The threshold of polarisation
From The Kathmandu Post (24 May, 2013)
Northern Ireland is an example of how difficult communal healing can be when the wall against bloodshed is breached
As the last Governor General of British India, acting in concert with Jawaharlal Nehru and Mohammed Ali Jinnah, Lord Mountbatten helped partition the Subcontinent. In August 1979, he was boating off his estate in Northern Ireland, off the village of Mullaghmore, when an Irish Republican Army bomb took his life. (The place of the blast can be seen offshore in the accompanying photograph.)
Mountbatten’s assassination adds another link between the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland and South Asia-a reminder of what can transpire in the clash of identities leading to militancy, added to a partisan state machinery. We too have our Sri Lanka, the Indian Northeast, Kashmir, Balochistan-where the threshold of violence is breached, it is that much harder to get back to normalisation.
While Nepal is certainly no great example when it comes to the marginalisation of communities, and the depredations of the Kathmandu-centric state are all-too-obvious, we have been saved thus far from the deepest polarisations that have scuttled the prospects of so many societies. Northern Ireland teaches us how difficult it can be the return to normalcy after the point of militancy has passed.
At a conference last week in the town of Farmanagh, by the western seaboard of Northern Ireland, some young men and women gathered to discuss world issues as a prelude to the forthcoming G-8 Summit. Clearly, what is known as ‘The Troubles’ was never very far from their minds, even though they would have been children when the violence raged.
While proud of the natural beauty of their island landscape, the close family ties that differentiated Irish society (both the southern ‘republic’ and the British north) from so much of the Western world, the youngsters seemed anxious-as their top priority-for rapproachment across the frontier that divides north and south.
For those elsewhere who had thought that lasting peace had been achieved after the Good Friday agreement of 1998, Northern Ireland remains today a study of polarisation between two communities. That agreement did introduce a formula for cohabitation but tensions linger above and beneath the surface.
Here we find what seems like a people of the same ‘stock’, sporting the same accent. They may all be ‘Irish’, but they are Republican, Unionist, Loyalist, Protestant, Catholic, northerners, southerners-and the sense of disentitlement is not generations but centuries old.
The distancing started in the early 1600s, when the English crown confiscated property and foisted English and Scottish landowners on the population. This is known as the era of the ‘plantations’, when the settlers took over the fertile flatlands and pushed locals up the rolling hills.
In the modern era, the Roman Catholic south became an independent republic while the north-with its Catholics and Protestants-remained under the crown. In Northern Ireland, the factory jobs went to the Protestants while the Catholics took advantage of newly introduced educational policies to push for learning-which, for some, created the path to militancy.
A vicious brew was concocted between the paramilitaries from the two communities and the British administration, and the rest is all in the names that the world got to know from the era of The Troubles-Londonderry, Ulster, Belfast, Maze Prison and Bobby Sands, the activist who fasted unto death.
Communitarian bitterness seems to be like radioactivity, with great staying power. A Catholic-born from Northern Ireland described how he feels free and elated as he crosses south into the Republic. He concedes that the Protestant-born Irish from the south may feel the same coming across north. “Some take satisfaction in seeing the red telephone booth of the UK up here, others the green booths of Ireland,” he says.
There is in Northern Ireland a sense that the road to the future has not yet been set. Some hope that the march of representational politics and shared economic growth will lead to lasting peace and collapsed barriers. Others believe that things will simply simmer, until an unexpected but inevitable trigger collapses the peace process, which they regard simply as a standoff.
There was hope among some supporters of a north-south unification, that the economic boom of the Celtic Tiger-the republic-would make the idea attractive for northerners. The Sinn Fein political party had also planned accordingly, fielding election candidates on both sides. But the bursting of the economic bubble has weakened the tiger, and hence, the tendency of many in the north to leave things the way they are.
Even decades of the absence-of-war may not be enough to ensure a secure future in peace, when a society has gone through armed communitarian conflict. And the republican ‘dissidents’, as they are known, are very much active, with clandestine shootings at the police. Last week, a bagful of what we in Nepal call socket-bombs was recovered by the police from some suspected ‘dissidents’.
The awkward embrace is seen in the selective use of the name for what is known to the world as Londonderry. The Catholics prefer Derry, and to be on the safe side, a popular radio personality has proposed ‘Derrylondonderry’.
There is a walk-bridge in Derry/Londonderry meant to be a standing symbol of peace, a new-age structure built over the River Foyle, linking the Protestant east bank and the Catholic west bank. The west side was the site of the infamous Bloody Sunday, where British paratroopers massacred 26 civil rights protestors in January 1972.
The Dalai Lama walked the Peace Bridge in April and some believe fervently that this structure will stand the test of time, serving every day to heal wounds as the Catholics and Protestants walk across to the others’ side. But a lawyer from Belfast predicted rather darkly, “It will be blown up within five years.” He is one of those who believe that issues have merely been papered over in the peace process.
The message of Northern Ireland is not to let matters fester to the extent of sparking communitarian militancy. In South Asia, Sri Lanka provides the tragic example of what happens when a community feels trapped and powerless and when the state takes sides. And in South Asia, the mayhem will always be on a vastly different scale when the killing begins.
Nepal has thus far been spared deep communitarian polarisations, not because our civil society stalwarts, scholars, opinion-makers, politicians and administrators have been circumspect-but because of the open and inclusive ethos at the grassroots, owing its existence to the multiple- and micro- identities that the country is blessed with. But there is every reason to be alert, to prevent polarisation from striking so deep that it sparks aggression and brutality.