Mike Burke assesses the perspective brought to nationalism by Richard English, an author and academic. Mike Burke has lectured in Politics and Public Administration in Canada for over 30 years.
Richard English has recently written two reviews of Declan Kearney’s edited collection Uncomfortable Conversations: one published in the Irish Times on 11 July and one in the August issue of An Phoblacht.
Richard English is a Professor of Politics at the University of St. Andrews, formerly of Queen’s University, Belfast, and has written numerous scholarly articles and books on Irish politics and the northern conflict. Uncomfortable Conversations is part of Sinn Féin’s reconciliation project first announced by the Party’s National Chairperson, Declan Kearney, in March 2012.
English’s contribution to this debate certainly makes me feel uncomfortable. But, I suppose, that’s part of his purpose: to offer comfort to unionists and discomfort to nationalists and republicans.
In the March 2012 issue of An Phoblacht, Kearney launched a new phase of the peace process: an outreach initiative designed to engage unionists (and others) in a journey of reconciliation. Kearney argued that “Reconciliation means being willing to have uncomfortable conversations.” The purpose of these conversations is to increase understanding and mutual respect, heal differences and create trust. Another purpose, according to Kearney, is to convince “all sections in our society” of the desirability of creating “an inclusive, pluralist united Ireland.”
Throughout 2012, Kearney returned time and again to this theme of reconciliation through uncomfortable conversations: it featured prominently in his Easter Commemoration speech in April, his address to the Sinn Féin Ard Fheis in May, his comments on the meeting between Martin McGuinness and Queen Elizabeth in June, and his speech at Sinn Féin’s reconciliation event at Westminster in October.
Since March 2012, An Phoblacht has been regularly featuring articles in its Uncomfortable Conversations series. Some of those articles appear in Kearney’s recently-published collection that Richard English reviewed. The entire set of contributions can be found at http://www.anphoblacht.com/uncomfortable-conversations.
Uncomfortable conversations across community divisions are, on the face of it, a worthwhile idea. There are, however, sound reasons to be deeply skeptical of Kearney’s tying of Uncomfortable Conversations to the objective of Irish reunification. Irish unity will not emerge from these Conversations; nor can these Conversations be considered part of a larger coherent plan to realize the transition to a united Ireland. Sinn Féin has not developed any such plan. But that is another story, for another time perhaps.
Here, I wish to focus on Richard English’s contribution to Uncomfortable Conversations. To the extent that English’s view is indicative of the position of political unionism, it gives us insight into a principal reason why intercommunal conversations often prove unproductive and why northern politics is so prone to the cycle of stalemate-impasse-crisis-muddle.
Hierarchy and Asymmetry
n his two reviews of Kearney’s book Uncomfortable Conversations, English is addressing two different constituencies. The Irish Times article is aimed primarily at unionists; the An Phoblacht article primarily at that publication’s nationalist and republican readership.
In the Irish Times, but not in An Phoblacht, English says: “uncomfortable conversations will involve unexpected futures for us all, and the way that we adjust to changed times will determine how well or how badly Irish—and certainly Northern Irish—politics develops in this century.” Consider the two “unexpected futures” he poses for unionists and nationalists, respectively. “For unionists, there is the challenge of facing the real prospect that Scotland will, in name and/or in practice, leave the union.” “Similarly,” for republicans, the challenge is “if meaningful conversations still leave a united and independent Ireland unattainable.”
There is such a yawning disproportion in these two challenges that I wondered how someone like English, who is so well acquainted with the history and contemporary politics of the north, could present them as parallel. There is nothing remotely equivalent, even similar, in unionist anxiety about Scottish attempts to leave the union and nationalist/republican ‘anxiety’ about abandoning the aim of Irish unity. The objective of Irish unity is a foundational, defining element of Irish nationalism and republicanism; concern with the constitutional status of Scotland plays nowhere near as central or fundamental a role in northern unionism.
