Imprecise use of words affects our ability to think clearly, and honestly, about what is going on in front of us. A noteworthy specimen of this phenomenon occurred in the aftermath of the last round of negotiations, a little over a week ago, in Hillsborough, just outside Belfast.
The two-day session had all the pro-agreement parties meeting with the Irish and British governments in an attempt to resolve the outstanding problems with the agreement they had all signed up to almost five years ago. These problems are well known and much publicized. An end to paramilitary/IRA activity, removing the bulk of the British forces, dealing with fugitives, outstanding policing issues, and ensuring the stability of the institutions — every one has been hashed and rehashed for months, if not years.
The talks ended late on Tuesday night, March 4. The governments had expected to have everyone’s signature on a 28-page document, showing how all these matters were to be resolved. But the talks concluded without achieving this. Instead, we were told, the parties all left to talk to their own “constituencies.” As well, it was announced that the assembly elections for May 1 were going to be postponed for four weeks. That is, the talks did not result in a deal and also succeeded in setting back the political calendar for a month. Can these negotiations, therefore, be described as a success or a failure?
According to Prime Minister Tony Blair, they were not only a success, but a breakthrough. A reporter asked him: “Prime Minister, there will be disappointment because there was some expectation perhaps of a breakthrough. Do you feel now that a deal is on?”
Blair replied: “I think there is a breakthrough. I think what is clear is that we have a way forward that we believe can offer the chance of ensuring that all aspects of the Belfast or Good Friday agreement are properly implemented.”
Later, a British government official was reported as saying: “The prime minister sees this as a breakthrough and it will turn out to be one if all the signs are fulfilled. It’s just up to the parties to consult.”
I could see in the words of Blair and his official the meaning of “breakthrough” slipping away, so I decided to look it up in Webster’s Dictionary.
The first definition concerned a military breakthrough, referring to “an advance all the way or through and beyond an enemy’s defensive system.” The other two definitions are “an act or action of removing or surpassing an obstruction or restriction . . . any significant or sudden advance, development, progress or increase, as in scientific knowledge, diplomacy, etc. that removes a barrier to progress.”
Do any of these definitions apply to what happened on March 4? All sides agreed to take the governments’ proposals away to their “constituencies” to discuss them and give their response. Is this a breakthrough? It is true that there is a potential for a breakthrough if some of the proposals, which include a demand for the IRA to end all activity, are actually carried out. But surely the fact that the parties are still talking about them cannot be considered a breakthrough in itself. What if they decide against some of the proposals? A breakthrough is when the Soviets agreed in a written treaty (Salt II) to get rid of 2,000 Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles, not when they agreed to discuss it. Or, to take an example closer to home, when all sides involved in the interparty talks finally put their name to the body of proposals called the Good Friday agreement, that constituted a breakthrough, not when they agreed to talk about them with their “constituents.”
The Irish Times reported that both governments were optimistic about progress though “the talks finished without the hoped for breakthrough.”
So when is a breakthrough a breakthrough? If we follow Blair, it is whenever the political (not the semantic) circumstances demand that a breakthrough be declared. After all, Blair invested two full days in the talks, abandoning pressing matters at home, including standing up the queen and the Russian foreign minister, in the belief that there was going to be a breakthrough. And so he could not be disappointed.
We live in a postmodern world. The movement known as postmodernism is based on the assertion that all theories, and even the facts that they explain, are arbitrary constructions of the human intellect. In the art world and the realm of science and sociology, this was regarded as something of a novelty, if a na