A review of How Civil Wars Start by Dr Barbara Walters…

Arnold Carton is a former teacher, is a moderate unionist who has had a lifelong interest in politics.

Too often political discussion within NI politics becomes a repetitive battle over competing identities and about who is to blame for the conflict. Our people are bored with the lack of progress. Sometimes it can be useful and refreshing to put aside our narcissistic tendency to assume that our conflict is historically unique and see if we can learn from the experience of dealing with division in other countries.

In her fascinating book, ‘‘How Civil Wars Start’ (£9.99 on Kindle), Dr Barbara Walters offers many parallels from across the world from which any country wanting to move away from civil conflict can learn. She began studying civil wars in 1990 when there ‘were almost no studies that looked at common elements that repeated themselves across countries and everyone thought their civil war was unique’, but goes on to explain that in the hundreds of civil wars across the world in the past 75 years, there are common patterns.

Three Key Points

Three key ideas from this book are

  1. The use of a Polity Score to measure how democratic a country is.
  2. The importance of Factional Political Parties in provoking civil war.
  3. The danger of Ethnic Entrepreneurs (Political Opportunists) & Social Media
  4. The danger of a 2nd Civil War

1-Polity Score and the danger of crossing the middle.

Political Scientists use a 21-point Polity Score that ranges from −10 (most autocratic – power in the hands of one person, or a small elite) to +10 (most democratic – power shared equally among all citizens), with Anocracy in the middle being part democracy and part dictatorship.

North Korea, ruled by one man scores -10 and is an autocracy, Ireland at +10 is a full democracy Britain at +8 is a democracy, but Turkey -4, Egypt-4 and USA+5 are anocracies.

The importance of this scale is that it is countries in the middle anocracy zone that are most likely to have civil wars; it is as countries try to move from being undemocratic autocracies at the left of the scale towards democracy on the right that civil war often breaks out. (Iraq and Libya being recent examples, and people in their 50s will remember the tragedy of Bosnia after the breakup of Yugoslavia.) Dr Walters points out that ‘the faster and bolder the reform efforts, the greater the chance of civil war’, especially in the first 2 years. The risk of civil war is reduced when a country takes its time, evolving its political system gradually.

Dr Walter points out that in the early 20th century most civil wars such as Mexico 1910, Russia 1917, China in 1927 were provoked by ideology or class, as were most political divisions and political parties. But by the middle of the century, after WWII, most civil wars were fought between ethnic factions, they became civil wars about identity.

2- The danger from Factional Political Parties

Interestingly, ethnically diverse countries are not necessarily more prone to war than homogeneous ones, unless they have ‘factional’ political parties based on ethnic, religious, or racial identity rather than ideology. Which NI political parties could be identified based on religion and on the British/Irish identity divide?

In one section that made me sit up Dr Walters describes asking an Iraqi woman what did she notice had changed just before civil war struck her country: ‘Her face, however, was heavy with sadness. “People began asking whether you were Shia or Sunni,” she said.’ This took me back to a time when in children’s film show in 1968 the boy in front turned round and asked me if I was Catholic or Protestant. I didn’t recognise the categories and couldn’t the answer back then, but within a year every NI child could answer that question.

Dr Walters points out that ‘identity-based parties make it impossible for voters to switch sides; there is nowhere for them to go if their political identity is tied to their ethnic or religious identity.’ (This is a feature of NI politics that is finally starting to break down.)

She points out that the risk of violence is greater where a factions settle in concentrated geographic regions and people interact exclusively with their own. She is writing about Bosnia, Serbia and Sri Lanka, but the parallels with the sectarian segregation across N. Ireland are obvious.

3-The danger from ethnic entrepreneurs and social media

Again, writing about the break-up of Yugoslavia she writes that ‘For a society to fracture along identity lines, you need mouthpieces—people who are willing to make discriminatory appeals and pursue discriminatory policies in the name of a particular group’. She refers to these people who make a political career out of division as ‘ethnic entrepreneurs’ who use identity-based nationalism to sow violence and chaos and later points out how social media has made it so much easier for ethnic entrepreneurs to flourish, ‘social media is every ethnic entrepreneur’s dream.’ Do we recognise such people on Twitter?

We might also recognise ourselves in the section where Dr Walters quotes the hurt felt by a young Bosnian Muslim woman called Berina Kovac when her former schoolfriends indicate that she does not belong, that she is a Turkish invader. In the N. Ireland context, we might call her a Planter, or would we try telling her to go down south where she belongs?

The danger of a second civil war.

Sadly, in any country that has had a civil war, the risk of having another is greater. ‘Between 1945 and 1996, over a third of civil wars were followed by a second conflict.’ Data apparently shows that countries fight a second civil war because some believe their original grievances hasn’t been addressed. Even if the original fighters are long dead, old fault lines often haven’t been repaired, and the myths and stories live on with a new generation of fighters being determined to take back control.

Dr Walters points out that countries can escape this ‘conflict trap’ by strengthening the quality of their governance, allowing all citizens to become involved in shaping their government. What does this mean for N. Ireland which currently has no government? Was the Troubles our second civil war, or are we in danger of another one?

Why you should treat yourself to this book for Christmas

This book is well written, informative and entertaining.

From an American perspective it attempts to warn people about the vulnerability of Western democracies, including the USA, explaining that the threat to democracy by those using violence rather than votes is much greater than people realise

I have long believed that the TV footage of the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia was a timely warning that helped our community to abandon violence in favour of the Good Friday Agreement. I think some of the other parallels within this book will be valuable to anyone who cares about peace in N. Ireland.

If you are interested in the politics of the USA or of NI you will find it fascinating.

Nollaig Shona

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