I am not denying the “deep historical attachment” of many northern unionists to Scotland, to use English’s phrase. Nor am I minimizing the real insecurity unionists feel about Scotland’s increasingly tenuous place in the union. But I am fundamentally questioning English’s proposition that there is a parallel or equivalency between these unionist fears and the discomfort nationalists/republicans would experience in giving up the aim of Irish unity. English is, in effect, tilting the conversation to the advantage of unionism: a core principle of nationalism/republicanism is up for discussion, but the real equivalent principle for unionism—British sovereignty in the north—is not.
How could English not recognize the highly skewed nature of what he proposes? It seems to me that the disproportion he brings to Uncomfortable Conversations is consistent with the glaring imbalances or asymmetries that are embedded in much of his scholarly work. Few academics have been as explicit as English in constructing a social and political hierarchy that leaves nationalism and republicanism subordinate to unionism. From this perspective, what English proposes is not disproportionate at all; rather, it aligns precisely with the way he believes that politics in the north should operate.
It would be unfair to reduce the depth, breadth, complexity and subtlety of English’s work to the theme of asymmetry. English himself has not been entirely consistent in the degree to which asymmetry is central to his thought. But this theme does permeate much of his work, especially on contemporary northern politics; and it certainly makes an appearance in his comments on Uncomfortable Conversations in the Irish Times.
It would also be unfair not to mention the laudable points that English makes in his contributions to Uncomfortable Conversations. He says that he recognizes the need for dialogue and debate, for listening genuinely to each other, for thinking seriously about how the actions of one’s own community affected others, and for displaying empathy and respect. It’s unfortunate that these sentiments are attenuated or contradicted by the asymmetries he brings to the conversation.
In the mid-1990s, English was part of a group of ‘new unionist’ writers who intervened in the emerging debate on the future of the north. The theme of asymmetry infuses English’s ‘new unionist’ work. He directly and forcefully rejects the notion that unionism and nationalism in the north “must be addressed in terms of their supposed symmetry.” According to English, it is asymmetry not symmetry that better represents the relation between the two “traditions”. Irish nationalism is a form of romantic patriotism that is parochial, ethnic, exclusive and irrational; unionism is a superior political argument that is cosmopolitan, civic, inclusive and reasonable.
This asymmetry, in turn, means that there can be no parity of cultural or political esteem between nationalism and unionism. English stridently opposes what he calls “the equal legitimacy thesis,” or “the notion of publicly and loudly according equal legitimacy and respect to the differing traditions in question.” The proper relation of unionism to nationalism—and one the British state should support—is not equality but hierarchy, with unionism ranked above nationalism. In other words, the nationalist/republican objective of Irish unity is manifestly less legitimate than is the unionist desire of maintaining British sovereignty in the north.
English argues further that the inherent superiority of unionism and the political necessity of accommodating it have clear constitutional implications: British rule in the north is permanent and unassailable, and Dublin’s northern role must be minimized. To stabilize this constitutional arrangement requires, for English, that nationalism completely redefine itself by accepting partition and jettisoning even the aspiration to Irish unity. In Robert Perry’s view, the logical consequence of English’s argument “is for nationalists to simply quit the field, even those Irish nationalists who argue for Irish unification via unionist consent.”
English’s embrace of asymmetry and associated rejection of equality also have scholarly consequences, which are to be put to political purpose. He explicitly rejects an Irish historiography based on Kerby Miller’s call for a balanced appraisal that grants equal validity to the different traditions of all parties. Instead, English argues in favour of a pro-unionist scholarship that will facilitate a fundamental remaking of Irish nationalism, even outlining unionist-sensitive research projects that could help induce Irish nationalism and nationalists to change in ways beneficial to unionism.
English’s asymmetries seem guided by two essential and related principles. First, relieving unionist fears and anxieties is the major, if not sole, criterion by which to judge political developments relating to the two major traditions in the north. Political initiatives are deemed desirable to the extent that they relieve unionist fears and undesirable to the extent that they do not.
The second principle is a real reluctance to deal with nationalists as nationalists or engage republicans as republicans. English fully understands that almost any kind of political demand made by nationalists or republicans will evoke unionist anxiety. To address such anxiety, as the first principle necessitates, means that these groups must cease making political demands as nationalists or republicans.
