Mar 20th 2009

The Panthers of Identity Politics

by Chris Patten

Chris Patten is a former EU Commissioner for External Relations, Chairman of the British Conservative Party, and was the last British Governor of Hong Kong. He is currently Chancellor of Oxford University and a member of the British House of Lords.

LONDON - I was in Jordan, that beautiful oasis of calm and moderation in a difficult and dangerous neighborhood, when I first heard the news about the murder of two British soldiers and a Catholic policeman by dissident republican terrorists in Northern Ireland.

We had looked out across what Christians call the Holy Land from the Jordanian hills. What struck me, thinking back to the days I once spent in Northern Ireland, was how both there and here the crucible of so much struggle, bitterness, and bloodshed is very small. There is an intimacy about the geography of Northern Ireland, Gaza, and the West Bank that makes the violence seem all the more inexplicable and obscene.

Is this violence made inevitable by the clash of cultures, religions, and ethnicities? Is it programmed into DNA by history, language, and our different ways of meeting our spiritual yearnings?

It was my good fortune to be reading in Jordan a book called On Identity by Amin Maalouf. It is a brilliant assault on what the author, who is Lebanese, French, Arab and Christian, calls "the panthers" of identity politics. Maalouf hopes that one day he can call all of the Middle East his homeland, and that his grandson will find his book a strange memento of a time when these arguments had to be put forward.

What is true of identity politics in the Middle East, and in shaping America's and Europe's relationship with the Islamic world, is equally true about Northern Ireland. Or at least it was as true.

I spent part of my life working on the problems of terrorism in Northern Ireland, first as a minister in the early 1980's and, later, chairing the commission that drew up reform for policing and security in the Province as part of the Belfast Peace Agreement. For centuries, the Protestant and Catholic tribes had intermittently clashed, and over a period of three decades - a time euphemistically known as "the Troubles" - terrorism had claimed more than 3,000 lives and tens of thousands of injuries.

This was an identity clash that had nothing to do with the essential messages of Christianity. But it was bleakly horrific. I recall that the first time I visited a hospital in Belfast, the young nurses in the Accident and Emergency Unit had to describe patiently to me the difference between a Protestant and a Catholic knee-capping. This was not a matter of theology or even liturgy. But the Catholics used a shotgun for this brutal punishment, and the Protestants an electric drill.

"That is all for the history books," we thought, until the recent murders. The Belfast peace agreement of 1998 has secured more than 10 years of peace. At its heart lay a simple proposition: the republicans, who called for and bombed for a United Ireland - hammering together the predominantly Protestant North and the overwhelmingly Catholic South - accepted that constitutional change could come only through the ballot box.

We talked the terrorist IRA and their political wing into the political process and the sharing of power. In return, the Protestant majority in the north accepted that republicans should not have to accept the symbols of a state to which they felt no loyalty. Moreover, the police and security forces were to be reorganized so that they were seen to represent the whole community, not primarily its Protestant majority.

Interestingly, the issue of police reform was the only one that the political parties could not resolve by themselves. So I was called in, together with a group of experts on policing, to sort it out.

The result of that deal has been years of peace. It is not perfect. Some of the compromises that democrats must occasionally make with one-time terrorists are difficult to stomach. But the outcome has been the return of normality to the one and a half million people of Northern Ireland.

I do not take an apocalyptic view of what recently happened - tragic though it is for the bereaved families. It is an anarchic spasm of violence by a tiny minority. In a way, it underlines the importance of what has been achieved in Northern Ireland.

First, virtually the whole of Ireland is united against what has happened. Second, the violence has strengthened the political process, with one-time IRA leaders standing shoulder to shoulder with the police to condemn the murders. Third, the reformed police service itself has been widely seen as the protector of the whole community, and young Catholics have been encouraged to join it by their priests and bishops. It is now more, not less, able to deal with terrorism.

So did I think of lessons to be learned in the Middle East as I drove from one end of Jordan to the other? Perhaps there are two. Obviously, there will be no peace in Palestine unless we start to talk to Hamas - a point that President Barack Obama's special envoy to the region, Senator George Mitchell, will surely appreciate after his experiences as a successful mediator in Northern Ireland.

And, second, we should abandon outdated and wrong-headed notions of identity. That is perhaps an easy point to recognize for this author, the Catholic grandson of Irish potato famine emigrants who, nevertheless, became a British minister and Britain's last colonial governor.


Copyright: Project Syndicate, 2009.

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