Ποιειν Και Πραττειν - create and do

Reference Material 1: "Review Essay commissioned by the Irish Review (Belfast)" by Joris Duytschaever

Harald Olav Skar & Bjorn Lydersen (eds.) Northern Ireland. A Crucial Test for a Europe of Peaceful Regions?, Oslo: Norwegian Institute of International Affairs 1993 (-Norwegian Foreign Policy Studies no. 80). ISBN 82 7002 040. IIIpp.

Proinsias O Drisceoul (ed.), Culture in Ireland - Regions: Identity and Power, Belfast: The Institute of Irish Studies, The Queen's University 1993. ISBN 0 85389 476. 242 pp.


Although the first book may have been meant primarily for political scientists, perhaps the idea of having it reviewed by a literary historian from continental Europe was to get an over-all appraisal of such a book's relevance for cultural studies. I'm happy to report that this slim but substantial volume not only confirms Oslo's reputation as "The Peace Capital of the World", but also offers insights into the connections between politics and culture that no civilizationist can afford to ignore when teaching Irish Studies. The book reproduces a dialogue held in February '93 between eminently articulate British, Irish and Norwegian government representatives and scholars such as Paul Arthur, Peter Bell, Kevin Boyle, Nils Butenschon, William Lafferty, and last but not least Torkel Opsahl, the chair of "Initiative '92", an investigating committee in Northern Ireland with a future-oriented task.

Part I deals with the Republican and the British perspectives on territorial claims and political development in a European context; Part II explores regional perspectives in terms of new allegiances and identification in Northern Ireland and Europe, as well as the possibility of cross-sectarian support for a European role in Northern Ireland; Part III puts the Human Rights issue into the wider European perspective.

Among the many interesting points made, let me just single out one that strikes continentals as very sensible: Kevin Boyle's suggestion to make up deficiencies in the constitutional structures of the British system by introducing a written Bill of Rights rather than negotiate it further by the political process alone. This idea is also alive in Scotland, where a majority of the culturally minded people oppose the traditional way of doing things, i.e. to continue with the unwritten constitution, and prefer dumping the doctrine of unfettered supremacy of Parliament and its dubious capacity to respond to grievances as they are voiced by the people's representatives. Major's election victory of April '92 may not have debilitated Scottish dynamics to the extent that Guelke suggests (p.75). The possibility of a constitutional crisis through a walkout of Scottish MPs is still there, as knowledgeable people told me in Edinburgh in August '93, thus confirming against all odds Robin Wilson's January '92 guess that "developments in Scotland....may start the engine going" (quoted on p.77).

Boyle's suggestion to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into both the written constitution of the Republic and the prospective written constitution of the U.K. sounds productive as well, for this would imply that the same definition and standard of rights are applicable throughout the two islands. There are no insurmountable obstacles to be negotiated, due to the salutary influence of Europeanisation: the U.K. has already adopted several external and written constitutions (The European Community treaties) contradicting the tradition of evolutionary pragmatism in constitutional matters. Eventually the highly articulated normative framework of the British state at the European level will lead to unacceptable dissonance with uncertain and unwritten constitutional principles at the national level.

While Europeanization has often been maligned as destructive homogenization and erosion of identity, differentiation is clearly in order between diversity that deserves to be preserved and counterproductive differences that ought to disappear sooner rather than later, for the sake of peace. Not only politically, but also culturally speaking this point needs to be made, since continental anti-Europeanists are raging more and more against the dangers of a faceless mainstream culture, building up anxiety for demagogic purposes. Their primitive rhetoric is far inferior to the level of discourse maintained throughout the second volume under review, the proceedings of the Cultures of Ireland Group's second annual conference (November 1992). The rebuttal "But at least we don't kill each other" inflicted on me by a reactionary Flemish nationalist who resented this comparative evaluation is hardly valid, since during the Second World War a horrific internecine struggle between right- and left-wing Flemings claimed more victims than the "Troubles" probably every will. And right-wing cultural discourse shows a worrying continuum, not only in Flanders.

Therefore a book such as Regions: Identity and Power could be eminently useful in those continental countries where ethno-nationalism resumes an aggressive tradition. The amazingly low price makes it affordable even for students, and as well as providing a wealth of information it shows a model of group dynamics to boot (the animated series of debates at workshops and plenary session is included). Since the book is more up my alley than the first one, it's not easy to refrain from sharing my enthusiasm at length.

The outstanding keynote address "The Bases of Regionalism" by Kevin Whelan analyses the historical background of regional identity in terms of spatial matrix (farm, town land, local community zone, social field, county system, province, region) while concurrently admitting that it is too neat to capture the fluidity of life in modern Ireland as these Chinese boxes are increasingly stacked within larger ones (EC, global economy and media). Yet he suggests that the thrust of local history and a holistic approach to environment and landscape can provide a vision for the future of the regions.

