Queen's Policy Engagement

Navigating Complexity and Societal Trauma: Towards a new constitutional moment on the island of Ireland

The role of trauma is a central mediator of the connection that individuals make with collective or societal narratives says Dr Peter Doran.

Navigating Complexity and Societal Trauma: Towards a new constitutional moment on the island of Ireland

With a growing appreciation for the importance of emotions in politics and law, I would like to draw attention to the particular role of societal trauma in a polity where the most fundamental questions of constitutional decision remain radically contingent and open, due to the nature of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. Trauma and complexity are not easy bedfellows.

The role of trauma is a central mediator of the connection that individuals make with collective or societal narratives, and this experience, in turn, is heavily influenced by the available cultural and political or discursive resources. In conditions of complexity and radical contingency, the experience of trauma can clash with the requirement for critical responsiveness and a dialogical (anti-sectarian) orientation required to complete the journey from outright political antagonism to constructive, democratic and respectful debate (agonism). Personal and collective trauma is associated with a tendency to retreat to and fix categories, and with a refusal to accommodate the political positions adopted by “others”. One has only to recall the numbers of local political representatives who report the trauma associated with the loss of friends and loved ones to political violence as a key moment in their formative journey into politics, to imagine the importance of this experience for the wider population.

There is a deep tension at work within Strand One of the Belfast-Good Friday institutions, where a counterfactual liberal tendency to anticipate a consensus-based orientation to the future that might one day produce reconciliation, has encouraged a virtuous but misleading expectation that normal (“bread and butter”) devolution-style politics can be achieved. In truth the continuing – and likely increasing reengagement – of the United Kingdom and Republic of Ireland Governments in managing the uncertainties embedded in the Agreement  will remain vital for the evolution of politics within the region if a recidivist tendency to lapse back into sectarianism is to be avoided. The roles of the two Governments will be paramount in managing and mediating the political conditions for the Strand One actors as calls mount for a referendum on the future constitutional status of Northern Ireland and actors such as the Democratic Unionist Party retreat to the false comforts of managed insecurity and crisis.

The Agreement, more than anything, took its present form because the political theatre of Northern Ireland – prior to 1998 – was unable to safeguard the space in which antagonistic social forces had failed to subdue one another. In such conditions it was always unlikely that the journey from antagonism to respectful agonistic politics could be achieved, due to an incomplete experience of agency in the context of a conflict that has origins and continuing salience for players and conditions that lie beyond the region’s territory, notably those ongoing shifts in hegemonic power that expose crises of agency within Northern Ireland. Brexit has turned out to be an exemplary case study in a geopolitical transition, rooted in England’s long post-imperial decline and subsequent failure to fully integrate into the European Union project, which has begun to trigger far-reaching ramifications for England’s role in relation to its constitutional settlement with the devolved nations. Scotland’s inevitable exit is the beginning of the end of a long-delayed implosion of the ‘Empire State’, one that can be read as a late modern moment of decolonisation.

Brexit has demonstrated that the Agreement – perhaps best understood as a complex legal order – acts as a catalyst and agentic supplement for parties normally limited in their field of influence within Northern Ireland. The Agreement bestows complex and empowered agency on political players within Northern Ireland by institutionalising, albeit in an agonistic fashion, hard and soft power obligations via a complex network of actors, from Dublin to London, and from, Brussels to Washington, using designed and emergent structures to articulate a new balance of interests between parties within Northern Ireland in ways that reflect the ongoing shifts in hegemonic power at the level of geopolitics.

Trauma can play a formative role in the constitution of sovereign political power and the dimension of the political or the realm of “war and peace.” Using the work of Jenny Edkins we can closely observe the predicament of Northern Ireland, which currently occupies a position of suspension between war and peace: a suspension between the realm of the radically contingent where narrativity is exposed as undecideable, and receding expectations of a normal linear social order. The outstanding challenge for parties to the Agreement remains the management of the open wound of radical contingency, the risk of continued exposure to a series of contested foundational narratives of traumatic violence and their capture/utilisation by political entrepreneurs (and their media acolytes also invested in monetising trauma) seeking to win vindication for a new bid for a hegemonic social order. This activity must involve both non-state and state actors. Where party political actors continue to engage as ethnic entrepreneurs, there is a continuing risk that profound matters such as the management of conflict legacy and support for a generous and plural respect for conflict memories are drawn into a transactional vortex, resulting in their translation into a currency for a new round of conflict.

If Edkins is correct in her basic thesis, that forms of statehood in contemporary society, as forms of political community, are produced and reproduced through social practices, including practices of trauma and memory, we may need to revisit the implications for Northern Ireland, given its suspended status somewhere between the political and politics, somewhere between war and peace. The test, it seems, will be to cultivate an affective politics – looking beyond the liberal expectation of consensus – to a more post- or meta-modern form of political practice that embraces radical contingency and uncertainty, and can live more at ease with the constituted and provisional nature of social reality. This would demand a significant shift in the emotional tone and quality of political discourse within Northern Ireland, and one that is probably only viable within the political imaginary sustained by the complex field of political identity/difference held by the Agreement. It will mean a radical cultivation of institutional and affective conditions for a tolerance of uncertainty and contingency, and a respectful agonism that extends to an easy contemplation of the more far reaching constitutional possibilities. It will mean an explicit public understanding and recognition that each sovereign enactment of power and identity is always implicated in a perpetual negotiation with contingency from which narratives of social order, security and identity are mere moments of disambiguation. Identities are always in translation, notably those dimensions of identity that found themselves on temporary hegemonic moments in the sun. An acknowledgement that conflict is always with us, that accretions of power have no final resting place, can be embraced – given the appropriate affective orientation – in a spirit of critical responsiveness, with a radical commitment that goes beyond mere pluralism/tolerance and extends to practices of pluralization. This is a societal investment in extending the horizons for the emergence of new identities and new conditions of possibility that liberates everyone in a politics of becoming.

