The limits of transactional politics

Contract law is a vast subject, but at root, it is the process of making and enforcing agreements between two parties that do not fully trust one another. Any mutual mistrust is compensated for by mutual trust in some other mechanism.

This could be a dispute process set up by the contract, an authoritative third party such as the courts, or simply the ability to abrogate the contract and walk away. Contracts and agreements are transactional – each party accepts responsibility for a well-defined action, but that responsibility is only valid so long as all other parties live up to theirs.

When the contract is completed no further action is required, and when a contract is abrogated all responsibilities are void. Everybody pays something and gains something else in return. It would be foolish to do otherwise, for fear of being seen as an easy mark. Contracts and agreements are thereby one of the basic foundations of civilisation. But they are not a foundation of society.

Civilisation relies on written records, objective norms, and a system within which strangers can coexist. But society predates civilisation. At the heart of society are interpersonal relationships, informal conventions and, most importantly, mutual trust.

One does not normally rely on the law when dealing with family and friends. We constantly perform small favours for each other in good faith, and only rarely keep a running tab. When a personal relationship becomes subject to a court of law, it is a sign that something fundamental has gone wrong.

One also does not normally sign a contract before entering a shop, playing a game or crossing the road. All these things are subject to the law, but only as a last resort. We are trained from childhood to say thank you, pay what we owe, take our turn, and generally assume that other people are trustworthy until they prove otherwise.

We all subconsciously obey the golden rule and only occasionally need to be reminded of it. Even in lawless parts of the world (perhaps especially in lawless parts), informal norms function as a vital social glue. Honour and dignity survive and thrive in places where barely anything else can.

Northern Ireland is not a lawless land today, nor was it at the height of the Troubles, even if at times it may have appeared so on the evening news. It does not lack laws or institutions, imperfect as they are. It does, however, lack trust. Not trust at the level of entering a shop or crossing the road. If anything, NI is more open and genuine than the stereotypical modern society – but only on the condition that certain subjects are avoided. These are the shibboleths that can instantly turn a social gathering cold, and render politicians incapable of rational thought.

I don’t need to name them. We all know what they are.

So while some troubled parts of the world have a strong society at a personal level and a weak civilisation on top, NI finds itself with a strong civilisation but a weakened society underneath. The former may not seem so strange – in honour-driven societies, there are of course subjects such as religion that is best avoided. But it is rare to find a politically stable country where the most urgent political arguments remain socially taboo.

For the majority of the time, we can live as equals in one social space. Shopping, working, eating out, even having a pint (in certain pubs). But when the touchstone political subjects come up, we declare that the person we sit beside for eight hours a day five days a week is one of Them, and that we cannot talk to Them directly, only through Their political representatives.

Just like an estranged couple lawyering up in preparation for an ugly divorce, we politician up in expectation of an argument that we can’t bear to engage in personally. It is, of course, a defence mechanism. But once we politician up, nuance and compromise are treated as deadly weaknesses. Politics at one remove becomes as transactional as a contested divorce, a corporate acquisition, or a strategic arms treaty. The countless delicate relationships of society are reduced to line items. The grace and generosity that we take so much pride in vanish like the morning mist.

It was memorably said of the Republic’s equal marriage referendum that it was the result of honest conversations around kitchen tables in every town in the state. A once-controversial issue was discussed directly, and in good faith, at the personal level. Many of these conversations were difficult and uncomfortable. But they were made possible because the people on either side of the issue shared, and continue to share, a kitchen table.

The necessary strong social relationships were already in place to build a frank political discussion upon. There were no spokesmen, no politicians in these thousand tiny debating chambers. Society moved, and civilisation followed. Nobody demanded that the losing side was entitled to compensation.

Around whose kitchen table will Northern Ireland’s divisive political issues be honestly discussed? Where are the enduring social bonds that can support the difficult compromises required? When will we stop insisting that any change is a concession to Them that must be paid for in full?

(This article originally appeared on Slugger.

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One thing that unionists might want

In a previous article, I made the bold assertion that “Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants”. What I should have said was “Northern Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants, and Nationalism in general has nothing that Unionism wants… yet”. While Northern Nationalism may still not have much to attract Unionism, after 30th March next year the Republic will have something that unionists may quickly find themselves jealous of.

MEPs.

