London School of Economics professor says days of partition are over


The use of partition as a means of dealing with conflict was coming to an end as it was becoming an unacceptable policy option, a former British Labour Party adviser on the North told an international conference in the US at the weekend.p. Prof Brendan O’Leary from the London School of Economics was speaking at a gathering of experts on the partition of Ireland, India and Palestine, convened by the Keough Institute for Irish Studies in the University of Notre Dame, Indiana.p. “Partition is no longer an internationally approved instrument,” he said. “It has become a taboo for external powers to redraw lines on the map as they see fit.”p. In an era of equality between states and peoples, to propose partition was to propose paternalism.p. He pointed out, for example, that Northern Ireland had been persistently unstable. Since the 1960s the Northern conflict had meant that the UK suffered the highest level of internal political violence of any established European democracy. Even the unionist leader, Lord Carson, had not originally sought the partition of Ireland. “Partition was, for him, an option of last resort. He did not really regard it as a victory; indeed he regarded it as a failure” Prof O’Leary said.p. “Craig, his Ulster lieutenant, by contrast thought a six-county Northern Ireland would be a new impregnable Pale from which to resist Irish nationalism.”p. Dr Margaret O’Callaghan, from the School of Politics in Queen’s University Belfast, said partition was ostensibly a means of resolving community conflict but the evidence did not support this.p. “Certainly in the Irish case it would be difficult to argue that it has addressed the frightening sectarianism that exists at all levels of the society.”p. Moreover, partition seemed to set in train “successive community-enforced sub-partitions” despite the argument that good fences made good neighbours. “You end up with a location like north Belfast, where the internal partitions are literally street by street,” she said. Dr Joe Cleary, lecturer in English at Maynooth, said unionists had seen the creation of the Northern state as a defensive move in which they managed, despite the twin dangers of a British sell-out and Irish nationalism, to safeguard their British citizenship.p. “Every advance made by Northern nationalists since then is viewed, not in terms of the democratisation of Northern Irish society, but as a further erosion in a long war of nationalist attrition.”p. He criticised the new, civic version of unionism that claimed that Northern Ireland’s continuing membership of the UK “guarantees advanced liberties to all its citizens irrespective of nationality or religion, something that a united Ireland in their view cannot and could never do”.p. Civic unionism could only work by ignoring or whitewashing the past. “They have real difficulty in explaining why such an essentially high-minded political movement has always been viewed with such antipathy by Northern nationalists,” Dr Cleary said. Prof Liam O’Dowd from the School of Sociology in Queen’s University Belfast, pointed out that the Irish Border had now lasted over 80 years, making it one of the oldest in contemporary Europe but also one of the most contested.p. “Thirty years of the Northern Ireland conflict have culminated in the signing of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, marking the latest attempt to reconfigure the Irish Border on a more democratic and consensual basis” he said.p. An extensively reformed system of governance had reduced the inequality.p. The unionist community was fracturing as it became clear that the union no longer operated on its terms alone.p. Unionists portrayed the 30-year conflict as a succession of defeats and concessions to the violent campaign of the IRA. Nationalists and republicans, on the other hand, presented it as “a history of progressive achievement and as a stepping-stone to an agreed or a united Ireland”.

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