Was Barry Gardiner right to call it a ‘shibboleth’?
Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner came under fire last week for ‘trashing the Good Friday deal’, after letting slip that a customs border between the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland would not prompt an automatic return to paramilitary violence. Secretly recorded at a supposedly off-the-record discussion, organised by the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, a left-wing think-tank, Gardiner said there was no reason to fear a post-Brexit ‘hard’ border.
The Labour frontbencher drew a distinction between the old militarised border, with its ‘watchtowers, security paraphernalia and soldiers… with guns’, and the kind of checks and controls that operate on ‘normal borders’ between independent states. Acknowledging that his views were ‘deeply unfashionable’, Gardiner also suggested that the Dublin government had good economic and political reasons for ‘playing up’ concerns about Brexit and the border. He suggested it was using the ‘shibboleth’ of the Good Friday Agreement in pursuit of its national interest.
Gardiner’s challenge to the new orthodoxies surrounding the Good Friday Agreement came to light just as British, Irish and American dignitaries were gathering in Belfast to celebrate the 20th anniversary of that now sacred text. Cue waves of outrage, much angry tweeting and calls for resignation. Tony Blair, former PM and chief architect of the Good Friday deal, was lost for words. ‘I can’t believe that anyone could say that’, he said. Former shadow Northern Ireland secretary Owen Smith branded Gardiner ‘reckless’ and an ‘ideological Brexiter’. Cue Gardiner’s deeply felt apology, in which he said he didn’t intend to suggest the agreement was ‘in any way outdated or unimportant’. Call off the dogs! Barry was back on message, re-affirming his commitment to ‘no hard border between north and south’.
So what was the offence that drew such a clamour for public recantation? As a frontbencher, Gardiner stood accused of being out of line with Labour’s Brexit policy. But how could anyone know what its policy is, exactly? Labour’s manoeuvrings on Brexit are a masterclass in constructive ambiguity. More to the point, what is wrong with a politician expressing honest – if unfashionable – opinions in the context of a private discussion among his or her political comrades?
And what of the substance of his remarks? The claim that Ireland is pursuing its own economic and political interests in relation to Brexit and the border is hardly novel. The Dublin government has made no secret of its determination to exert maximum leverage at the negotiating table as a member of the EU 27. As I reported on spiked last year, the decision to designate the Good Friday Agreement as a ‘red line’ in the EU/UK divorce talks was hailed as a decisive victory for Irish diplomacy. One senior commentator rejoiced that Dublin had seized ‘absolute power under EU law to derail the whole Brexit process’.
Trashing the Good Friday Agreement used to be rather fashionable among politicians, commentators and academics on the left. But fears of Brexit suspended their critical judgement. Many thousands of papers have been published about the obfuscations and evasions in the agreement’s text. Northern Irish politicians used to rail against its legacy of unaccountable power-sharing structures, political cronyism and the way it has fuelled mistrust and entrenched communal division. While critical voices remain, it is a brave few who are still willing to state in public what many privately think – that the agreement has failed to deliver peace and stability. The power-sharing government has been inactive for over a year, following a scandal over a renewable energy scheme. Even if it were possible to restore the government tomorrow, it would simply mean, as one writer put it, returning Northern Ireland to ‘that same dysfunctional government which brought political, social and economic failure’.
The British and Irish 2003 Joint Declaration spelled out the aim ‘that Northern Ireland should be policed as a normal, peaceful society, building on the commitment in the [Good Friday Agreement] to as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements consistent with the level of threat’. And with that in mind, Gardiner’s distinction between militarised and ‘normal’ border arrangements raises key political questions. What is the level of threat and where is it coming from? What would constitute ‘normal border relations’ between the UK and Ireland? And what does a normal, peaceful society look like? Does it look like contemporary Northern Ireland? These are difficult questions, and answering them requires taking some political responsibility. But it is much easier to nod approvingly when Blair reassures us that the agreement is still ‘moving forward’ and clap politely when Bill Clinton sings its praises as a ‘work of surpassing genius’.
To borrow Seamus Heaney’s famous words, when asked about ‘the Irish thing’, ‘to be saved you only must save face, and whatever you say, you say nothing’. Say nothing. Not even as the winds of change blow open a window to rethinking all future political relationships across the island of Ireland. Not even among your political allies in a private discussion, in this instance hosted by a supposedly radical think-tank, named after a fearlessly outspoken German revolutionary who was dedicated to ‘critical thought and political alternatives’. When it comes to the ‘Irish thing’, just as when it comes to the ‘Brexit thing’ – whatever you say, say nothing.