English, it seems, is most comfortable with ‘nationalists’ and ‘republicans’ who have discarded the political essence of their nationalism or republicanism. The immediate task facing northern (and southern) nationalists/republicans, then, is to construct a new, politically-innocuous identity, a kind of “non-political Irishness,” that must never threaten or even contest the central political positions of unionism.
Equality and Parity
For many reasons, the discourse of equality and parity is contested and problematic in the north, just as it is in numerous other places. But it’s an especially vexed question in the north, partly because of its close association with the peace process. Acceptance or rejection of the language of equality and parity can be tied to support for, or opposition to, the Good Friday Agreement.
For pro-Agreement republicans, that language represents an important part of the ‘new dispensation’ ushered in by the GFA, which has provided not only a share in regional power but “a peaceful path to Irish unity and independence”.
For anti-Agreement republicans, it is associated with the defeat of republicanism as signified by the peace process and the provisions of the GFA. For them, the terms equality and parity are seen as part of the fundamental transformation that saw Sinn Féin become “New Sinn Féin,” with the ‘new’ party accepting partition, the northern veto and an internal settlement.
For others, the language of equality and parity represents the way that Sinn Féin has managed the tensions between its universalistic and particularistic tendencies. It indicates Sinn Féin’s rightward shift on social and economic questions and its move towards a cultural understanding of politics as communal advocacy.
The troubled discourse of equality and parity, most specifically the unionist reluctance to accept the political implications of that discourse, also represents the persistence of relations of superiority and subordination that underlies the recurring disturbances that have come to define Stormont politics. Regardless of what the GFA says about parity of esteem, many unionists, and apparently some of their academic supporters, have not accepted Irish unity as a fully legitimate political position.
Given the asymmetries of Richard English, it is not difficult to understand why he is so eager to place the question of the unattainability of Irish unity on the agenda of Sinn Féin’s Uncomfortable Conversations initiative. Nor is it difficult to understand why he could see an equivalency between the unionist concern for Scottish exit and the nationalist concern for Irish unity.
In both his reviews of Kearney’s book, but especially in the Irish Times piece, English invites political unionism to engage in Sinn Féin’s Uncomfortable Conversations initiative. The nature of his appeal to unionists in the Irish Times can be succinctly summarized: the armed struggle is over, the northern veto accepted, and now it’s time to get nationalists and republicans finally to give up altogether their quest for Irish unity.
If political unionism engages on English’s terms, Uncomfortable Conversations will fail in its stated attempt to begin the process of healing by increasing respect, trust and understanding. And any other cross-communal conversations based on English’s premise will prove equally fruitless.
Richard English, “Breaking Through the North’s Dialogue of the Deaf,” Irish Times, 11 July 2015, available online at http://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/breaking-through-the-north-s-dialogue-of-the-deaf-1.2280948; and his “Next Steps in an Important Debate: Uncomfortable Conversations,” An Phoblacht, August 2015, p. 22.
 Declan Kearney, “Uncomfortable Conversations are Key to Reconciliation,” An Phoblacht, March 2012, p. 6. Sinn Féin interest in unionist outreach and reconciliation predates Kearney’s 2012 initiative: it was long part of the party’s involvement in the peace process. See Kevin Bean, “Defining Republicanism: Shifting Discourses of New Nationalism and Post-republicanism,” in Marianne Elliot ed., The Long Road to Peace in Northern Ireland 2d ed. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2002): 133-146.
 See Declan Kearney, “Moving the Peace Process into new phases,” An Phoblacht News, 10 April 2012, available online at http://www.anphoblacht.com/contents/21772; Sinn Féin, “Declan Kearney – Reconciliation Speech – Ard Fheis 2012,” 25 May 2012, available online at http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/23467; Declan Kearney, “Leadership and Vision Remain Essential,” An Phoblacht, August 2012, p. 6; and Sinn Féin, “National Reconciliation in Ireland—The Need for Uncomfortable Conversations,” 24 October 2012, available online at http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/24818
 Although there is no reason to expect that the outcome of intercommunal dialogue will necessarily, or even probably, be respect, trust, understanding and healing.
