It all seems to have quietened down again but the explosion of sectarian violence in east Belfast last week was truly shocking - both that it happened at all and the scale of it. Petrol bombs and pipe bombs are deadly enough but when guns are used…as local MP Naomi Long told the BBC: “When you have guns back on streets, it is very clear that the intent here is to take life. There is no other reason why people would bring a gun onto the street…”
The violence must be deeply disturbing for the majority of people in Northern Ireland who will dread a return to ‘The Troubles’. And it will be truly alarming for many politicians, economists and business people who thought, 13 years after the Good Friday Agreement, that the peace process was too deeply embedded in Northern Ireland culture for the province to regress back to open and large-scale sectarian violence.
But how ever shocked, disturbed and alarmed we may be, we should not be surprised. Nor should we be lulled into a false sense of security by the news that east Belfast has been mostly (though not completely) quiet since last Monday (20th) and Tuesday (21 June). There were plenty of young men from both sides of the divide on the streets Wednesday night (22nd) but community stewards were proactive in discouraging them from further violence.
The underlying problem is that relatively little has been done in those 13 years since Good Friday to address the deep-rooted tribalism which underpins the sectarian divisions and has its foundations in history.
The large-scale settling of the northern 6 counties (Ulster) by Scottish Presbyterians in the 17th Century inevitably led to the further disadvantaging of the (mainly Catholic) indigenous Irish, already subjected to stern (and often brutal) rule by their English colonial masters following the Irish Confederate Wars (1641-1653) and the Battle of the Boyne (1690). It also led to a sense of 2 large tribes, marked out by different religions and different racial/national characteristics, in competition for the same territory. That tribal competition has gone on now for over 4 centuries, sometimes in open conflict, sometimes in festering tension. The 1707 Act of Union between England and Scotland, for the indigenous Irish, made getting rid of the Scottish (now British) invaders synonymous with getting rid of their English (now British) rulers.
The history of Nationalist/Catholic-Unionist/Protestant conflict in Ireland is, of course, much more complex than portrayed in this paragraph; but, nonetheless, it does set out the core issue: there are 2 large-scale tribes competing for the same territory. There is a distinct timeline from 1707 to Good Friday, with such punctuations as the Fenians, the Irish Republican Army and the Provisionals on one side and the various Unionist paramilitaries such as the Ulster Defence Association and the Ulster Volunteer Force on the other.
Until the issue of tribalism is dealt with, the peace in Northern Ireland will always have the kind of fragility that the violence last week exposed so unequivocally.
Failing to deal with tribalism – sophisticated politics and populism
Time and time again tribalism has caught sophisticated political rulers out, often resulting in barbaric tribal warfare. In recent times, just for starters, we’ve seen the tribal genocide of Hutus against Tutsis in Rwanda, Yugoslavia torn apart by a level of barbarity and ethnic cleansing not seen in Europe since Adolph Hitler’s storm troopers marched East, the former Soviet Union wracked by various tribal rivalries that frequently resulted in large-scale bloodshed - see ‘Tribal Warfare in South Ossetia’ as an example – and the Americans’ decidedly-vague post-invasion plans for Iraq shredded (in part at least) by Sunni-Shia internecine warfare . On a smaller scale, Spain has similar problems with the Basques that the UK has had with the Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
Tribalism is all around us. As Desmond Morris (1981) pointed out, it’s in the chants on the football terraces when the teams play and in the streets around the football grounds when the rival groups of fans clash. We also see tribalism in the not-always playful rivalry between Yorkshire and Lancashire, deriving its ethos from the Wars of the Roses over 600 years ago. When I lived in Hull, triabalism manifested itself in the divisions between East and West Hull and on the huge, sprawling Bransholme estate on the northern edges of the city, where the North Bransholme, South Bransholme and Kingswood tribes each guard their territory from the others. Even in my current hometown of Harrogate, one of the most wealthy and affluent middle-class towns in the north of England tribalism is unavoidable - with gangs of kids from the secondary school tribes arranging mass fights on the Stray (the lawned common land that runs around the edges of the town centre), one school versus another.
It may even be demonstrated soon, via Alex Salmond’s plans for a referendum, that a majority of Scots want their tribal independence from England!
One of the most socially-unacceptable forms of tribalism in a modern Democracy is racism but tribalism is at the centre of the formation of every in-group and the demonisation of every out-group.
Tribalism is driven by the PURPLE vMEME’s need to find safety in belonging. For this vMEME, knowing who you belong to and differentiating your group from groups you don’t belong to is critical and totally normal – which raises the ugly question: Is racism natural…?
Abraham Maslow (1943) established the need to affiliate as coming before the need for self-esteem and this fits with Henri Tajfel & John Turner’s (1979) Social Identity Theory - see Prejudice & Discrimination – which proposes that it is our investment of our self-esteem in our in-group which leads us to compare our group with others and to seek to dominate or drive out other groups. Muzafer Sherif et al’s (1954/1961) Robber’s Cave Experiment is just one of a number of studies which shows how competition over resources (such as land, food supply, weapons, etc) can amplify the In-group/Out-group Effect. The formation of strategy to dominate or drive out the other groups requires both leadership and management - thus, the need for the RED.vMEME to take assertive, or even aggressive, action to ensure the investment of individual self-esteem is protected through the success of the group.
