The ‘decade of centenaries’ will only fuel conflict over memory in Northern Ireland while the present remains divided.

Violent attacks on sites of memory in Northern Ireland are nothing new. From the infamous Remembrance Day bombing of 1987 to the vandalisation of memorials in the post-troubles period, the claim to ownership of narratives of the past have been violently asserted on many occassions by the self-appointed guardians of history on both sides of the divide.

But recent violent incidents around the commemorations of the 1916 Easter Rising have struck me as particularly depressing, as protesters (in both cases from the dissident IRA-linked 32 County Sovereignty Movement) targeted memorials that, while being mainly located within a republican tradition, attempted to reach out to the other community and promote some sense, no matter how small, of a shared understanding of the past. A mural in west Belfast was attacked because the artists (who had the backing of Sinn Fein) had the temerity to include a depiction of the founding figure of Ulster Unionism Edward Carson, and volunteers of UVF who joined him in his fight against Home Rule. In Dublin, a memorial wall became the site of a protest (leading to the arrest of a 15 year old) because it gave equal weighting to all those who died in the Rising, Irish rebel and British personnel.

We are reaching the mid-point (and you could the high-point) of the ‘decade of centenaries’, marking the key events from 1912-22 which led to the creation of the Irish Free State and Northern Ireland. This violence over commemorations of the Easter Rising, no matter how few people were involved, does not fill me with hope for the ability of the project ‘to promote reconciliation’ by encouraging ‘the marking of forthcoming centenaries in a spirit of mutual respect, and the promotion of understanding’. Events to commemorate the Battle of the Somme this summer may aim to draw attention to the fact that Catholics and Protestants, nationalists and unionists, fought and died together, but the discourse of ‘no surrender’ and the sacrifice of the sons of Ulster for the Union will no doubt dominate in memorial services held in the loyalist heartlands, as the discourse of national liberation and the sacrifice of Padraig Pearse for Irish freedom did in the Easter Rising commemorations.

I do not write this to express surprise at the fact that opposed narratives of history are clashing as different groups in Northern Ireland remember their key events in the ‘decade of centenaries’. The past is always interpreted in the light of the present, is always something shaped and framed by present understandings. This process is most acute in cases where identities are seen as under threat, with history being mined as a resource in order to strengthen claims on belonging in the present. That this is done in partial and selective ways, leading to disagreement over the ‘correct’ way to engage with issues of historical legacy, should not be a surprise. Such a process of is central to the subjective experience of many people in Ireland, people whose sense of history is integral to their identity. It cannot be easily challenged by a deconstructive political ethos, so highlighting the constructed nature of this process of identity formation is not what I wish to do.

What I do think should be highlighted, however, and what should be challenged, is the manner in which the peace process has thus far failed to deliver the shared present that can allow for non-exclusive narratives of the past to develop. Institutionalised division is embedded in the framework of the Stormont administration, resulting in frequent deadlock between the governing parties. The very fact that welfare reform became intermingled over the last number of years with issues of parades, flags and the legacy of ‘the troubles’ is indicative of the distance between the major parties, not just on issues of historical memory but on day-to-day issues affecting the lives of people in Northern Ireland.

While the ‘decade of centenaries’ may have some positive effects in terms of providing opportunities for reappraisals of the past and inclusive commemorative events, it while not provide a panacea for overcoming disagreement about the past while the present (and future) remain divided. While the fault-lines of the conflict are replicated in the political institutions of the country, a shared understanding of the past will not develop. Attacks on shared memorials will remain the pursuit of a violent minority,  but shared memorials will themselves be a minority pursuit, relegated to the peripheries of festivals of remembrance which will continue the mythologisation of violent pasts and exclusive claims to belonging.


Why Cameron wants to take part in airstrikes inside Syria

Over the summer David Cameron and other members of his Conservative government have talked-up the possibility of taking part in the bombing campaign against IS in Syria. UK forces have been operating against the group in Iraq on the invitation of the government there since September 2014, but the less than clear legal situation regarding Syria, combined withthe Commons defeat Cameron suffered in August 2013 over the issue of airstrikes against the Assad regime, has meant they have not yet been active on the other side of the Iraqi border (at least in an official capacity).

Noises from the government suggest that a fresh Commons vote on the authorisation of force against IS in Syria could be taken in September, after the Labour party has elected a new leader (as long as the veteran anti-war campaigner Jeremy Corbyn, who acted as a no teller for the vote authorising force in Iraq last year, doesn’t maintain his current momentum and pull off an unexpected victory).

