Moving beyond antagonism

I very much like listening to speeches by Duncan Morrow, CEO of the
Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland. They inspire. This
article is entitled, “Communities, Relationships and Development: The
Northern Irish Conundrum”. Not catchy. I would advise, “Moving beyond
antagonism”, because that’s what he’s making the case for.

I particularly agree with his argument that the existing
infrastructure in Northern Ireland is based on segregation and existing
exclusion. Morrow proposes that we need to:

  • recognise the problem of antagonism and hostility
  • develop new priorities that will require new responsibilities on leadership
  • not demand change first from those on the interface frontlines but address the antagonism in wider society
  • provide neutral/common spaces for reflection, change and dignity
  • Communities, Relationships and Development: The Northern Irish Conundrum
    Duncan Morrow
    c. 2003

    Even after decades of open conflict in Northern Ireland, the
    suggestion that changing relationships between our communities should
    lie at the core and not at the margin of the search for an inclusive
    society somehow remains controversial or is attacked as unrealistic.
    Even the mantra that community relations will happen in the long term
    after capacity building and community development must be open to
    serious question after thirty five years or more.

    Just when will ‘the long term’ turn into now? Because unless the
    longed-for victory happens, continuing to fund community development
    along unchallenged single-identity lines is a bottomless pit, in which
    a segregated and sectarianised society endlessly reproduces itself,
    cheered on by politicians, communities unwilling to change and
    supported by community development activists. Is it wrong to conclude
    that community development in Northern Ireland will never deal with
    community relations and will constantly seek to find reasons why it
    must be put off until one side (always ours) finally wins the
    overarching political battle?

    The presumption that community development means my group getting
    more powerful without reference to its implications for the community
    development of others is a distortion in any society which pays more
    than lip service to the civic equality of all citizens. Development
    like community is dynamic and changing, usually carrying a sense of
    purpose, advancement and growth, alongside unavoidable disruption,
    challenge and even loss as old ways of living change. We know this
    about economic development which has come to mean the generation of
    greater and greater wealth, usually by bringing enormous change to
    established patterns of relating and working. Instead of fixed
    obligations, and a lifetime lived in one place, development meant
    mobility and freedom of capital and labour.

    Community development was both a reaction to the excluding impact of
    rapid and impersonal change and an attempt to engage with it in a
    positive manner. First and foremost, it was based on the principle of
    inclusion, and on the right of all people to participate. As such,
    community development was about participation and democracy. Secondly,
    it is inseparable from an assertion of equality of value. Economic
    development created winners and losers. Community development work
    emerged as a response to the experience that many people felt
    marginalised and unable to shape the forces which were changing their
    lives. Community development meant equipping people with the tools to
    make their own mark, and to shape their own lives rather than simply
    accept what is thrown at them. Community development was about social
    justice and self determination. Thirdly, community development was a
    recognition that no individual could manage all change and that common
    endeavour was essential. Community development was about solidarity. To
    do all this, community development emphasised education and community
    organising in the struggle against isolation and powerlessness.

    But while the ideals of democracy, inclusion, solidarity and
    participation are universal, individual communities were often quite
    particular gatherings of people, sometimes forced or huddling together
    against a collective enemy or hostile force. Too often, community
    development degenerates into competition between two ore more
    ‘communities’, in which community means us and development means
    ‘advancing our position’. Outside a wider solidarity, antagonism,
    active hostility and opposition reduce the universal ideals of
    community development to illusions and platitudes.

    The problem with communities which emerge in antagonism is that the
    development of one threatens the other and sets off an ever-escalating
    competition. In communities under threat, communities self-organise,
    self-rely and self-defend. Participation, democracy and inclusion are
    applied internally but directly exclude ‘them’, except perhaps as
    occasional and opportunistic ‘partners’. Under conditions of threat and
    fear, democracy may easily produce leaders who militantly defend ‘our
    community’ against them, inclusion may be more focussed on including
    the radical elements in ‘our own’ community and participation will be
    restricted to those whose face fits. ‘The community’ has become anybody
    on ‘our side’. Instead of a ‘me and you’ and we is an ‘us and them’.
    Defence of this community can easily provide the rationale which
    legitimises violence, which looks like attack outside and legitimises a
    counterposing defence in the other community. Rather than relationship
    in the long run we have relationship on the long finger.

    The North of Ireland provided perfect circumstances for this kind of
    development. The expansion of British power in Ireland coincided with
    religious wars, and the emergence of lines which equated political
    loyalty with Protestantism and rebellion and resistance with
    Catholicism. Behind these impenetrable barriers, antagonistic
    experiences of the state grew up and survived into modern times, making
    suspicion common sense and reinforcing the sense of resentment and
    anxiety. Universal notions of the community meaning all of us together
    were simply naïve in this world where some people would kill you and
    others would protect you. Us and them was and is as natural as
    breathing.

    Autonomous, self-organising community development was most
    attractive in the community of resistance, in the Irish case the
    Catholic community. Starting with education, the Catholic community
    became the basis of an alternative notion, demanding its own state. The
    Protestant community was inherently less coherent, because of its
    multi-centred approach to power but also because it did not feel
    obliged to put up fire walls between itself and the state to defend
    itself. This does not mean that there was no community development, but
    that it never had the need to develop into a comprehensive alternative
    to power. Instead it was limited and based on specific needs. The
    exception was the Orange Order which evolved as a kind of umbrella
    organisation for Protestants from all backgrounds who felt the need to
    assert to defend the community from perceived political threats. Only
    now, as Protestant identification with and reliance on the state has
    waned is there a demand for another level of community protection. All
    of this needs much greater analysis of course. But the broad lines are
    there: community development in the North of Ireland and in Northern
    Ireland could not be separated from communal active hostility and
    opposition: both self-defence and self-assertion.

