Understanding Politics through the Enneagram

By Barry Ahern

The drive from Dublin in the Republic of Ireland, to Belfast, which is part of the United Kingdom, is a journey of 104 miles. After driving about 70 miles you arrive at the border.  As you approached the border during the nineteen eighties and nineties, you encountered as series of obstacles of various kinds due to the security situation at the time.

Crossing the border at that time you’d see signs ordering vehicles to turn off all audio equipment. The British army had listening devices that enabled them to overhear conversations in cars. Those who knew this usually ignored the request. Large ramps were erected to ensure you drove slowly. Driving at over 20 miles per hour would cause damage to the suspension.

A military lookout post was poised on the top of the highest hill in the area just over the border on the road to the nearest town called Newry. The whole area could be surveyed silently from here. No one knew when anyone was inside watching as the windows in the viewing area were tinted. Occasionally the sound of a helicopter scanning the border area could be heard hovering overhead.

The border post itself was manned with soldiers, guns at the ready, standing around in the compound into which all cars drove in single file. No one was allowed through until they were inspected. This no man’s land was framed by tall corrugated iron sheeting. Huts with tiny lookout holes for the video cameras and listening devices watched the cars silently. Young paratroopers with British accents, guns at the ready, would ask for details of your journey before allowing you through to the other side.

In Northern Ireland both sides found their identity as members of the community by aligning themselves with Catholicism and were usually known as being nationalist or republican. They wanted to belong to the larger republic in the south of the country. They represented about forty-five percent of the population. The remaining percentage was Loyalist or Unionist who identified with Protestantism and they firmly stood with the United Kingdom.

Some neighbourhoods were no go areas for those who were of the opposition. In certain places it would be unwise to wander. Not all neighbourhoods were integrated. A safe car park was essential if you drove with a Republic of Ireland registered vehicle. Unless you knew the area well you relied on local knowledge. Cars were frequently hijacked for robberies; some occasionally had bombs planted underneath. The people of Northern Ireland had the same colour skin and spoke with the same accents. It wasn’t easy to make out which side people were on.

It has been said that by the time young people reached their teens in the North of Ireland they had learned approximately twenty ways of checking out your background. Your name, the area you lived in, the school you attended, the activities you took part in, what sport you played etc. provided enough information to make a decision about which side of the divide you belonged to.

For decades a lack of trust permeated political life in the North. The current peace process has begun to move the agenda away from war and hatred towards peace. This process has meant that a courageous series of leaps of faith had to be taken by both sides. At times it has been like taking a roller coaster ride through a burning furnace. As soon as a step forward was taken the doubting and mistrust would begin again, which would lead to a further crisis. So deep was the mistrust on all sides that it took the combined efforts of Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern, the Prime Ministers of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland respectively, and Bill Clinton, all of whom made themselves available twenty four hours a day, to help bring all sides together for crucial peace talks during the negotiating stage.

During the peace talks the common agreement was that all sides should be treated with parity of esteem. This had not been the case for most of the last century. There was very little common ground; both sides kept to themselves; a hidden apartheid was declared and divided loyalties were given and supported by allegiance to a particular state be it the United Kingdom or the Republic of Ireland. Both communities used religion to support their respective political belief systems.

The Enneagram describes nine personality profiles each with it’s own fixated idea on how the world operates. A Four in the model sees a lack of depth in the ordinary everyday. A Nine will look for consensus because they want to avoid conflict at all costs. The political situation in Northern Ireland is dominated by the Six profile whose focus of attention has an eye on worst case scenarios and the hidden agendas of others. They Six has a habit of mind that will question and doubt both their own and other’s authority.

Bearing the profile of the Six from the Enneagram model in mind enables us to understand why, as outside observers, when one stumbling block is removed another immediately takes its place. No sooner is an agreement made on the surrender and verification of the terrorists hoard of arms than doubting sets in. Witnesses other than the agreed impartial international observers are then demanded. Requests for photographs of the decommissioned arms follow. Most of the impetus of the peace process has been held back on issues of trust.