The discussion goes beyond Irish problems: the respondent hailed from Friesland, a province in the Netherlands with a more distinctive regional culture than the other ten provinces, including a minority language not subsumable under the umbrella of Dutch. Frisian policy-makers have a re-invigorating impact on a region suffering from the same unemployment rate as Ireland, by combining tourism with culture, while sustaining a holistic approach and imparting a sense of history to locals as well.

Historian Myrtle Hill's Northern Irish perspective is also illuminating, pointing up gaps between the appeal of a unified Europe based on diversity and the structural problems which might prove difficult to overcome, such as the obstacle that only a small number of people in Northern Ireland embrace the ideal of cultural pluralism.

A southern parallel to this lack of pluralism is shown by David McConnell in the case of the Adelaide Hospital, the last Protestant teaching hospital in the Republic. Even though he diplomatically (wisely) refrains from blaming sectarianism for the embattled state of this hospital, the interference of the Bishop of Limerick with health care (p.137) is ample evidence for the sceptical observer with the inside scoop from parallel schemes of the continent: catholic interests are being cemented for eternity as a pre-emptive strike against a growing opposition (in the Republic ex-Catholics affiliated with Labour and Protestants together may already be in the majority). Hopefully there will be exciting new developments in the Republic, loosening up in the long run counterproductive interests that are deeply entrenched for no good reasons at all.

The papers by LIam O'Dowd, Tony Canavan, Anne Tannahill, Maire Ui Shithigh and Tony Kennedy are excellent too, but is it not feasible to deal with them individually. In the best Irish tradition there is also a lively contribution by a writer, Dermot Healey. His point is well-made that not only is there a North-South cleavage based on poetical assumptions that need to be clarified, but also "How the poet from Kerry views the poet from Wexford will throw another set of critical values. And so on." (p.109). It is indeed possible to differentiate even between North and South Kerry: the best writers (and boxers) come from the former area, as connoisseurs know....

This fluidity about the definitions of what actually constitutes regions will stay with us in cultural studies, even after regions have been defined in economic terms by 'Brussels'. Thus the Netherlands and the Flemish part of Belgium have already been subdivided into several economic regions, whereas cultural leaders attempt to promote the whole area (except Frisia) as one cultural region ("The Low Countries") by virtue of the fact that its twenty million inhabitants speak Dutch. Yet cultural attitudes between the Calvinistic north and the Catholic south vary considerably, no matter how eroded the faith itself has become.

Only time will tell whether the melting of cultural identities will become consonant with the merging of areas into economic regions all over Europe. The German region of "Baden-Wuerttemberg", for example, has proven to be a rather felicitous creation after half a century, both economically and culturally. In 1950 Heidegger still clamed there was a gap between the two tribes in that region: "The time a native from Baden needs to pronouce the word 'sausage' is used by the Suabian to swallow it", leaving no doubt as to his own Suabian pedigree (reported by Robert Minder in Hoelderlin unter den Deutschen, Frankfurt 1970, p. 153). All this is folklore by now. However, the attempt to reunite Germany as a whole might turn out to be disastrous, going against the grain of sensible European evolution, since West-Germany was thriving with a well-functioning regional structure which should have emulated in the other republic of its own right. Pursuing these lines of thought would lead us too far from the divided Ireland, but the vicissitudes of reunification needed at least to be mentioned in passing for those believe it is a panacea.

Returning to the book under review, let me express a wish for the following volumes, taking my cue from Healey's: "this conference could have done with a glossary to help the uninformed", but rather modifying it to a need for an index. Now the reader has to develop his own, as he works his way through the book, cross-referencing occurrences of the "subsidiarity" concept on p. 21, 86, etc.. In this context it's amazing how ill-prepared some people are to engage in a debate, e.g. when even the existence of the word, let alone the concept, is doubted (p.86), while Webster's 1966 edition already defines it as a principle of a theory of sociology: "functions which subordinate or local organisations perform effectively belong more properly to them than to a dominant central organisation". Fortunately Bernard Cullen, on the strength of his Christian Brothers education, straightens this out, referring to the Catholic tradition of the concept since Aquinas (p.226-7). It may also be useful to recall the medieval controversies on universal and local authority between the bishop of Rome and other bishops, including those of the British Isles, connected with the same concept. Cullen uses the concept to productively develop the crucial idea of having schooling run by local democratic management, to the exclusion of the clerical authorities, with a view to enabling children of different backgrounds to develop basic trust. To conclude with his wisdom: "Subsidiarity is not a difficult idea...on balance, if we're democrats,...it's a challenge we have to accept and it's a risk we have to take" (p.228).



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