While their colleagues in Stormont and Westminster get seemingly endless airtime, Northern Ireland’s three MEPs have been quietly getting on with the job in Brussels and Strasbourg. Outside the political mechanics of the elections themselves, the only occasion any NI MEP made the front page was when Paisley heckled the Pope. But this lack of press coverage does not reflect a lack of importance; the European Parliament is a powerful body, and one in which individual members enjoy more influence than any backbencher in either Westminster or Leinster House.

On current plans, the three MEPs will vacate their seats on March 29th 2019 along with the rest of the UK’s delegation. And with them will go one of NI’s strongest tools for protecting its economic interests. Whether it is manufacturing exporters in Ballymena, content producers in Bangor, or dairy farmers in Fermanagh, the EU’s regulations, as drafted in the European Parliament by MEPs, are the framework of the modern economy.

And Brexit will not change this one bit.

As the British Government struggles to reconcile its red lines with the cold realities of a hard Brexit, virtually every economic lobby group from the CBI to the TUC is campaigning for the UK to remain as closely aligned to EU law as possible. On top of that, the Irish Government has secured a commitment that there will be “full regulatory alignment” between North and South, which effectively means between East and West also. The only plausible alternative to a cliff-edge Brexit demands that the UK as a whole continues to follow EU regulations, but without any representatives in the parliament where these regulations are drafted.

Norway’s so-called “fax democracy” is sometimes overstated. Norway has to transcribe into national law all EU regulations in the areas covered by the EEA. And yes, it has more influence on the drafting process than sometimes admitted to, as it meets regularly at governmental level with EU members in order to defend its interests. But there is no question that its voice carries less weight due to its lack of representation in the increasingly powerful European Parliament. And so it will be with the UK. It is big enough and rich enough that its concerns will never be completely ignored. But it will be Downing St making the representation, not local politicians. NI will find its voice to be very small when compared to that of London or the South East.

But not silent. It is unthinkable that Sinn Féin’s remaining MEPs would fail to stand up for the interests of their party’s electorate north of the border. Northern Nationalism will therefore have a direct line to the corridors of power via the local SF advice centre, something that political Unionism will find difficult if not impossible to replicate. Small businesses and farmers from the unionist community will find themselves either asking their local MP to ask the relevant minister to make representation on their behalf at the next bilateral summit, or holding their noses and contacting their local Sinn Féin representative.

It will be a long time before ordinary unionists fully trust Sinn Féin. But what if there were some friendly MEPs who were less objectionable to unionist sensibilities, and whose members sat with more influential groups than the relatively small European United Left? The other parties in the Republic have a golden opportunity, even a moral imperative, to take on the responsibility of representing the economic interests of Northern unionists in the EP. Without expectation of any quid pro quo, without any implied consequences for the constitutional status. Just because it’s the solemn duty of a public representative to represent the public.

Would that be something that unionists might want?

(This post originally appeared on Slugger)

Our son of a bitch

The headline of Doug Beattie’s article in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday illustrates how sloppy language and sloppy logic hinder rather than help the process of understanding. Leave aside the article itself for now; one sentence in the headline alone (“Republicans weren’t victims, they were victim-makers”) contains a prime example of both.

Firstly, the sloppy language of “Republicans” fails to distinguish between the Provisional IRA and those people who never picked up a gun but would still regard themselves as Republican. In the same vein, when people blame “Unionists” for the actions of Unionist politicians or “Brits” for the actions of the British Government, it can be argued that a commonly understood shorthand is being used – but in Northern Ireland the use of imprecise language is an open invitation to misunderstanding that many will enthusiastically accept.

This is a common ambiguity in the English language, the infamously context-dependent bare plural. When a statement is made about “Republicans” it can be read as “particular Republicans”, a few hundred members of the PIRA, but it could also be taken to mean “all Republicans”, a two-digit percentage of the electorate. It is probably safe to say that Beattie (or his subeditor) intended the former, and it is also probably safe to say that a significant percentage of actual Republicans took the other meaning.

Secondly, the sloppy logic of the false dichotomy implies that one cannot be both a victim and a victim-maker. It should not take much effort to think up an endless list of counterexamples. One can be both a victim and a perpetrator of violence, and indeed being a victim of violence can encourage one to subsequently become a perpetrator. This is not rocket science, but it is conveniently forgotten in the heat of argument.

But all this is just one example of excessive generalisation, a common rhetorical flourish that produces pithy soundbites but poor analysis. And when it is used like this to apportion blame upon others, the danger is that instead of singling out the guilty one has lumped the guilty in with the innocent.

