Johan Galtung

Johan Galtung at Glencree 1997

Extract from, now defunct, reprinted by


When the Ulster Unionists were considering whether to join in talks at Stormont on a new constitutional settle-ment for the province, their ruling executive was said to be evenly divided on the issue. Then a public opinion poll commissioned by a newspaper suggested that 86% of Unionist supporters wanted their party to participate. Party leader David Trimble duly led his colleagues into the talks.

This was a rare occasion when debate in the media broke out of the ritualised exchanges of view between party spokesmen. The Summer School heard about one initiative to promote debate beyond the range of official sources, and to reach out to the people as potential peacemakers on the island of Ireland.

Amid the verdant seclusion of a glen above Dublin City, a former British Army barracks has spent over two centuries quietly gathering moss. Originally it was a base for troops charged with clearing the Wicklow mountains of Irish revolutionaries. Today it houses the Glencree Centre for Reconciliation, venue for the first discussions of a highly original perspective on constitutional change in Northern Ireland calculated to bring centuries of intermittent violence to an end.

Much coverage of Northern Ireland politics is dominated by the official discourse which concentrates on issues of who will talk to whom, and when; concepts like trains, triple locks, proximity and decommissioning. As Paddy Crean, a director of the Glencree Centre, says: “To date there has been no significant public discussion on the likely outcome of the current attempts to resolve the conflict.”

In Summer 1997, as Unionist and Nationalist politicians circled each other warily, the Glencree Centre gathered together peace activists from the Republic of Ireland as well as political and community leaders from both communities in Northern Ireland to discuss Johan Galtung’s imaginative model for a “Transitional Anglo-Irish Condominium”. In the same way that President Gorbachev once called for a “common European house” this would provide a political roof under which what Crean calls the “decommissioning of fixed mind-sets” could gradually take place.

Underlying the condominium – its foundation stone – is a new conceptualisation of the subject of Northern Irish political identity – the Ulsterite. Being an Ulsterite would come to supplement, without threatening, one’s status as British Protestant or Irish Catholic. A staunch or devout Ulsterite, perhaps, according to personal preference.

Hence the main constitutional pillars of the structure are designed to provide for political autonomy by evolution, while safeguarding what the paper calls the “patrimony” of communities.

An assembly elected for and by the Protestant community would have veto rights over issues which bear upon that community’s right to define its identity, such as the right to march. Equally, a separate assembly elected by and for the Catholic community would have its own veto rights, possibly affecting issues like bilingualism at Northern Ireland’s universities.

In parallel with these assemblies there would be a separate body, a parliament for the Ulster entity, to take on a proportion of legislative responsibility which could evolve over time. Special treaties would set down the relations between the parliament and those in London and Dublin, perhaps with a guarantee of renegotiation, say, once every twenty-five years.

Full independence, with the rights to separate status in foreign policy, would remain an open question subject to majority support in both communities. In the meantime every Ulsterite would be entitled to two passports, one of which is chosen, an Irish or a British, and the other an Ulster passport, available in common to all.

The final component of a new constitutional settlement would be the governing council, comprising, in the initial, transitional stage, five members – a representative of the parliament, one each for the two assemblies, one for London and one for Dublin.

This would open the possibility for issues to crop up which might create a common front across communities in the province. As with Scotland and Wales, questions of subsidiarity might pit the interests of the devolved body against those of either nation state. On the governing council of the proposed Anglo-Irish Condominium such issues could help to forge a functioning Ulsterite majority, if the three representatives of the parliament and the different communities choose to exercise it, over the two representatives London and Dublin can boast between them.

What is the point of reporting such a gathering, or responding to such a press conference? Professor Galtung urged delegates at the Glencree centre conference to begin “ten thousand dialogues” on the proposals as a means of instilling hope and a feeling of movement. It would be for peace journalism to trace the relations of influence between such dialogues and feelings, and the agenda the parties carry with them into talks.

The Unionist chief negotiator, Cllr Chris McGimpsey, is given to suggesting that progress towards a peaceful resolution can only come from the talks if all parties maintain “a realistic assessment of what the people of Northern Ireland are prepared to accept.”

If such an assessment is to be the touchstone of any prospect for peace, then at the very least journalists must make themselves curious about how to gauge what the people are prepared to accept. Journalism which believes itself objective may not be looking in the right places to reach such a judgement, especially if it is prepared to take the parties’ word for it. After all, for Cllr McGimpsey and his colleagues, the opinion poll finding evidently came as a surprise.

If it wants evidence that the Anglo-Irish Condominium idea wields an influence within the ambit of official information sources, then it might dwell on the fact that officials in the Taoiseach’s office are among those who eagerly requested a copy of Galtung’s paper.

Glencree was built by a British establishment nervously watching events across the English Channel from which the Irish outlaws took their inspiration. The Chinese leader, Zhou Enlai, asked to assess the historical importance of the French Revolution, famously replied, “it’s too early to tell.” Maybe a contribution to a settlement in Northern Ireland will go down as one of its unintended consequences. Paddy Crean told the press conference: “If we, the people, leave it all to the politicians at The Talks with no creative input from us, we will have no-one but ourselves to blame when the shouting ceases and the shooting returns.”