 Kevin Bean has characterized Sinn Féin’s transition-to-Irish-unity strategy as a combination of utopian dreaming and “wishful thinking.” See his The New Politics of Sinn Féin (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2007), p. 257. Similarly, Brian Feeney is not convinced of the authenticity of Sinn Féin’s reconciliation initiative: “No one in the party is articulating how to advance their fundamental aim, Irish unity. Instead there is monthly waffle about reconciliation and ‘uncomfortable conversations'”. See his “Sinn Féin has lost direction in the north,” Irish News, 29 July 2015; available online at http://www.irishnews.com/opinion/columnists/2015/07/29/news/sinn-fein-has-lost-direction-in-the-north-204837/
 Irish Times, 11 July 2015.
 A number of reviews of English’s books have pointed out inconsistencies in his approach. Brendan O’Leary, in his mostly favourable review of English’s book Armed Struggle: A History of the IRA (2003), notes that English’s “intelligence disciplines his own [unionist] politics” to produce a “well-written, thoughtful and controlled history of the organisation” (n.p.). O’Leary’s praise evaporates, however, in his review of English’s book Irish Freedom: The History of Nationalism in Ireland (2006). O’Leary notes that English’s book is “far from a detached account” and has a “’revisionist’ bias” (p. 160). He suggests that English is “not impartial” (p. 170), even though “the author presents himself as an objective a-nationalist rather than an anti-nationalist, let alone a British nationalist, that is, a unionist” (p. 161). The result, says O’Leary, is a book rife with “linguistic, methodological, and ideological” “blind spots” (p.155). See O’Leary’s review of Armed Struggle, “Lethal Mix of Armalite and the Ballot Box,” Times Higher Education Supplement, 3 October 2003; available online at https://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/books/lethal-mix-of-armalite-and-the-ballot-box/180201.article; and his review of Irish Freedom, “Cuttlefish, Cholesterol and Saoirse,” Field Day Review 3 (2007): 155-171. Brian Hanley also reviewed English’s Armed Struggle and remarks that it “is a book written with great balance and empathy.” He compared it unfavourably to English’s earlier work “which was at times excessively judgemental about republicanism” (p. 352). See Hanley’s review of Armed Struggle in Irish Historical Studies 34:135 (May 2005): 351-353. For a discussion of how English’s work on the IRA is seen as varying from “overly empathetic” to “less sympathetic” (p. 349), see Robert Perry, “Revising Irish History: The Northern Ireland Conflict and the War of Ideas,” Journal of European Studies 40:4 (2010): 329-354. This article includes comments from English about his differing approach to the IRA. Let me give a final example of the varying degree to which the theme of what I call asymmetry or imbalance pervades English’s work. In an article examining the role of professional historians, English argues that “historians should pursue balance rather than tolerating undue bias” by constructing “an historical account less comforting to any one side in Ulster's late-twentieth-century war” (p. 25). See his “Coming to Terms with the Past: Northern Ireland,” History Today 54:7 (July 2004): 24-26. This call for balance and understanding rather than judgement is in stark contrast to the explicit imbalance in English’s own mid-1990s work that judges the differential legitimacy of unionism and nationalism. Imbalance is also a main characteristic of English’s 2006 book Irish Freedom, as O’Leary notes (see endnote 7). In some of his work, English combines a rhetorical commitment to balance with an exceedingly harsh and judgemental approach to revolutionary republicanism and Irish nationalism: see his Ernie O’Malley: IRA Intellectual (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998). English’s mid-1990s work, and its reappearance in his contribution to Uncomfortable Conversations, is examined further in the text.
 Liam O’Dowd uses the term ‘new unionism’ in his “’New Unionism’, British Nationalism and the Prospects for a Negotiated Settlement in Northern Ireland,” in David Miller, ed., Rethinking Northern Ireland: Culture, Ideology and Colonialism (London and New York: Addison Wesley Longman, 1998): 70-93; and his “Constituting Division, Impeding Agreement: The Neglected Role of British Nationalism in Northern Ireland,” in James Anderson and James Goodman, eds., Dis/Agreeing Ireland: Contexts, Obstacles, Hopes (London: Pluto Press, 1998): 108-125. For a ‘new unionist’ analysis, see John Wilson Foster, ed., The Idea of the Union: Statements and Critiques in Support of the Union of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (Vancouver: Belcouver Press, 1995).
