The other side: proximity, partition and poetry in the Northern Irish peace process

Brewster, Scott (2013) The other side: proximity, partition and poetry in the Northern Irish peace process. In: Contemporary Political Poetry in Britain and Ireland. Anglistik & Englischunterricht, 77 . Universitatsverlag Winter, Heidelberg, pp. 73-94. ISBN 9783825361457


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This essay takes as its starting point the performativity of two photocalls that chart different stages of the Northern peace process. As the Northern Ireland executive assembled for its first official session in Stormont in Room December 1999, Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness accidentally occupied the seat reserved for the Ulster Unionist Michael McGimpsey, having failed to read, or having mistaken, the place-cards set out for each minister. An ephemeral moment of humour for the photo-call, perhaps: but this instance of mistaken identity also emblematised the displacement of positions required to build a politics open to risk and possibility, to make any ‘peace’ work: an experience central to the ethical encounter, and the opening of politics, as delineated by Emmanuel Levinas and Jacques Derrida. This set-piece encounter can be compared to the appearance of Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams on 27 March 2007, an event of immense historical significance but one unmarked by levity or direct engagement. The two speakers avoided eye-contact, did not turn to face each other, their joint declaration delivered from different angles. What would once have been a tense face-off became a displacement of confrontation, the antagonists facing-off in discrete directions. The first episode briefly enacted the unanticipated experience of finding oneself in the place of the other: in short, the (often disavowed) conditionality of the Belfast Agreement. The second episode implicitly played out the ramifications of this conditionality. The Agreement dedicates itself to the creation of a community bound by universally shared principles, whilst committing itself to respecting the absolute singularity and specificity of different ‘traditions’. The uncertain relation between the singular and the general is a critical question for the realisation, and the very meaning, of peaceful transformation in the North. This critical question constitutes what Derrida calls the ‘promise of democracy’: any constitutional and civil settlement must forge a commonality, but for Derrida it is the impossibility of speaking about ‘we’ that makes democracy so difficult yet so necessary to imagine. As Simon Critchley has argued, meaningful commonality can be realised only amidst difficulty and antagonism, since democracy ‘is the politics of difficulty, opacity … a permanent risk’; only through the democratic disruption of political space can one ‘envisage a politics that does not reduce transcendence, a community that thinks difference without reducing difference’. It remains to be seen if the poetics of these encounters prefigure a new mode of engagement in the North. This essay will consider the extent to which the implications of these political set-pieces have been anticipated and explored within Northern Irish poetry over the last thirty years. In particular, the discussion will focus on the staging of the ethical encounter in the work of Seamus Heaney and Frank Ormsby.

Keywords:Northern Irish Poetry, Frank Ormsby, Seamus Heaney, Peace Process, Emmanuel Levinas, Jacques Derrida
Subjects:Q Linguistics, Classics and related subjects > Q320 English Literature
Divisions:College of Arts > School of English & Journalism > School of English & Journalism (English)
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ID Code:14964
Deposited On:18 Sep 2014 08:17

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