In Iraq British forces have been responsible for around 5% of all attacks, with the vast majority undertaken by the United States. The same is true in Syria, meaning that the material contribution of UK forces there would likely be extremely limited.Why, then, does the Cameron government want to take part in the airstrikes in Syria?

This could be about the UK’s international prestige and desire to demonstrate commitment to the trans-Atlantic alliance, particularly in the light of concerns in the U.S. about the impact of defence spending cuts.

Or we could look to domestic politics for an explanation, perhaps seeing the driving force coming from the Defence Secretary Michael Fallon and his desire to protect his department from further deep cuts in the Autumn Spending Review (as noted by Ewen MacAskill).

I think a more convincing explanation comes from the inter-sections between the domestic and the international, from the points at which the international feeds into the domestic and vice versa. This autumn, around the time that a vote on military action in Syria might take place, the government will be publishing a new Counter-Extremism Strategy, which it hopes will provide a framework to combat the growth of violent ideologies within the UK. The timing may be a coincidence, but the two policies are intimately connected.

When speaking about the principles that will inform the Counter-Extremism Strategy last month, Cameron began by describing the ‘threat we face’ in Islamist extremism as ‘an ideology’ that at its furthest end ‘seeks to destroy nation-states to invent its own barbaric realm’. He is clearly here talking about the physical control that IS has gained over areas of Syria and Iraq, and the brutal regime they have enforced there.

But Cameron also focuses on the prevalence of ‘certain intolerant ideas’ within the UK,‘which create a climate in which extremists can flourish’, ideas ‘which are hostile to basic liberal values such as democracy, freedom and sexual equality’. He is concerned about the prevalence of these ideas in British schools, British prisons, British communities, and the steady stream of young Britons being convinced by these ideas and travelling to join IS in Syria.

These ideas and their physical manifestation in Syria and Iraq are therefore seen as part of a continuum of extremism, representing the ‘struggle of our generation’ that is providing an ‘existential threat’ to the West. The response, according to Cameron, must involve using ‘our strongest weapon: our own liberal values’.

In his speech last month Cameron said that ‘We can’t expect [British Muslims] to see the power and liberating force of our values if we don’t stand up for them when they come under attack’. In this context he was talking about young Muslim women and female genital mutilation, but the same is true for the attack on ‘our values’ in Tunisia, in Libya, in Syria and in Iraq.

It is in the light of these statements that the desire to join the fight in Syria makes sense. It is not just a question of showing British strength and ability to project power, or a policy informed by parochial domestic concerns. Rather, it is something made necessary by the constitution of British identity as tied up with ‘liberal values’, with ‘British values’ that are fundamentally opposed to the extremist ideology.

Perhaps the most interesting thing I have been able to discover about ‘British values’ is that they were first defined within a definition of extremism. The 2011 Prevent strategy defined extremism as ‘vocal or active opposition to fundamental British values, including democracy, the rule of law, individual liberty and mutual respect and tolerance of different faiths and beliefs’, as well as ‘calls for the death of members of our armed forces, whether in this country or overseas’. This definition-within-a-definition has since been extracted and repeated outside the context of extremism.



And it is still the definition in use by the government. Last month, for instance, Cameron stated:

We are all British. We respect democracy and the rule of law. We believe in freedom of speech, freedom of the press, freedom of worship, equal rights regardless of race, sex, sexuality or faith.

We believe in respecting different faiths but also expecting those faiths to support the British way of life. These are British values… underpinned by distinct British institutions. Our freedom comes from our Parliamentary democracy. The rule of law exists because of our independent judiciary. This is the home that we are building together.

Participation in the ‘full spectrum’ of responses against extremism, targeting IS in Syria as well as in Iraq, is essential to maintaining the strength of these ‘British values’. The UK may be only capable of providing a tiny proportion of airpower in Syria, but even the most minimal contribution would provide the necessary supplement to the desire to combat extremism at home through a muscular defence of liberal British values.

But as Jacques Derrida has shown, there are two meanings to the word ‘supplement’. It can be something extra, something additional – in this case, the airstrikes in Syria being in addition to airstrikes in Iraq,in addition to the struggle against extremism at home.

But to supplement can also mean to supplant, to replace. The urge to take part in airstrikes in Syria, the spectacular display of power against a clearly-definable (if difficult to target and defeat) enemy can come to replace the harder, messier and more elusive challenge of combating extremism at home.

But the real lesson to take from Derrida is that the very necessity of a supplement reveals the inherent emptiness of the concept that requires supplementation – in this case the very notion of a definable and defendable ‘British values’. And if the concept of ‘British values’ requires violent action abroad to fulfil its meaning, is it really something worth defending?

