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Cambridge Union Debate: Where Does Northern Ireland Belong?

    The full debate is available to watch on the Cambridge Union Youtube Channel.

    On 27th January 2022, a debate was held at the Cambridge Union involving students of the university and prominent members of Unionist and Republican parties from Northern Ireland. The motion for debate was ‘This House Believes Northern Ireland ought to remain part of the United Kingdom’. Participants discussed the Northern Irish conflict, giving arguments for and against the reunification of the North and South of Ireland. Speakers included two prominent political figures from Northern Irish politics. On the Unionist side was Sir Jeffery Donaldson, leader of the largest Unionist party in Northern Ireland, The Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Northern Ireland’s longest-serving MP. Donaldson shook up Northern Irish politics in early 2022 when he and his party refused to take part in Northern Ireland’s newly-elected power-sharing government in protest at the Northern Irish Protocol, leaving the country without a functioning government (Webber & Bounds, 2022). The primary Republican representative was Declan Kearney, a former National Chairman of Sinn Fién and member of the Assembly. The debate teams were also made up of students with connections to Northern Ireland. The debate ended with an 8% majority for the opposition, so a victory for the Republican side (Cambridge Union, 2022). Interestingly, this happened shortly before Sinn Fién achieved a historic victory in the May 2022 elections, becoming the largest party in the Northern Irish General Assembly for the first time (McClafferty, 2022).

    I have chosen to feature this debate in our museum because it sheds some interesting light on a very long-running peace process and on the wider history of the conflict: the effects it has had, and the effects it still has on people today. It was a cross-generational debate which highlighted the range of perspectives that different people continue to bring to efforts to achieve sustainable peace in the region. It also prompts reflection on the role that political debate itself plays in both making and disrupting peace – with even the most constructive debates rarely finding solutions that please all parties, and with some elements of debate exacerbating tensions and entrenching divides.

    The question of whether Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom has been raised multiple times at the Cambridge Union: in the 1920s during the formation of the state, during the Troubles in the 70s and in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was formed (Cambridge Union, 2022). This is not surprising, since the conflict in Northern Ireland has and continues to affect multiple generations in the region, claiming the lives of over 3600 people and injuring 40–50,000 (Ferguson & McKeown, 2021). Communities remain segregated and scars run deep. (Finical Times, 2022).

    Brexit has brought further complications. When the UK left the EU in 2020, it also left the European Single Market, which allowed goods and services to flow freely between EU member states (European Commission, 2022). As the UK is no longer part of this market, domestic products within the UK no longer need to meet EU standards. However, if these products are to be exported and sold in EU states, they now must be checked against European standards. For the most part, this is relatively simple. The increased checks have reduced the UK’s export capabilities to the EU, damaging the country’s GDP; but in pragmatic terms, these checks can occur with relative ease because the UK is an island state (Arriola et al., 2020). Well, almost.

    The complication lies with the UK’s only land border with the EU: the Northern Irish border. Due to the region’s history of conflict, implementing a hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland was not a viable option. There was significant fear that erecting a hard border between the countries would re-ignite conflict and undermine the Good Friday Agreement (Phillips & Boultwood, 2018). Dividing these two countries is to divide communities and families who fought for their right to move freely between states. The challenge was made more complex by the fact that most people in Northern Ireland voted to remain part of the EU (BBC, 2016). The proposed solution to the border issue was to allow Northern Ireland to remain part of the single market, creating a sea border between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This border would act as a de facto border between the UK and EU. This has sparked outrage in Unionist communities and political parties who feel they have been isolated from the rest of the UK. This has led to riots, demonstrations and protests from Unionists in Northern Ireland (Hirst, 2021) (TDLR, 2021) (Campbell, 2022). Northern Ireland appears to be in danger of falling back into community separation, segregation and violence. Hence, the Cambridge Union felt it was timely to bring the debate back into the chamber before the election of the Northern Irish Assembly in 2022.

    The debate was fascinating for the insights it gave into the pain this conflict has inflicted on multiple generations from both sides of the conflict. Speakers discussed many practical considerations, such as the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, economic factors, public services and other state infrastructure. However, they also shared individual stories, emotions and attitudes, making the conflict more understandable and accessible to those who know little about it – but also making the debate much more emotive. They discussed what it means to be Irish, British and Northern Irish – and why their respective communities wish to remain part of the UK or reunite with the Republic.