“Unionist”, “Nationalist”, “Republican”, “British”, “Irish”… each one of these terms is not just an abstract category, but an identity that is clung to by hundreds of thousands of people each. When you apportion blame to hundreds of thousands of people in one sweeping statement the instinctive reaction is not going to be that obviously you only meant to blame some of us. Guilty and innocent are treated alike, blurring rather than sharpening the moral lines.

As the apocryphal Roosevelt quote goes, “he may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch.” Under fire, identity trumps all. And so people who may not otherwise have much in common find themselves standing side by side. If the intent was to drive a wedge between guilty and innocent, the exact opposite has now been achieved. “Brits out!” may not have been intended to mean everyone who identifies as British should be driven into the sea, but that’s how it was understood, and it only strengthened the Unionist British identity. Every troubles-era Unionist should know this in their bones, but too often an equally thoughtless, sweeping soundbite makes its way back across the barricade and galvanises the other side.

With every general statement blaming Unionists for discrimination, Republicans for terrorism, Brits for state brutality, the separate identities of Northern Ireland are wound more tightly in shared indignation, and actively driven apart.

(This article originally appeared on Slugger

Making friends with the cat next door

One of the most disappointing things to come out of recent NI political history was Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted, but quickly forgotten, Unionist Outreach project. In theory, this had a lot of potential. In practice, it was like a toddler trying to make friends with a cat.

To make friends with a cat, you have to make no mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many nice noises you make, or how nonthreatening you make yourself appear. One wrong move and the cat is on the other side of the wall, and you have to start again from scratch.

And that’s assuming that the cat has any inclination towards making friends with you in the first place.

As Mick has so often pointed out, Irish Nationalism is strategically very weak. Unionism has what they want – a blocking majority – but Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants in return. The republican movement once had a cessation of violence to offer, but they consistently overestimated just how valuable that was, and it was spent getting the GFA over the line. Recognition of the PSNI and devolution of justice got us St Andrews and the chuckle brothers. But that was a decade ago, and there’s nothing left in the bank.

Transactional politics, where the art of the deal is paramount, has run out of road. The system is broken again, and there is nothing left for SF to trade except a return to the status quo ante, which the DUP seem to value as much as the Emperor Qianlong valued European goods.

If anything game changing is to be brought to the table, it is Nationalism that must bring it. Nationalists will protest that this is unfair, and they would be right. Politics is unfair. It is the advocate of change that has to put in the work, because their opponents are not going to help.

And so we return to the cat.

The cat has nothing personal against the child. It just sees no potential reward from engagement that could possibly balance the risks. The way to make friends with the cat is threefold: offer a tasty reward; make no threatening moves; and have infinite patience.

The reward must be generous – there is no point offering the cat a dead bird; it is perfectly capable of getting one of those for itself. Cooked chicken is good; steak is better. It doesn’t necessarily mean you are promising the cat steak dinners every day. Think of it as a loss leader.

The prohibition on threatening moves is absolute; trust is hard won and instantly lost. Whatever you do, don’t even think of mentioning even the distant future prospect of tummy tickling.

And patience is a virtue. The worst thing you can do is change your cat strategy just when the cat is starting to re-evaluate its risk/reward calculation, for then you have demonstrated the deadliest sin of all – insincerity.

Transactional politics is the politics of enlightened self-interest. By definition, it cannot further the common interest.

(This post originally appeared on Slugger)

Onwards and inwards

One theme that comes up disappointingly often in politics, and Northern Irish politics in particular, is the strategic retreat into metapolitics. If you fear that you’re losing the argument, change the subject so that the argument is now about how well or badly the argument has been conducted. This is particularly powerful if the original argument had itself been about who had been badly treated in an even earlier argument. If done carefully, one can effectively prevent any conclusion from being reached in finite time.

It’s not difficult to see how this tactic became popular in the halls of Stormont.

The simplest such metapolitical argument is to note how uncivil the debate has become, and use that to argue for the suspension of debate. But more sophisticated variations on the theme can be constructed, and NI political parties have become very good at it.

This comes to mind today because of the latest series of statements on the Irish language by Robin Swann. Concubhar has already dissected some of it, but the metapolitics that jumped out at me in particular was this:

We are concerned that in a society which is already beset with divisions, the current debate surrounding an Irish language act is serving to further divide society.

Instead of focussing on that which should unite society – the need to tackle waiting-lists, the crisis in school budgets, and the need to create new and better jobs – Northern Ireland is being all but held to ransom by Sinn Fein demands about a language that was politicised by them and used and abused by them for their own selfish reasons.