Pauline Hadaway is a writer and co-founder of the Liverpool Salon. She is currently undertaking a professional doctorate at the University of Manchester’s Institute of Cultural Practices.
Constructive ambiguity only stores up problems for the future.
The EU’s decision to designate the Irish border as an issue that must be settled before trade talks with Britain can begin seems finally to have led the Brexit negotiations down the dark cul-de-sac of Northern Ireland peace-process politics. As British, Irish and EU negotiators focus on conjuring up the right form of words to allow the talks to proceed to the next phase, ‘constructive ambiguity’ has become the mot du jour.
The concept of constructive ambiguity has a long history in conflict resolution and peace processes. The constructive element refers to the tactical use of evasive and ambiguous language, which allows negotiating parties to park sensitive issues so as to build consensus on others. Above all, it allows the political leaders involved to tell different, often contradictory stories to their respective electorates in order to keep them on board.
But however expedient it is as a negotiating tactic, constructive ambiguity always carries the risk of undermining trust in the political process and opening up further areas of conflict. As sensitive issues are fudged to ‘keep the process moving’, imprecise agreements are held together through political spin, media briefings and backstage cooperation. The negotiating parties commit to ‘keeping to the script’ in front of the cameras, but when cooperation breaks down, compliance has to be enforced under threat of sanction by a more powerful, third-party implementer.
This is all too clear not only in the Brexit negotiations, but also the Good Friday Agreement itself. Though it is often held up as the great guarantor of peace and stability in Northern Ireland, the Good Friday Agreement is a threadbare piece of New Labour chicanery, the product of diplomatic manoeuvres, arm-twisting, bad faith and media spin. While, when it was signed in 1998, it formally secured the defeat of militant republicanism and took some of the heat out of the conflict between nationalists and Unionists, the agreement left fundamental questions of citizenship and national identity open and unresolved.
In his 2008 memoir, Tony Blair’s chief of staff, Jonathan Powell, describes the Good Friday Agreement as ‘an agreement to disagree’, a trade-off between ‘two sides, who couldn’t even agree on its title’. As one of its chief negotiators, Powell ruefully observed that the political instability ‘that was to dog us in the years that followed’ was a consequence of the ‘constructive ambiguity’ that had been deployed as a tactic for getting all the negotiating parties to agree. Far from securing peace and prosperity, these obfuscations and inconsistencies continue to fuel the mistrust that divides and impoverishes Northern Irish people and has now brought down the dysfunctional power-sharing government.
Beyond the management of cross-community relations and cross-border arrangements, the Good Friday Agreement opened a new chapter in British-Irish relations, based on Ireland’s formal abandonment of its constitutional claim to unification and Britain’s abandonment of its commitment to the Britishness of Northern Ireland. In other words, the agreement is symptomatic of the readiness of the political leadership of both states to trade national unity and the interests of their own electorates to score short-term diplomatic advantage.
The Good Friday Agreement was a declaration of retreat by a political class that has given up on governing. It draws its strength from the shared intellectual and political exhaustion of the governing classes, their evasion of democratic responsibility, and their abject loss of faith in their own ability to govern in the interests of their electorates. It’s far from the model for peace and diplomacy, the one thing holding Northern Ireland together, that it is being made out to be.
Pauline Hadaway is a writer and co-founder of the Liverpool Salon.
Published on spiked on-line 6th December 2017
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) awards World Heritage status on the basis that the ‘outstanding universal value’ of a site, whether in recognition of its natural beauty, historical or cultural significance, is deemed sufficient to ‘transcend national boundaries’. Liverpool was inscribed as a World Heritage Site (WHS) in 2004 in recognition of its rich architectural inheritance, unique maritime and mercantile history and its pioneering role in the development of modern dock technology, transport systems and port management. The designation covers several parts of the old commercial city centre, warehouses and merchant’s houses, including the Pier Head buildings and the iconic Three Graces, believed to be the inspiration for the Bund in Shanghai. While most agree that Liverpool’s status as a world heritage city has contributed to its sense of civic pride, concerns have arisen among the city’s business community and political leadership that the designation may be posing a significant threat to future prosperity.
