Leipzig University), and Dr Sarah Wagner (Researcher, Queen’s University Belfast).
Dr Nancy Aris, who has expertise of the GDR’s Stasi files, said that it became clear that it would not be possible to punish most of the perpetrators; out of 100,000 investigations there were 1,000 indictments, with just 40 prison sentences. She said that while trials did not put perpetrators in prison, it did put evidence in the public domain. Aris explained that there were about 200,000 political prisoners during the GDR regime, many of whom experienced violence and torture. The focus was on this cohort, “to uncover the mechanisms [of the Stasi system] and to honour the victims”. However, a consequence of the narrower focus was a disassociation by many of the injustices of the past; rather, more pleasant memories came to the foreground.
Aris said that west Germans are not interested in former East Germany; the East German story of the disadvantages of the east is passed onto a new generation who did not experience GDR first-hand: “This is a tremendous challenge for us, because these debates fail to see how much has been achieved and ignore the fact that conditions in east Germany have a historical force.”
Professor Kathrin Klausmeier argued that the histories of violence and injustice, and overall conditions, of Ireland and Germany “are completely different”. She said that the division of Germany was due to the Second World War, and that the question of offender and victim are less important in Germany than in Ireland; rather, the economic and social differences in post-war Germany are more important.
Klausmeier disagreed with arguments in a book by Dirk Oschmann, The East: A West German Invention, which writes about “the colonialisation of the East by the West”: “Oschmann talks about the negative things that came for the West, like AfD, but not of the things the work… Leipzig works; it’s a good example.”
Dr Sarah Wagner pointed out that a referendum for Ireland unity would not only be for joining something (like a state joining the EU), but for exiting something at the same time. The proposition would be for Northern Ireland to leave one state (UK) for another (Ireland). She spoke of the importance of “loser’s consent” in democratic change and mooted how would losers deal with losing in a Northern Ireland referendum. Wagner said that a lack of a loser’s consent includes a lack of trust in democracy and government, as well as increased support for populist parties (saying that support for the AfD is linked to a lack of loser’s consent).
Wagner finished with a remark that the issue isn’t so much about what people experienced at the time (historically), but about younger people like her who have been told what happened and have made up their own minds; she said that this can also be presented as intergenerational trauma.
Before opening the discussion to the audience, Professor Kieran McEvoy described “the Johnson populist approach” to dealing with legacy issues in Northern Ireland, outlining how the attempt to bring together the different approaches through the 2014 Stormont House Agreement was undermined by Prime Minister Boris Johnson, whose government declared an unconditional amnesty for all — “never requested by the Northern Ireland political parties” — in order to remove liability for UK armed forces soldiers (and keeping a pledge to the Sun newspaper). The passed bill, with a subjective test for conditional amnesty, is being challenged on judicial grounds. McEvoy said that he disagrees with Professor Brice Dickson’s pragmatic approach to work the law: “I believe the Act is unlawful, and politically you cannot deal with legacy without delivering consensus; [the Stormont House Agreement] was approved by everyone in Northern Ireland.”
Questions from the audience included whether loser’s consent is psychological in nature, while dealing with legacy is a political issue, and what lessons from German unification are there in regard to tackling extremism in Northern Ireland.
Dr Sarah Wager replied that while there were a lot of people (in GDR) who wanted to join West Germany, what a unified Germany would look like was not discussed: “We need to learn from this as well as from Brexit [experience].”
With some interpretation provided by Wager, Professor Kathrin Klausmeier responded in German that it was a big mistake in Germany about teaching the victor’s side of the story: “There is a perspective of how great it has been post-1989, but survivors from East Germany don’t see themselves in these stories.” She said that the school syllabus is changing, now including more questions about who are the winners and losers. Klausmeier suggested having syllabuses about different perspectives on the island of Ireland, north and south: “It’s not just one victor’s story without a critical point of view.”
However, Dr Nancy Aris said that in her years of experience working in schools, she didn’t see a victor’s history; there was a lack of GDR history at all — less of a case of a story of the conquered than being completely absent from the narrative. She added that young people don’t know much about GDR history: “I think it’s a big challenge to bring up this topic in the books… We are far away from having the whole journey story.”
Aris also countered the argument that German unification was one of annexation, stating that in March 1990, there was a 94% turnout in GDR and they voted for unification: “To say the West took over the East is not true. Stick to the facts.”
In a post-event session with those attending from Mount Anville Secondary School, students remarked on the complexity of the presented views and how passionate some speakers were. They also noted the importance of symbols and identity, and how this can contribute to an emotionally charged atmosphere. Yet they expressed an interest in hearing and sharing stories and experiences closer to home, on this island. This reflected well the spirit of the event’s organisers and contributors.