To echo the immortal BtVS: Peter Jones has written another column in the Spectator. There are words on the page referencing Thucydides. This is never good.
Yes, I know I should simply not read the damned things, let alone respond, and most of the time my refusal to pay the Spectator any money means that the monthly article limit preserves me from doing so, but sometimes – especially when I’m following up a Thucydides reference without realising where it’s leading – it just happens. In this case, Jones addresses the recent death of Martin McGuinness, and the fact that various obituaries referred to him as a freedom fighter rather than a terrorist (they did?), by observing that Thucydides would have known exactly what to say about this: the stasis at Corcyra shows how violence can be justified through loyalty to one’s faction, and how words change their meanings – moderation becomes weakness, violence becomes manliness, terrorism becomes a liberation struggle etc.
In a narrow sense, this is a perfectly correct account, and indeed the idea that the Corcyrean episode might be brought into thinking about Northern Ireland isn’t new. In most respects, however, it’s a thoroughly problematic, if not dubious and manipulative, reading – a perfect example of exactly what Thucydides was warning his readers against.
The Corcyrean ‘civil war’ episode depicts the breakdown of consensus and social order within a small, homogeneous community – a description that hasn’t applied to Ireland (or Britain, for that matter) for half a millennium or so. Of course there are different perspectives there, different modes of understanding the situation; of course there is a potential for the escalation of rhetoric and an easy resort to violence. Corcyra is at best only a limited analogy; we could equally well reach for Thucydides’ account of the opposition between Athens and Sparta, two very different communities within the shared traditions of the Hellenic World, stumbling into open conflict.
The key point in Thucydides’ account of Corcyra is that both sides do the factionalism thing (or, in the case of Northern Ireland, all sides). McGuinness was both a freedom fighter and a terrorist, depending on who was doing the describing. The UDA, UVF et al were both terrorists and defenders of their community. The British army was both an occupying force oppressing a colonised population and a defender of peace and social order. In focusing on this phenomenon solely in the case of McGuinness, Jones simply outs himself as a supporter of a different faction.
The tragedy in Thucydides – the fundamental problem that his account poses, without offering any clear answer – is that there is no obvious way out of this cycle of escalating rhetoric and violence, beyond letting things play out until one side kills the other. Once consensus and shared understanding have been shattered, how can anyone see the other side clearly, rather than through the distorted lens of their own side’s factionalist assumptions? How can any sort of community feeling be restored?
The achievement of those involved in the NI peace process was to recognise this problem, and to seek to move beyond the inherited rhetoric and the temptation to score easy approbation from your own side by reconfirming factionalist credentials. If the price of peace, or simply the possibility of peace, is to recognise that there are other perspectives held with equal conviction by others – to see for example that McGuinness was a freedom fighter in the eyes of many nationalists – then it seems pretty small, when the alternative is endless conflict. Still more when McGuinness was prepared to change; to make the same move towards acknowledging the existence of other views, but still more to take on a different, less ambiguous role as a peace-seeking politician.
Jones seeks to deploy Thucydides to bolster the claim that the other side is always wrong, in its rhetoric and its actions, without any suggestion that we might ask questions about our own side as well. It’s difficult to think of a less Thucydidean view of the world.