Working through the Past in Bosnia and Northern Ireland: Truth, Reconciliation and the Constraints of Consociationalism

By McGrattan, Cillian | Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE, October 1, 2012 | Go to article overview

Working through the Past in Bosnia and Northern Ireland: Truth, Reconciliation and the Constraints of Consociationalism


McGrattan, Cillian, Journal on Ethnopolitics and Minority Issues in Europe : JEMIE


Bosnia and Herzegovina and Northern Ireland represent difficult cases for theories of conflict resolution: the consociational structures of governance in each case reflect and, arguably, reproduce the segregation that characterizes everyday life. In each country, truth recovery and reconciliation processes have been seen as ways of overcoming the polarizing effect of ethnonational division. This article suggests that this faith is misplaced on two accounts: firstly, while the intent to reconcile erstwhile ethnic opponents is laudable and admirable, it ignores obvious and complicated practicalities - particularly, the lack of consensus over the past. More fundamentally, however, I argue that the truth and reconciliation paradigm is politically redundant: insofar as it is constitutive of its own reality, it answers questions contained within its own logic and defers consideration of alternative concerns. In other words, by attempting to reconcile ethnonational identities the truth and reconciliation paradigm starts one step too far ahead of itself and by failing to problematize those identities it ends by reproducing them. I suggest that "dealing with the past" becomes saturated with political and social significance.

Keywords: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Northern Ireland, truth recovery, ethnicity, reconciliation, consociationalism

'... there's a great gap between a gallons story and a dirty deed' (Synge, 1963 [1907]: 227).

Northern Ireland and Bosnia and Herzegovina (BH) continue to reside in a kind of Faulknarian gloaming in which the past continues to haunt the present.1 As such, despite their differences, both represent "hard" cases for theories of peace building and conflict resolution. While both countries continue to enjoy relative peace, the legacies of their divided pasts still hold a residual but important grip over contemporary politics. In part, the continued presence of the past is linked to the elaborate consociational structures of governance in each country. Designed with the purpose of moving Northern Ireland and BH away from their bloodied histories, the unintended consequence of these structures was to institutionalize the divisions of those histories by providing incentives to ethnic entrepreneurs to pursue exclusivist rather than integrative policy agendas. In both cases, the consociational carve-up at the decision-making level of politics echoes segregation at other levels of society, including schooling and ideological outlook.

The backdrop of ethnicity in everyday life is in each case pervasive. It is underpinned and supported by the more craven aspects of professional politics. In Northern Ireland, for example, the debates over the politics of the past and contemporary societal needs recently fused in scepticism over a scheme to "regenerate" the "footprint" left by the removal of a British army barracks in north Belfast by building a new social housing estate on the site. The moderate nationalist grouping, the Social Democratic and Labour Party (SDLP), objected that the original plans had been appropriated by the two main ethnonationalist parties, Sinn Féin and the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to ensure that the houses allocated would reflect and maintain the current ethnoreligious status quo in the area. The SDLP complained that that allocation would be detrimental to the Catholic/Nationalist population of the city where greater social housing needs existed. The party claimed that a deal had been done between Sinn Féin and the DUP in which the latter gained guaranteed that houses would go to Protestants/Unionists (whose population has been declining in the area) in return for the former Maze gaol being turned into a 'Conflict Transformation Centre' - an initiative that the DUP had long resisted due to the belief that it would

become a shrine for paramilitary prisoners.3

In the countries of the former Yugoslavia a similar ethnicization of contemporary politics is underpinned by the salience of discourses about the past - particularly, discourses over historical culpability and claims of victimhood. …

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