One only has to look at an enlarged photo of one of the leaders of the Loyalist side, who for decades has aggressively strutted and obstructed progress from the sidelines of the conflict, to see the sheer terror in his eyes which underlies his bullying hostility to possible progress. It is worthwhile, therefore, if we step aside a moment and look at what politics is about.

Each profile can also be described as a coping or survival strategy that helps us get along in the world and it is run by our instincts. It is largely unconscious.

Politics many guises

Politics has multiple definitions and can be seen in many guises. It has been described as the science of government, the art of the possible etc. A political system is founded on a broad understanding of a shared common ideal. When people refer to colleagues who play office politics they are often referring to how people manage to operate in and around the stated goals or aims of the company and the culture it fosters. Those who take power in an organisation engage in politics in various ways be it consensual, autocratic, democratic etc.

We all engage in politics whether we are conscious of it or not.  For instance, if we are working in a corporation where a blind eye is taken towards bullying by those in authority all workers are faced with the political choice of deciding whether to tolerate it or not. Likewise our consumer habits have political consequences. If we decide not to buy gasoline from an oil company that has a record of environmental destruction we are consciously engaging in a political act. The more conscious we are of the choices that are available the more power we have to effect change.

Another way of looking at politics is to see it as a forum where people gather together and try to work out a common understanding according to a particular belief system. On a local level this can be about drawing up regulations for a professional grouping.

One might say that to a large extent politics is about the art of survival – the survival of a particular belief system within a group or a society that helps to frame an understanding of the world so that we can operate in it.

At a basic level the energy involved in politics is instinctual. And our instinctual energies are concerned with our survival. The art of the politician is to harness this instinctual energy through dialogue and the use of power and in the process hopefully prevent people from going out and killing each other if there’s a perception that survival is threatened. Think back to how you reacted the last time someone said something to you which threatened a strongly held belief.

In terms of the descriptions of people’s behaviour that the Enneagram describes so vividly every society provides a frame of reference that facilitates the acting out of type behaviour. This behaviour in turn is bound up with our belief system. Certain catalysing factors bind the society together. For example, if we apply the Three profile to the United States, we can see how success and achievements are rewarded and failure isn’t tolerated very well in the society.

This works it’s way out into the deception that consumerism will bring happiness. If something happens that threatens this, be it another nation that decides to reduce it’s oil supplies, wars can be used to defend the belief in one’s right to oil supplies. When the war starts it is can be disguised as a justifiable attack on a repressive regime.

Under the Bush regime the society has fallen into Six territory where fear of terrorism has crept into the society and has been used to motivate the electorate to vote for him for a second term.

Shortly after the end of the Second World War Jean Monet and Robert Schumann sought to bring together the beleaguered nations of Europe so that there would never be another war between the fighting factions again. The envisaged union would be based on economics whereby the former feuding states would co-operate with each other in developing strong trade links and working together for the good of all. This was the starting point for the shared ideal. Since then the European Union has expanded and 15 new members have join recently joined which include Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovenia.

Political conflict and noble ideals

So – what happens when people disagree or think that the other sides view is so threatening that they will stand firm in their belief system in order to preserve the status quo? A new politics is emerging is areas of conflict around the world where minorities assert their rights on the basis of parity of esteem rather than engaging in violence. Often the issues can be softened when mutual respect has been established: no downgrading, no denials, blaming, condemnations etc. These only serve to prolong the situation. It often starts with the premise that everyone’s point of view has a validity of it’s own and deserves to be listened to. A basic tenet of the Enneagram you might comment.

However, it would be naïve of anyone to think that politics will not rear its head in Enneagram circles. This is particularly true for groups or societies that work for the good of others from an idealistic standpoint. It is better to be aware of the possibilities so that, like many good people who gather together with the common aim of doing something for the betterment of humanity, it does not lead to its ruination.

Politics will raise its head no matter how noble our ideals. It’s a basic instinct and our instinctual life will continue until we die. To become aware of its energy is to open up what drives our Enneagram type. It is worthwhile, therefore, to take a look and see how it expresses itself politically before we become its victim.