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December Books 13) The Elusive Quest

13) The Elusive Quest: Reconciliation in Northern Ireland, by Norman Porter

Like Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee, this was lent me by a friend and I have been feeling guilty about not reading and returning it, though in this case only for a year and a half rather than fifteen years.

I admit that I had avoided it for the wrong reasons. Porter achieved some prominence, briefly, in Northern Ireland's political discourse about ten years ago for his first book, Rethinking Unionism: An Alternative Vision for Northern Ireland (sample chapter). Since I am not a Unionist, I couldn't get very enthusiastic about his attempts to repackage it, and it seemed to me that while Porter had succeeded in producing an alternative vision which was, indeed, not too far from mine, his project was fatally flawed by insisting on calling this "Unionism" in any form; to my mind, if you aim for a decent civic society, which respects and equally guarantees the rights of all its citizens, that surely is largely irrelevant to the question of whether Northern Ireland should continue to be in the UK, join the rest of Ireland, be somehow shared or become independent (though not irrelevant as to how that issue should be resolved). So for that reason I didn't bother reading the first book, though I was well aware of its arguments.

I'm very glad to say that my friend who insisted on lending me The Elusive Quest was right to do so. Porter has moved on from Unionism, and here presents a devastating critique of both the Unionist and Republican traditions (he spends less time on more moderate Irish nationalists, though does not ignore them entirely). His refutation of the liberal pretensions of Unionism is clear and comprehensive; his attack on the ethics of both sides utterly convincing; and his dissection of the Sinn Fein/IRA attitude to the peace process, based entirely on showing the flaws in its own internal logic, is the best I've read. The book was published in 2003, before it became clear that the UUP had lost the internal battle in Unionism, so some of the commentary on Trimble is now of historical interest only; but his critiques of Unionism in general remain sound.

But this is not a negative book. Those impressive passages attacking both side (near the end) are embedded in a very positive political argument, that the key to building a healthy society is to achieve reconciliation, and that the only criterion worth using to judge the actions of politicians is the extent to which they achieve it. His case is cleverly made, with a thought-provoking matrix of theoretical background and rebuttals of potential opposing arguments. I would have liked a few more specific policy recommendations, but perhaps this is beside the point - the book is about mind-sets, rather than actions.

Inevitably, given my own interests, I've been trying to think of how Porter's arguments could be generalised to the rest of the world. I think the key message is here:
It is too easy to latch on to the idea of the alleged incommensurability of unionist and nationalist discourses, to excuse paltry attempts to work through our differences in a way that lessens divisions and permits the articulation of common purposes. At the very least, it is wildly implausible to suppose that reconciliation is impossible in the North because unionists and nationalists are so mysterious to each other that they find each other's interpretations or perspectives incomprehensible...

This is not to deny that misunderstandings and misperceptions abound, that divisions continue and that shared commitment to common purposes is hard to engender and even harder to sustain. But these problems are more plausibly traced to a relative scarcity engagement between major sections of our traditions, to the poor quality of the engagements that do occur, and to the fact that unionists and nationalists often disagree. And the crucial point is that these are things we can do something about: disagreements invite further discussion and deliberation, engagements can be increased and their quality improved. Recognising plurality and respecting difference does not have to imply abandoning hope in understanding others or in reaching substantial agreement about how we may together govern ourselves. It is at times a difficult hope to sustain, but that is not because it aims at something that is in principle beyond reach.

Communication is always necessary and appropriate, and that it is wrong, logically and morally, to assume that you already know in advance what the other side are going to say, so there is no point in talking to them. Indeed, it's a point that is true for life in general, and not just in the politics of divided societies.

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