 Richard English, “Unionism and Nationalism: The Notion of Symmetry,” in J.W. Foster, ed., The Idea of the Union, 135. See also Stephen Howe’s comments on English, “The Politics of Historical ‘Revisionism’: Comparing Ireland and Israel/Palestine” Past and Present no. 168 (August 2000): 247. For a different perspective on symmetry and asymmetry, see Liam O’Dowd, “Symmetrical Solutions, Asymmetrical Realities: Beyond the Politics of Paralysis?” Studies in Conflict & Terrorism 37:9 (September 2014): 806-814.
 Richard English, “’Cultural Traditions’ and Political Ambiguity,” Irish Review 15:1 (1994): 98.
 It is with good reason that Liam O’Dowd referred to English as “one of the most consistent opponents of 'parity of esteem' between the two communities in Northern Ireland” who “has been to the forefront in developing academic arguments against” various notions of parity. The quotations are from O’Dowd, “Constituting Division,” 121 and “’New Unionism’,” 85, respectively.
 In “Unionism and Nationalism,” English says: “it might be argued that revisionist nationalism has not gone nearly far enough. Instead of holding to the same irredentist aims but altering the means [from violent to peaceful], it might be more honest and more politically mature to accept that the united Ireland objective itself is simply not a valid one at all, given the religious, economic, cultural, and political divisions which exist on the island of Ireland ” (p. 138). See also Richard English, “The Same People with Different Relatives? Modern Scholarship, Unionists and the Irish Nation,” in Richard English and Graham Walker, eds., Unionism in Modern Ireland: New Perspectives on Politics and Culture, (Houndmills, Basingtoke, Hampshire: Macmillan Press, 1996): 220-235.
 Robert Perry, Revisionist Scholarship and Modern Irish Politics (Farnham, Surrey: Ashgate, 2013): 106.
 Kerby A. Miller, “Revising Revisionism: Comments and Reflections,” in Dermot Keogh and Michael H. Haltzel, eds., Northern Ireland and the Politics of Reconciliation (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press and Cambridge University Press, 1993): 52-61.
 English, “Same People,” 229-230, 232. This call for one-sided scholarship is sharply inconsistent with his position that historians should pursue balance in their writings. See the discussion in endnote 7.
 O’Dowd in “’New Unionism’” notes that English “advocates diminishing loyalist fears and republican hopes that the status quo can be changed” (p. 85).
 In “Constituting Division,” O’Dowd argues that new unionists’ sense of superiority over nationalists “obviates the need for genuine political dialogue, negotiations or compromise with Irish nationalists, qua nationalists” (p. 118).
 Dennis Kennedy, “The Realism of the Union” in J.W. Foster, ed., The Idea of the Union, 35-36. See also O’Dowd, “’New Unionism’,” 86.
 Christopher McCrudden, “Equality and the Good Friday Agreement,” in Joseph Ruane and Jennifer Todd, eds., After the Good Friday Agreement: Analysing Political Change in Northern Ireland (Dublin: University College Dublin Press, 1999): 96-121.
 See Martin McGuinness’s 2010 Easter Commemoration speech: Sinn Féin, “Martin McGuinness MP MLA – Easter 2010 – Carrickmore,” 4 April 2010, available online at http://www.sinnfein.ie/contents/18403
 Bean, “Defining Republicanism,” 139-145. For a classic statement of what the GFA represents for republicans opposed to its terms, see Anthony McIntyre, Good Friday: The Death of Irish Republicanism (New York: Ausubo Press, 2008).
 Mark McGovern, “Irish Republicanism and the Potential Pitfalls of Pluralism,” Capital & Class no. 71 (Summer 2000): 133-61; his “’The Old Days are Over’: Irish Republicanism, the Peace Process and the Discourse of Equality,” Terrorism and Political Violence 16:3 (Autumn 2004): 622-645; and Kevin Bean and Mark Hayes, “Sinn Féin and the New Republicanism in Ireland: Electoral Progress, Political Stasis, and Ideological Failure,” Radical History Review no. 104 (Spring 2009): 126-142.