No observer of NI politics can deny that the Irish language is divisive and has been politicised. But accusing your party political opponents of being solely responsible for politicising an issue is itself an attempt to politicise the politicisation of the issue. The more energy is spent arguing about who is to blame for the argument (about who is to blame for the argument (about who is to blame…)), the less likely it is that anything will get decided on its own merits.

The irony that this post is a metapolitical commentary on metapolitics has not escaped me. And so we continue, onwards and inwards.

(This post originally appeared on Slugger)

There is no way for NI to remain in the EU after Brexit. Alternatives exist, but they all come at a price.

Last week, Kevin O’Rourke wrote in the Irish Times:

It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union. (Leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety.)

It is also logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU, and I wish it would. That seems like something worth arguing for. But it is logically incoherent to argue that if we remain in the EU and its customs union, and the North leaves both, there can be some special deal that will avoid the need for a customs frontier on the island.

Those who say Ireland should leave the EU know they are in a small minority. Many will not come out and argue for their position particularly strongly for fear of being laughed out of court. The evidence that our prosperity is based on EU membership is overwhelming. Still, expect them, in the months and years ahead, to claim that the return of a customs frontier somehow shows that “the EU” has let Ireland down.

The Brexit campaign shows that such dishonesty can pay. Which is why it is so important that everyone understand that if the North leaves the EU and its customs union, and we remain inside it, there is nothing that the EU or anyone else can do to prevent the return of such a frontier.

The article suffers from muddled thinking when it proposes solutions though. It is not legally possible for NI to remain in the EU while it also remains part of a post Brexit UK. Only sovereign states are members of the EU. This is not a matter of geographical exemptions. It is a matter of political representation, sovereignty and treaty law.

The Greenland precedent is not helpful – in that case Greenland gained an exemption from EU law while the sovereign state (Denmark) remained a member. If that were to be applied to Brexit, then England, Scotland and Wales would have an exemption from the EU while the UK as a whole remained a member, but only in order to represent the people of NI. Such an arrangement would be preposterous.

NI could remain de facto part of the single market but only by a) breaking the UK internal market instead and b) submitting to fax democracy, where NI would have its laws written for it in the EU without any representation at the table (short of what the Irish government might provide gratis). This would require all EU competencies to be devolved to NI, including employment and immigration law. It would likely also require full fiscal autonomy. This would not be devolution, but something closer to Gibraltar-style internal autonomy. Given how deeply the Irish government would then be embedded in the domestic legislative process, it would probably be both simpler and more honest to just have a united Ireland. At least in that scenario, EU agricultural and structural subsidies would continue (but the block grant would vanish).

An easier sell would be to keep NI de facto inside the EU customs union by shifting the RoI’s customs frontier to Larne. This would be an arrangement similar to that of Monaco, which has no official treaty with the EU, but which by bilateral agreement allows France to treat Monaco’s sea border as a French border for all practical purposes. This of course means that the UK’s internal customs union would be severed instead, but such arrangements have precedent. Büsingen am Hochrhein is a small exclave of Germany entirely surrounded by Switzerland, and has long been treated as part of Switzerland for customs purposes. Whether this would be sufficient to save the cross-border economy would depend on how generous and how quickly the new EU/UK free trade deal turns out (don’t hold your breath).

The big unknown is the Common Travel Area. It is just possible that the EU may allow it to continue with the current spot check enforcement regime, considering that the UK’s immigration law is likely to be stricter than the EU’s for the foreseeable future. But this would require a generous helping of goodwill from all sides. Alternatively, it may be possible to move the RoI’s hard immigration frontier to Larne.

None of the above are cost-free options. The emotional cost to Unionists in particular would be heavy no matter what sort of deal is struck, but any arrangement that keeps an open border would surely be cheaper and less disruptive than the default alternative.

A united Ireland is as far off as ever, for the usual well-worn reasons. That may change if after Brexit the UK decides to alter economic policy to NI’s disadvantage (e.g. by cutting agricultural subsidies) or if Indyref2 comes to pass. But NI is still incapable of supporting itself, and it is proportionately less of a burden on London than it would be on Dublin (which is still in primary deficit, let us not forget).

The best case scenario for Ireland (north and south) remains for Brexit to magically go away. But barring a political upset of Canadian proportions that’s a pipe dream.