The city council’s 2011 decision to grant planning permission to a £5.5 billion docklands development lead to a dramatic fall from grace, with UNESCO placing Liverpool’s cultural and architectural inheritance on its list of ‘World Heritage in Danger’. However city mayor Joe Anderson is continuing to back the development, in spite of a recommendation by UNESCO for a two-year moratorium on new developments in the city’s heritage sites and their surrounding ‘buffer zone’, including large parts of the city centre alongside derelict dockland and deprived neighbourhoods to the north of the city. The controversy not only places Liverpool’s WHS designation in jeopardy, but also raises important questions around local accountability for political decision-making and the problem of managing conservation in the context of the need for cities to grow and build prosperity for their citizens.
Aimed at reclaiming disused dockland to the north of the city, the Liverpool Waters development includes plans for apartments, offices, hotels and bars, as well as the 55-storey Shanghai Tower and other skyscrapers, which promised to ‘turn Liverpool into an international standard waterside destination’ that could rival New York, Vancouver and Shanghai. The dockland development is part of a wider Mersey Ports Master Plan aimed at building transport infrastructure as a drive for investment and trade, including an ambitious plan to develop ‘water freight transport solutions’ by re-connecting the Port of Liverpool to Manchester via the Manchester Ship Canal.
While initially supporting ‘the principle of a major scheme of regeneration in the Central Docks’ and recognizing the need for investment, particularly in the deprived north of the city, English Heritage raised objections based on the ‘density of development, the mass and scale of the waterfront blocks and the height and scale of the tall buildings’, alongside threats posed by underground car parks to ‘buried remains of the docks’. Some compromises have been reached around structural issues, however English Heritage’s key objection is based on its perception of the dockland development as a threat to the authenticity and integrity of the city’s cultural identity, by virtue of its location:
…..within an historic environment of international importance that reinforces the distinctiveness of Liverpool, allowing the City to be instantly recognisable, legible and rooted in its highly influential history. [Liverpool Waters-English Heritage Report Executive Summary. P.2]
This view that scale of the development would detract from the ‘historical primacy’ of Liverpool’s cultural heritage was echoed in a UNESCO inspection report published in November 2011, which warned of the threat of a ‘serious loss of historical authenticity’. The city council’s counter argument appears to be based on a very different concept of the city as a diverse, dynamic and political space where economic, cultural and social priorities remain contested:
We value the heritage status but we can’t let it stifle the growth of our city. People …come here for so many reasons – our culture, yes, our buildings, and because we are open and developing .
In a recent assessment of the impact of Liverpool’s WHS designation the Institute of Cultural Capital (ICC) explored perceptions and attitudes among citizens. Based on interviews and surveys of people involved in managing or promoting Liverpool’s visitor economy alongside ordinary Liverpudlians, the ICC report suggests that while people are generally agreed that Liverpool’s designation as a world heritage site has ‘contributed significantly’ to a sense of civic pride, those living in deprived areas outside of the city centre feel much less positive about the benefits than more affluent city centre residents. Local opinion is also divided on the economic value of the designation, with many citizens struggling to identify clear economic benefits. On the question of Liverpool losing its WHS designation, most agreed that this would have adverse impacts on the city’s image and attractiveness as a visitor destination. However, concerns over the negative impacts of delisting appear to be much greater among city centre residents than citizens living in ‘outlying and deprived city areas’, where the proposed Liverpool Waters development was ‘more likely to be welcomed as a much needed and long overdue’ stimulus for the economy.
The findings of the ICC Report appear to suggest a degree of sympathy among Liverpool citizens for the city mayor’s argument that compliance with the UNESCO moratorium on development would place ‘hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment and jobs at risk by sending out the message that Liverpool had ‘shut up shop and was closed for business’. The ICC Report concludes that the city should do more to promote and educate its citizens on the positive outcomes arising from the social, cultural and educational values associated with the WHS title. However the differences between ‘the heritage and development camps’ appear to run much deeper than questions of perception. How do ideas associated with defending the integrity of ‘threatened heritage’ translate into the messy business of local decision making in dynamic urban contexts, where people live and work? In an era of prolonged austerity and public spending cuts, might the object-based logic of conservation, authenticity and ‘historical primacy’ be more and more called into question as cities seek to recover the dynamism of the past as a way building a better future?
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