Leaders need to be strong to impose their vision on the group and they must be seen to be at least protecting and preferably advancing the interests of their group. If the leaders are on the Psychoticist side in their temperament, then this RED-Psychoticist centre of gravity is likely to be ruthless and cruel in their treatment of the out-group. It’s perhaps no coincidence that some of the greatest wartime leaders have been utterly ruthless in their treatment of the enemy. Hitler’s war crimes speak for themselves but Winston Churchill connived all too willingly in the firestorm bombing of Dresden while US President Harry Truman not only sanctioned the atomic bombs being dropped in on Hiroshima and Nagasaki but in 1948 advocated nuking the Russians. Even Barrack Obama made sure he was photographed in the White House operations room earlier this year, watching live the execution of Osama Bin Laden from a soldier’s helmet cam.
Thus, the nature and vision of the leader are critical to how and in what direction tribalism is exploited.
So why then, if tribalism is such a fact of life and leaders need to be strong and biased in the interests of the tribe, do tribal divides catch the political leaders out so often?
The answer lies in the fact that much of the political and philosophical elite in countries think in the higher, more complex and more sophisticated 1st Tier vMEMES most of their time in public office. BLUE (do the right thing), ORANGE (individual material progress) and GREEN (egalitarianism) either despise PURPLE and RED thinking as retrogressive or simply don’t understand it. No wonder commentators frequently record that ordinary voters feel disconnected from leading politicians and the political process. The more populist politicians are often despised by their more sophisticated political colleagues…but, in fact, the populist politicians are actually better able to understand the (PURPLE/RED) concerns of the ‘common man’. Accordingly, it is usually a more populist politician who is to be found leading and/or exploiting tribal aggression. Recall Slobodan Milošević’s rousing speeches to Serbian farmers in Kossovo in the late 1980s and early 1990s as the perfect example of RED exploiting PURPLE tribalism to build up his own power base.
Tribalism is alive and thriving in Northern Ireland
The ongoing problem of tribalism in Northern Ireland is recognised by some social and political commentators. For example, The Workers Party (2005) stated: “The people of Northern Ireland are now more deeply divided than ever. Sectarian antagonisms between Catholics and Protestants are as intense as ever. Recent studies show that sectarian attitudes and practices are present even among children as young as 5 or 6 years. This is at the root of the current political instability….”
A couple of years ago Johann Hari (2009) wrote in his blog: “The Good Friday Process has - from the beginning - been focused on the small elite of politicians at the top. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuiness have been sitting together – inspirationally - but in the streets and estates beyond Stormont, Northern Ireland has been becoming even more divided. Dr Peter Shirlow, of the University of Ulster, has conducted the most detailed survey of inter-communal relations in Northern Ireland – and found an almost completely segregated society. Only 5% of the workforce in Catholic areas are Protestants, and vice versa. Some 68% of 18 to 25-year-olds had never had a meaningful conversation with a single person from ‘the other side’. The young are more likely to fear and hate the ‘Prods’ or ‘Taigs’ than any other group. We have been fixing the ceiling, while the foundations fracture.
You can see this when you visit Belfast or Derry. To a British person, they feel like any familiar CloneZone town - except they are layered with a strange hatred you cannot grasp. Taxis will either take you to green or orange areas - never both. Even the KFC is covered with a mural memorialising a centuries-old battle. The cities are sliced by vast 40ft tall steel walls, keeping Catholics and Protestants apart. And there are more of them now than ever before. Talk to the kids, and they will gleefully tell you the other side stink, or are stupid, or lazy. We are currently spending £1.5bn a year keeping the two sides physically apart.”
In this Sunday’s Observer, writing about the violent flare-up in east Belfast, Sean O’Hagan added in another factor: “Like their Republican counterparts in towns like Lurgan, where support for the Real IRA is strong, the youth of Protestant east Belfast feel that they have somehow been sold out by the mainstream parties that claim to represent them. They are economically disenfranchised, have little hope of ever finding meaningful employment and, in many instances, live in communities in which they have been brought up to hate the police and distrust their tribal opposites.”
O’Hagan neatly links the tribalist traditions to the economic disenfranchisement: “For most of the time, save for these sporadic outbursts of violence, they are also bored. For many young people in these areas, the worst years of the Troubles have been mythologised to the point where many feel they have missed out on the one thing that gives their lives any real meaning: the chance to fight for a cause they believe in. They provide fertile fodder for extremists.”
Again the hopelessness of these young men’s economic circumstances destabilises PURPLE’s drive to attain safety in belonging, You can hardly feel ‘safe’ in your community when the community is blighted by poverty, unemployment and despair. And, when PURPLE is destabilised in this way, unhealthy RED will rise up to fight the perceived threat. If the populist leaders then threw in a bit of ‘duty’ and ‘cause’ to feed justification to whatever nascent BLUE might on the vMEMETIC horizon of their audiences then the followers transform into that most dangerous of men: the RED/BLUE zealot….
