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The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community spacer The Vacuum - Issue 13 - Wonking with the Community
Politics of the Community
by Stephen Baker
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Everywhere the idea of community is looked upon favourably as a welcome condition of human co-existence. The idea conveys notions of informal and voluntary association between people. Our community is always immediate to us in a way that the more formal and institutionalised idea of society is not. In short, to talk of community is to imply neighbourliness.
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Little wonder then that even the most cynical of political creatures would hesitate to question community's apparently self-evident virtue. Doyens of the right and left offer eulogies to community and compete to present themselves to a sceptical electorate as the champions its cause. International and European relations are often referred to in terms of community, perhaps to disguise or deny the gross inequalities of power and wealth that exists between nations.
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Nevertheless as long as 'community' is maintained as a benign concept it seems that it can keep everybody happy or at least be all things to all political persuasions. As such it must have seemed the perfect antidote to the Northern Ireland troubles.
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Certainly the British government thought so. In the early 1990s Westminster had a change in its thinking about the conflict that made 'community' the ideological cornerstone of subsequent attempts to pacify Northern Ireland. It was announced that Britain had no selfish strategic or economic interest in the place, secret lines of communication were initiated between the government and the IRA and a new community relations rhetoric was born.
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To promote this new way of talking about the conflict the government set up the Community Relations Council in 1990. The CRC encouraged respect for cultural diversity, mutual understanding and tolerance. These were honourable enough aims in themselves but 'community relations' wasn't simply about encouraging the 'prods' and 'taigs' to like each other better. It also set about reconfiguring the way in which the interminable dispute between unionism and nationalismwas understood. No longer was the problem about how to reconcile two separate national identities or distinct peoples, instead there where 'two communities' whose differences could be resolved with a healthy dose of mutual understanding and tolerance. In a way this suggested that there was nothing more substantial to the conflict than a misunderstanding and old-fashioned prejudice: a falling out between neighbours.
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Seen in terms of a falling out between two communities it was possible to imagine reconciliation and political compromise, more so than if the dispute had been defined as one about contradictory national allegiances or between two distinct peoples.
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For sure, a conflict between nations or peoples would be difficult to square. Such disagreements are always about intractable political questions like sovereignty and self-determination: they emphasis separateness and exclusive notions of belonging. Conversely community asks us to consider what we share, to think about what we hold in common and then to consider giving our voluntary allegiance to it, together.
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The problem is that the only thing that nationalists and unionists seem to share is a mutual loathing for one another. Despite the achievement of the Good Friday Agreement there is little evidence of understanding and tolerance between them. And the emergence of Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party as political leaders of their respective 'communities' seems to demonstrate that fact. Sinn Fein maintains a commitment to replacing the denominations of Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter with the common name of Irish men and women. Their submission at the very start of the multi-party negotiations made this clear. Most unionists in Ulster routinely reject the notion that they are 'Irish people'. As if to make the point the DUP frequently make appeals to the 'people of Ulster', a phrase that every Catholic knows doesn't refer to them.
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So now we have a political process that relies upon cross-community consensus, at the helm of which are two parties that stubbornly refuse to 'modernize' their rhetoric and look unlikely to win any awards for the promotion of good community relations. In these circumstances applying the benign concept of community to the problems in Northern Ireland looks hopeless.
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And yet there is another form of community. The idea has it radical heritage that is usually overlooked in favour of the more consensual version of community applied here with very little success. But we need go back to the 17th century to find it.
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In the aftermath of the English civil war radicals of various persuasions, disappointed by the less than radical outcome of the conflict, set about trying to achieve community of one sort or another. One of them, Gerrard Winstanley lead a group of landless commoners to St George's Hill just outside London. On the 1st of April 1649 they occupied the hill, began to sow crops and issued a manifesto declaring the 'earth a common treasury'. They called themselves the Diggers and their radicalism brought them into conflict with the propertied classes and the church, both of which conspired to terrorize them off the land.
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The Digger community was often disrupted and mocked by another radical of the time, the Ranter, Abiezer Coppe. Coppe would have been very much at home in modern Ulster. He was a notorious sectarian. An Oxford undergraduate from Warwick, he had drifted in and out of Presbyterianism and Anabaptism until he underwent some sort of revelation from which he emerged committed to 'parity, equality, community'. These commitments might have recommended Coppe as an exemplar of our own peace process but that he had other more licentious ideas about how to live life. Coppe was a libertine who advocated drinking, swearing, smoking and fornication. These were grave sins indeed at the time but the Ranter compounded them by demonstrating against the rich, falling to the ground before their carriages, gnashing his teeth and swearing at them, often completely naked.
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'Thou hast bags of money', he declared in his pamphlet A Fiery Flying Roll, 'and behold now I come as a thief in the night, with my sword drawn in my hand, and like a thief as I am I say deliver your purse, deliver sirrah! Deliver or I'll cut thy throat.' Coppe then advocated giving this money to the poor and despised.
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The law of the land at that time wasn't quite ready for this method of redistributing wealth and they certainly were not going to take advice on progressive taxation reforms from a naked, drunken, foul-mouthed fornicator, so they burnt his 'blasphemous' pamphlet and committed him to Newgate.
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Nevertheless we might consider Winstanley, Coppe, the Diggers and the Ranters as advancing a model of community that is more courageous and attractive than the anodyne version that we have been lumbered with in Northern Ireland. Winstanley declared the earth a 'common treasury' that everyone should share. Coppe believed that true community was 'to have all things common and to call nothing one hath one's own'.
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The Digger and the Ranter would have abhorred the exclusive territorial claims of unionism and nationalism but they also boldly challenged a society where the poor where dispossessed by powerful propertied classes. Their idea of community had less to do with mutual understanding and tolerance, and more to do with challenging disparities in wealth and power. This in itself makes their version of community more inspiring than our contemporary attempts to get apoplectic bigots to tolerate each other.
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Today the benign version of community is preferred to more radical versions because the benign version doesn't pay any serious attention to the thorny questions of class and poverty. The rhetoric of mutual understanding and tolerance is great for getting over religious and cultural differences but just doesn't work when applied to class. Nobody wants to be told they should learn to tolerate poverty and low pay but collectively everyday we do tolerate these things, we just don't talk about them: we don't seem to have a language to talk about them anymore in any sort of constructive manner. Class is the politics that dare not speak its name, so Northern Ireland is stuck with its anodyne discourse of community relations. Still there is always Coppe's legacy of drinking, swearing, nudity and fornication. God knows Ulster could do with some more of that.
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