    Henri Tajfel’s Social Identity Theory explains that individuals link their own identity to the groups they are part of; and as ingroups develop, so outgroups are also defined.[1] This identification then leads to a social comparison where the ingroup will be favoured, and the outgroup becomes negatively stereotyped, creating ingroup preference and outgroup prejudice. This forms the basis for many identity-based conflicts, such as the one in Northern Ireland. One issue with this debate – and the impact of such political debate in general – is that instead of finding common ground between groups, it can highlight the differences, further isolating groups from each other.

    For example, Declan Kearney argued that he and his family lived in an ‘Apartheid’ state. This does two things. Firstly, it narrates his personal view of the conflict in a way that makes an emotive comparison with a well-known historical conflict involving great social injustice in South Africa, shaping how others might then view and narrate day-to-day life in Northern Ireland. Secondly, it feeds into a separation of cultures and the othering of Unionists, creating an ‘us vs them’ story. This has the effect of reinforcing intergroup prejudice and a sense of victimhood, which – far from leading to conflict-resolution – is more likely to exacerbate further division and conflict. Intergroup contact studies show the importance of mutual understanding and forgiveness in creating reconciliation between conflicting groups (Pettirgrew et al., 2011) (Hewstone et al., 2006). By contrast, the rhetoric of this kind of debate will often perpetuate intergroup conflict by demarcating two clear, binary sides, each with a claim to ‘justice’ or reparation.

    The format of the debate itself encouraged competition rather than collaboration, which also makes it more difficult to find solutions – especially solutions that everyone can buy into. When debate is oppositional, as at the Cambridge Union and in many other debating contexts, one side inevitably ‘loses’ as the other side ‘wins’.[2] This does not lead to lasting conflict resolution or sustainable peace. This appears to be the case with Northern Ireland post-Brexit (Asthana, 2022). When listening to the arguments between the two sides of this debate, I encourage you to consider whether what the debaters are saying is competitive or collaborative; likely to lead to people finding shared purpose and common ground, or focused primarily on the promotion of self-interest; whether, in short, the debate is constructive and solutions-focused or detrimental to resolving tensions and building peace in Northern Ireland. I have chosen this specific example as a case study because I think it is essential to consider the mechanisms we use for discussing conflict and pursuing conflict resolution more widely. In particular, we need to ask ourselves whether political debate of the sort that we see in the UK, Europe, the US and other parts of the Global North is fit for purpose when it comes to conflict resolution – and what other options we might use instead.

    What do you think?

    • How ‘peaceful’ would you say Northern Ireland is at present? How successful would you say the peace process has been? It is genuinely ‘post-conflict’ now or still experiencing conflict? Will the Cambridge Union still be debating Northern Ireland’s place in the UK/Ireland in 20, 50 or 100 year’s time? If so, what kind of future does peace in NI have?What are the ramifications of decades of conflict?
    • What aspects of the debate at the Cambridge Union do you think were constructive? In what ways did the debate help to deepen understanding, or build empathy, or visualise what people on different sides have experienced?
    • What aspects of the debate were less constructive? Do you think that any parts of it were positively detrimental to conflict resolution or peace-building?
    • How can we reconcile the need to share stories of suffering, pain and loss with the need to move forward, find common ground and achieve reconciliation?
    • Is political debate the best mechanism for conflict resolution and peace-building? What other mechanisms work better?

    If you enjoyed this item in our museum…

    You might also enjoy ‘Fractured Peace‘, ‘Journey for Forgiveness‘, ‘Achilles in Vietnam‘, ‘Moral Injury‘, ‘Journey: visualising peace through gaming‘, ‘Om Shanti‘ and ‘Make me a Channel of your Peace‘.


    [1] See esp. Tajfel, H. (Ed.). (1978). Differentiation between social groups: Studies in the social psychology of intergroup relations, London: https://psycnet.apa.org/record/1980-50696-000; also Tajfel, H., & Turner, J. C. (1979). An integrative theory of inter-group conflict. In W. G. Austin & S. Worchel (Eds.), The social psychology of inter-group relations (pp. 33–47). Monterey, CA: Brooks/Cole.

    [2] The Young Academy of Scotland has done some valuable work on this, in connection with their Responsible Debate Charter: you can read their report here.

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