How then to deal with the 2 factors: tribalism; and the populist leaders who exploit that tribalism?
We could, of course, ‘take out’– jail, assassinate – the leaders and that can certainly have a powerful short-term effect. It is rumoured that one of the reasons the Provisional IRA started serious negotiatons with the British Government in the early 1990s was the degree of success the British Army and secret services had had in taking out high level Provo leaders.
But the tribalism will still be there for the RED vMEME of some other would-be leaders to exploit. In fact, positively-oriented RED leadership – RED in a vMEME harmonic perhaps with ORANGE or above – can have a profoundly-beneficial effect for the community. It’s said that Northern Ireland first minister (unionist) Peter Robinson got directly involved in the negotiations with east Belfast community leaders after last Tuesday’s violence. Certainly the RED of the ‘community stewards’, who calmed the would-be rioters on the Wednesday evening in what were quite dangerous circumstances, must have been very strong!
But, if unhealthy, exploitative RED can be a real problem in situations such as east Belfast, it can only exploit what is already there or has the very real potential to be there.
PURPLE tribalism is the deeper issue.
Dealing with tribalism, honouring tribalism
From one point of view – the GREEN vMEME’s point of view – tribalism is wrong because it discriminates against those who are ‘not of our tribe’ and does not treat everyone as equal.
You can see this viewpoint underpinning The Workers Party paradigm when they
write: “There is a need to create a new political space which is neither Unionist nor Nationalist, Protestant or Catholic. This should be the political priority…for all those concerned with the future of Northern Ireland.”
The problem with this theoretical foundation is that, when the PURPLE vMEME is dominant in the culture, then tribalism is natural. People who think they can eradicate tribalism are deluded. It’s a natural consequence of a certain pattern of psychological development.
Repeated, peaceful exposure to those of another culture certainly has been shown to reduce stereotyping and, consequently discrimination – and this is a principle reason why Hari advocates developing a programme of integrated schools in Northern Ireland. He writes: “A major 6-year study by Queen’s University, Belfast, has looked at the long-term consequences of being schooled alongside ‘The Enemy’. They interviewed adults who attended these schools – and found that, whatever their parents’ attitudes, they were ‘significantly more likely’ to oppose sectarianism. They had more friends across the divide, and they identified as ‘Northern Irish’, rather than ‘British’ or ‘Irish’. Their politics were far more amenable to peace: Some 80% of Protestants favour the union with Britain, but only 65% of those at integrated schools do. Some 51% of Catholics who went to a segregated school want unification with Ireland, but only 35% of those from integrated schools do. The middle ground - for a devolved Northern Ireland with links to both countries, within the EU - was fatter and happier.”
Hari’s evidence most definitely shows a reduction in sectarian attitudes – but the bigots are still in the majority. Integrated schools will only provide a partial solution – and that solution is fragile and likely to crumble if placed upon sufficient pressure. (They had integrated schools in Bosnia and Chechnya!)
Rather, what is needed is a recognition of the tribes and that tribalism can be healthy. An honouring of these things, if you will. After all, to feel safe in your community, proud of it and your identification with it can only be beneficial, both for the individual and the group. That element of tribalism, surely, is healthy! What is needed, though, is the means to minimise inter-group strife which, Tajfel & Turner tell us, is a natural output of Social Identification.
Ways to do this might include:-
- Facing the tribes with daunting challenges that they can only overcome by co-operation. This was how Sherif et al resolved the Robber’s Cave tribal conflicts. This concept is at the heart of Samuel Gaertner et al’s (1993) Common In-Group Identity Model.
- Creating common umbrella identities into which the tribal identities can fit - eg: English and Scots are both British identities. Andrew Tyerman & Christopher Spencer (1983) failed to reproduce Sherif et al’s inter-team conflicts with different boy scout groups because the different groups not only saw themselves as sharing the common super-identity of ‘scout’ but they also bought into scouting values. Tyerman & Spencer even found it relatively easy to increase co-operation between the different scout groups!
- Facilitating the tribes learning from one another – so that they can see value in the ‘others’ and what they do. An example of this in Northern Ireland could be inter-community forums where solutions that one tribal group found to a problem such as getting the local council to spend money on maintaining children’s playgrounds are shared with other groups.
Preferably such strategies should be played out together as they can be mutually reinforcing.
With any attempt to tackle the unhealthy aspects of tribalism, there needs to be the understanding that, once there is healthy, co-operative tribalism and a reduction in sectarianism, the struggle to tackle the unhealthy aspects of tribalism is not over. As they learned in the former Yugoslavia, after more than 40 years of Marshall Tito’s particular version of totalitarian Communism – as we in the UK are learning in the Scottish independence debate - tribalism may be subsumed into a larger identity…but it doesn’t go away.
Therefore, there needs to be constant monitoring of the state of the tribalism and periodic adjustment to the strategies needed to keep the tribes co-operating rather than warring.