Cameron’s Blame Game

Last Friday David Cameron gave a speech at the Global Security Forum in Bratislava that was widely reported as a warning to British Muslims to do more to combat radicalisation. This provoked the predictable support and opposition from different sections of the media, but nothing I’ve read so far highlights the inherent contradictions in what Cameron said.

Cameron’s speech is directed not just at the issue of radicalisation in the UK, but three ‘extraordinary challenges’ facing Europe, in the shape if ISIL (as he calls them), Russia and migration. He begins by stating that Europe can meet these challenges as long as ‘we stand up’ for the ‘values that have made European nations strong and successful’, values which he lists as ‘democracy, freedom of speech, free enterprise, equality of opportunity, [and] human rights’. The danger, in Cameron’s eyes, come not only from those who pose a direct threat to these values, but from those who do not fully accept this constructed identity, those who would say something different.

In terms of ISIL, this threat to European identity takes the form of young people abandoning their homes to travel to Syria and Iraq. This process, he argues, in the most widely-reported sections of the speech, begins in an environment where such views are normalised by those who ‘hold some of [ISIL’s] views [but] don’t go as far as advocating violence’, from those ‘who do buy into some of these prejudices giving the extreme Islamist narrative weight and telling fellow Muslims, “you are part of this”.

According to Cameron, this ‘paves the way for young people to turn simmering prejudice into murderous intent’, with the reinforcement of ideas coming from something ‘that is quietly condoned online, or perhaps even in parts of your local community’.

Let’s pause at this point. I don’t think it would be an over exaggeration to suggest that Cameron is placing part of the blame for young people turning to ISIL on the failure of the Muslim community in the UK to challenge extreme narratives, and that he is urging the Muslim community to take more responsibility for this. Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with this point, I think you can accept that Cameron is seeking to apportion some blame on those who could have acted differently in order to prevent young Europeans travelling to Syria and Iraq to join the brutal and murderous IS movement.

As Cameron moves on with the speech, he quickly contradicts this position, by affirming that ‘radicalisation starts with the individual’. Trying to deflect blame by pointing the finger at ‘agencies or authorities’ is wrong, in his view, and indeed ‘dangerous’. So when he talks about the Muslim community in the UK, there is responsibility beyond individual agency: but when he talks about the state’s role, it is ‘wrong’ and ‘dangerous’ to say anything else than ‘the individual is solely to blame’.

Let’s pause again: it seems that Cameron is able to separate state governance from the role of the community in moulding individual action. While communities can be held at least partially responsible, governance structures should not. We can encourage and help the ‘police and intelligence agencies to stop people travelling to Syria’, but that does not mean we can blame them for the fact that people want to go in the first place. Communities can be responsible, but state agencies cannot. Communities shape individuals and can therefore be the root source of threats, but state agencies do not and cannot.

As he brings the speech to its conclusion, Cameron contradicts himself again. He affirms that the security threats emanating from Eastern Europe and the Middle East ‘often have one thing in common: a failure of governance in other countries’. By this point his short-sightedness and double-think is reaching astonishing levels:

It is the failure of governance in African states that leads many to want to leave. It is in part the failure of Libyan governance which has allowed the traffickers to profit from human misery. It was the failure of Ukrainian governance in the years before 2014 which led to discontent and instability. It’s the failure of governance in the Middle East which has left a vacuum within which ISIL can proliferate.

The first blind-spot in Cameron’s analysis is the role that the UK and its allies have played in contributing to any poor governance that exists in these areas, be it through the structural adjustment policies of the IMF and World Bank in sub-Saharan Africa, the role of these same institutions in Ukraine’s post-socialist transition straight into a four-year recession, or the violent interventions in Iraq and Libya which destroyed lives and infrastructure.

The second, and perhaps more damning for Cameron’s vision of the world, is the fact that he is able and willing to blame other governments for their failure, without accepting any responsibility for his own government’s failures. In his world the ‘blame game’ involves blaming local communities in the UK and the failures of foreign governance for Europe’s problems, while not accepting that any responsibility rests with his own government.

Cameron’s platitudes about building a ‘national identity’ that ‘young people in our country feel truly part of’ is not enough. If he is so keen to ensure people take responsibility for their actions then he should take responsibility for his own: for the demands he makes on Muslims to pledge their loyalty to an undefined idea of ‘British values’, that could indeed not be defined in anything but an exclusionary manner; and for the essentialised notions of a ‘Muslim community’ his government propagates, requiring surveillance and securitisation.

While he continues to apply the contradictory logic expressed in this speech, Cameron will be unable to recognise that the failure to engage with the Muslim community is a failure, and that speeches like these only serve to contribute to that failure. That is perhaps the most damning indictment of all.