The unfolding and uncertain ramifications of Brexit for the United Kingdom’s continuing obligations to the Agreement present a challenge, one that must envisage the Agreement as a “promissory note” bearing forth the conditions of possibility for the emergence of an as-yet-unimagined constitutional destination, informed by a will to novelty. This uncertainty is balanced by the interventions sponsored by the Republic of Ireland’s Government in the form of the Shared Island dialogues and €500 million investment in connecting infrastructure and people across the island. Significant interventions have also been led by the President, Michael D Higgins, who has made calls for ethical remembering and narrative hospitality a cornerstone of his mandate. The President has recently outlined some of the thinking that lies behind the “Shared Island” initiative that is part of the current Programme for Government (2020). He invites citizens to revisit their conceptions of what constitutes a real Republic – a Republic that would have solidarity, community and the public world at its heart; a Republic fit for a shared island of diverse tradition, hopes and loyalties and one that would acknowledge the State not only as benign, but as active, as a shared responsibility for the common welfare of all.

These conversations, including the affective responses they engender, will be important in setting the tone and conditions for any challenging initiative, such as a referendum on Northern Ireland’s constitutional future. A test for all those advocating such a referendum will be the avoidance of a conflation of the binary nature of the referendum process with an expectation that any outcome should follow a binary logic. Instead, the binary mechanism of a referendum can, with sufficient planning, dialogue and affective engagement (empathy, kindness, inclusion, virtuosity) invoke the possibility of a more compelling vision of constitutional change as a threshold in time for the creation of a space for multiple belongings.

Drawing from the inspiration of James Joyce, Kearney and Gallagher (2017) add that a philosophy of “twinsome minds” – the way of thinking that informed the Belfast Good Friday Agreement of 1998 – suggests that the key to the way forward is to regard the Agreement as a promissory note that may only deliver by holding a working through, holding a space for the complex, crossed identities and lost aspirations of those who have grown up “in between”, whose stories risk being eclipsed by “monumental history.”[1] In a commentary on the importance of “good commemoration”, the authors look to a way beyond “pathological polarities of either/or towards an open culture of both/and.

This kind of transformation, straddling the political and politics can only take place through exhaustive and imaginative working through all dimensions and scales of the Agreement, aided by new initiatives such as the dialogues and infrastructural programme envisaged by the Republic of Ireland’s Shared Island unit. A new and explicit emphasis will also have to fall on the role of trauma in mediating and potentially narrowing political capacity. The trauma associated with foundational political violence is currently associated with attempts to close down, over-determine and fix political categories and contested narratives rather than open up possibilities for new forms of belonging on a shared island.

Agonism as an achievement of living in the deep present must also move forward as a set of embodied practices – as a mutually affective orientation – and inform a non-violent emergence (qua co-authorship) of open-ended and unprecedented constitutional futures – not as a conflict over pre-scribed templates (“a United Ireland” versus “the United Kingdom”) but as an emergence of hybrid arrangements, perhaps without precedent, that carry forward the intentions, practices, transformed narratives and complex multi-layered identities and affiliations that seek accommodation in an, as yet, unimagined constitutional framework. The complex architecture of the Agreement understood as a platform for the evolution of political identity and arrangements is capable of holding this transition within and beyond the hegemonic constellations of identities and practices currently at work within but viewed through a refreshing lens of complexity.

This is work with multiple dimensions, in the realms of identity and affect alongside their retrospective codification in new forms of institutions, as yet unimagined. Legal orders re-imagined in all their affective and complex dimensions offer the possibility for re-imagining liberty that is much less invested in control and closure, and committed to improvisation and adaptation. Transforming the quality of conversation in a system means transforming the quality of relationship and thought – and it is this transformed quality that travels with us into the emerging future.

For a fuller treatment of these themes by Dr Peter Doran, go to the current edition of the Northern Ireland Legal Quarterly.  


[1] ibid 15.


Jenny Edkins, Trauma and the Memory of Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Richard Kearney and Sheila Gallagher, 2017, Twinsome Minds: An act of double remembrance, Quinnipiac University, Connecticut.


The featured image has been used courtesy of a Creative Commons license. 


Dr Peter Doran
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Dr. Peter Doran is a Lecturer in the School of Law at Queen’s University Belfast, contributing to teaching on the environment, human rights, contemporary issues in property law and the law of the commons. His recent research focused on wellbeing policy and outcomes in the Northern Ireland Programme for Government.

1 Comment


ISn’t there a corner in private eye that is receptive to this dialect of the english language?

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