    The tragic consequence of community development under conditions of
    antagonism is the subversion of the principles of community development
    by political requirements. Self determination and democracy means the
    triumph of one party of the population over another, and the expulsion
    of any representatives of them among us. Paradoxically, the drive to
    segregation is accompanied by a politics of obsession with our
    opponents which is super-sensitive to any perceived greater development
    or investment in ‘the other side’. The territorial boundaries of each
    community are defined by violence. It is taken for granted that any
    attempt to make people engage directly with one another is
    ‘unrealistic’. Under conditions of antagonism, communities means areas
    of exclusive residence, kept in place by permanent cultural, political,
    paramilitary, religious or community gatekeepers who control residence,
    membership or the distribution of resources. Community development is
    not a coherent movement but a series of ‘ourselves alone’ actions in
    which the development of one is feared as the destruction of the other.

    Investment in community development without challenge to existing
    boundaries always risks reinforcing antagonism at ever higher levels of
    income and resources, causing random changes in the balance of power
    between communities as a result of their relative levels of
    organisation and capacity to absorb resources, promoting community
    defenders (antagonists) into power rather than quality of life
    advocates and draining resources from the public purse as a result of
    the incapacity to share.

    The emergence of community relations was in many ways an emergency
    response to this crisis. Armed antagonism continued to interfere with
    the goals of community development, so some solution to enable
    engagement had to be found. Problematically, ‘community relations’
    describes the issue without giving any hint as to what might be done:
    how does a person ‘community relate’? Furthermore, it is a concept
    without infrastructure, because all of the existing structures are
    based on segregation and existing exclusion. Furthermore, it asks
    people to do precisely what they do not wish to do, engage permanently,
    non-violently and equally with people who have caused them great fear
    and injury.

    Neither simplistic community relations nor community development
    which fails to recognise the need to tackle antagonism will do. We live
    at the end of three decades of daily communal antagonism built on
    centuries-old historic roots and in the even darker shadow of Auschwitz
    and of Srebrenica. We need to know where communal antagonism can lead
    in situations if it is not arrested. This is a matter of the utmost
    seriousness. Antagonism which is nursed and never addressed will turn
    out current transition into a gap between periods of violence. The task
    is to re-imagine and re-articulate community development so that all
    meaningful development includes and insists on a shift form ‘ourselves
    alone’ to the demand for a real voice embodied in the principle
    ‘nothing about us without us’. Everything else is ultimately
    sectarianism.

    Challenges for Community Development Education and Training
    The first step towards progress is a recognition of the problem.
    Antagonism and hostility are deeply rooted in Northern Ireland. Denial
    of the issues, sometimes motivated by genuine anger and fear, acts as a
    block to doing anything about it. Because it so distorts the purposes
    and possibilities of community development, it is essential that we
    find ways to name and recognise the ongoing reality of antagonism both
    in others and, much more importantly, in ourselves. The fact that we do
    not name things does not make them disappear, it simply drives them
    underground.

    Secondly, the recognition of how antagonism has distorted our
    development will require us to develop new priorities in terms of
    skills and capacity. Hostility which has spilled into violence and
    terror leaves deep scars. Engaging with the legacy is not always a
    matter of rational discussion but often a question of facing powerful
    and formative emotions and memories. Engaging with such real
    difficulties requires new responsibilities on leadership such as
    reflective self-awareness and while protecting the safety of the
    traumatised. New skills of dialogue and inquiry as well as negotiation
    and mediation will be central issues moving forward.

    Thirdly, interface communities in Northern Ireland are marginal not
    because they are radically different from the rest of society but
    because they find themselves on the frontline of a widely shared
    antagonism. Antagonism between competing
    national/cultural/political/religious groups is the problem not the
    nastiness of people living up against the peaceline. Change in the
    underlying antagonism can begin just as easily, and often far more
    easily, in less uncomfortable places like churches, business,
    government, middle class safe zones. We have to make change where it is
    possible, not demand change from the weakest and most traumatised.

    Fourthly, change from antagonism will be incremental not sudden, and
    liable to recurrent problems. What is crucial is that we are honest
    about maintaining direction towards real and mutual recognition and
    stop deluding ourselves that we are making changes when we are not.
    There is room within a process of change for retreat and reflection.
    Single-identity opportunities as well as neutral or common safe spaces
    can be essential, not to regroup, nor to wait for absolute numerical or
    political equality but to give space for reflection and change and
    dignity.

    Finally, community development needs to encourage a movement beyond
    the victim and even survivor narrative, which sees ‘us’ as harmless and
    innocent, which still takes its starting point in innocence. Real
    maturity requires us to sustain and examine the possibility, indeed the
    likelihood, that we have been part of systems, whether personally or
    collectively, which perpetuated as well as suffered violence. Moving
    beyond antagonism is inevitably also a painful process of seeing and
    accepting responsibility for terrible things. The challenge of
    inclusion is including our enemy-perpetrator and accepting that our
    inclusion by them is unlikely to be any easier for them.

    All of this sees development as a question of qualitative growth not
    of getting bigger. Development is impossible without developing new
    relationships. Community development cannot grow capacity to avoid
    problems but to face and deal with them on the basis of sustained
    inclusive principles. Capacity building does not mean a new crèche but
    a capacity to make community beyond antagonism and to find and offer
    safety to others against whom we have previously struggled. Differences
    are to be negotiated and settled without violence, not abolished. The
    greater challenge is not to the minority but to the winners, because
    they are faced with enabling difference without being ‘forced’ to do so.

    There is a lot of work to do.

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