A few months ago, in the wake of the coronation of King Charles and the publicity around the attendance of Michelle O’Neill and Alex Maskey at that event, I wrote a column about how reciprocity is meaningless without respect. Since before that time, I’ve been working with a number of people to examine in a deeper way what we mean when we talk about respect for different cultures and traditions and what we can do to give practical expression to that. A conversation around mutual accommodation developed which led to a discussion document being produced.
Yesterday, as part of Féile an Phobail, I chaired a debate with my co-authors Richard Humphreys and Caitríona Mullan with a response by Professor Peter Shirlow, discussing issues around mutual accommodation and what benefits it could bring to society. Could this concept, as part of an evolving culture of tolerance, help to lower the temperature of contested narratives, reduce stress and, ultimately, make people happier?
When we were drafting the discussion document, we and our co-authors Mark Tottenham BL and Seán Mac Cárthaigh, consulted widely. Some of our assumptions were robustly challenged. There was also a view that we should not even bother for as long as the constitutional status of the north is an actively contested issue.
So why now? Given the instability of the institutions of government in Northern Ireland and fractured relationships, futuristic debates about constitutional questions have overshadowed the need for a more immediate discussion on the need for mutual cultural accommodation.
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It is all too easy for a discussion on accommodation to drift into an argument about a united Ireland vs a United Kingdom. But what if we exclude the constitutional question from the equation and look at mutual accommodation as something to be considered here and now and for its own sake? Is that achievable?
The basic concept of mutual accommodation or cultural recognition in the context of the network of arrangements centred on the principle that the institutional and cultural representatives of each ‘main’ or ‘dominant’ cultural tradition and the states best representing those identities could take more active measures in the here-and-now to treat other diverse identities and traditions with a parity of esteem and an equality of recognition.
Our focus in the first instance is on accommodation by those of Catholic, Nationalist or Republican (CNR) identities and the Irish state of those from Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist (PUL) identities. This isn’t ultimately a one-way process; if it is successful it should evolve into a mutually reinforcing cycle of positive responses on all sides.
But the underlying goal of accommodation being mutual doesn’t mean that any given position should remain frozen until any guarantee of reciprocation is received. That would defeat the purpose. Accommodation is an exercise in inclusion and generosity, not a negotiation. From within the pro-Union community, concerns raised included whether accommodation would be part of a slide to a united Ireland or whether the proposal as framed was nationalist condescension.
From the republican/nationalist tradition, critical responses ranged from why should we given the way Unionism behaved since the Plantation to we should wait until the negotiations around reunification before talking about accommodation. The logic of parity of esteem, which is a cornerstone of the Good Friday Agreement, can fruitfully be applied beyond the terms of the Agreement as a principle which can inform the range of relationships within and between the islands.
For example, whilst the Irish state guarantees constitutional and ECHR rights to equality, it is not legally obliged to afford Protestant, Unionist and Loyalist identities a parity of esteem within its own borders in the sense of the 1998 Agreement. But is it worth asking the question whether offering more in the way of parity of esteem would contribute constructively to building relationships and promoting the other goals of accommodation?
The benefits of embarking on a process of mutual accommodation are not only about changing the dynamic for the better and improving relationships, but also reducing the temperature and expanding the binary dynamic to connect across a range of perspectives. The island of Ireland is no longer a place with a binary identity, after all. But more importantly perhaps, it’s about doing the right thing.
During this process, we were encouraged by a sense of the just-possible: self-confident, relaxed, people from all communities, happy to accept their neighbours in whatever ways they manifest their traditions or identity, with everyone feeling safe in the knowledge that the conflict is definitively over, that what will be will be anyway, and there is a much more pleasant way to live than a dozen micro-confrontations a day.
Creating a virtuous cycle of reciprocity as an end in itself might just lead to better individual and collective relationships.