(This post was first published on Facebook, and then on Slugger)

After Brexit: the options

As time went on, speculation reached fever pitch. The internet was full of crazy theories about developments that would overturn everything we knew, seemingly convincing timelines of events that would soon unfold, and ingenious analyses proving that things were either nowhere near as bad as they seemed, or much worse than anyone imagined.

I am of course talking about Game of Thrones.

And in the end (no spoilers, I promise!) the vast majority of these excitable scribblings fell away, shown to be the half-baked wish-fulfillment that they always were. The best plot twists in a good story, whether fictional or historical, are the ones that hindsight tells us we should have been able to predict, but didn’t because we were distracted by something else. Yet given enough monkeys with typewriters, there will always be somebody who called it right, whether by divine inspiration or by dumb luck.

The same will apply to Brexit. Fevered speculation at the moment is concentrating on a second referendum to reverse the outcome of the first, Article 50 never being invoked, a federal UK being both inside the EU and outside it simultaneously, England declaring independence from Scotland and other such clever, clever schemes. I’ve even indulged in it myself, enjoying the endless horizon of possibility. But there are constraints on the seemingly infinite selection of options available, and it is vastly more likely that the outcome will be disappointingly prosaic. So, in that spirit I’ll try to lay out the less clever scenarios that have some chance of actually happening.

Nothing

The “referendum, what referendum?” option.

It is entirely possible that nothing will happen, that Article 50 will never be invoked, that some excuse will be found to backtrack on the referendum result – but this would be a risky option to take, both domestically and in the EU. Domestically, simply ignoring a referendum result (no matter how many times you explain “non-binding”) would call into question the legitimacy of the government. And the UK’s position in the EU is already compromised – no political leader would be able to deal with the UK in good faith while the Damoclean sword of a surprise Brexit remained dangling overhead. Cooler heads will prevail, and talk of forcing the UK’s hand will quiet down, but toothpaste cannot be squeezed back into the tube, and nobody’s patience is infinite.

The only theoretical scenario where UK/EU relations could return to the status quo ante would be following a LibDem general election landslide on a manifesto commitment to grovel for forgiveness. Much more likely that the government would collapse, perhaps repeatedly, and the UK’s chair in Europe sits empty while the rest of the world moves on without it.

Likelihood: **… Tempting, but unsustainable.

Customs Union / Common Market

The Turkish option.

The Customs Union is one of the oldest parts of the EU, dating back to the EEC’s founding in the 1950s. It is likely that the UK will retain CU access in any negotiations, as its terms are relatively uncontroversial. It allows for tariff-free trade between its members, a common external tariff rate and a common negotiating position in trade talks with third countries (e.g. TTIP). There is no requirement for freedom of movement in the CU, so this would allow for the immigration changes that were the central issue in the Leave campaign.

The only wrinkle would be that some Leave campaigners (UKIP in particular) were in favour of “negotiating our own trade deals”, which is incompatible with CU membership, but of all the promises to take back this would be one of the easiest. And it could be argued that “access to the Single Market” would be satisfied by the Customs Union (“access to” being distinct from “membership of”).

Turkey, Andorra , San Marino and Monaco already have this relationship with the EU. Norway, Iceland, Liechtenstein and Switzerland however do not, the main sticking points being agriculture and fisheries which are protected by (mutually) high tariff barriers in each case.

Likelihood: ***** With or without SM, see below.

Single Market

The Swiss option.

People often talk about the Single Market as if it and the Common Market were synonymous, but the SM is a more recent development, coming in to force in stages leading up to (and beyond) the original target date of 31 Dec 1992. Its main innovation is the delegation of market regulation to the European institutions, in order to more quickly remove non-tariff barriers to trade between its members – earlier efforts having ground to a halt under repeated national vetoes. The SM is what most people think of when you say “EU”, and it is the creation of the SM that first caused the UK to rethink its relationship with the (then) EEC, leading to Thatcher’s handbag deployments and the Sun’s infamous “Up Yours Delors” front page.

It cannot be repeated often enough that it is the conditions of the Single Market (freedom of movement, laws written in Brussels, budget contributions) that the Leave campaign was aimed squarely at.

It is possible for the UK to stay in the Single Market, either through EEA membership (this would need the consent of Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein, which would complicate negotiations) or more likely through a Swiss-style bilateral treaty. In either case, it would mean reneging on some or all of the main promises of the Leave campaign. It is worth noting that the Swiss deal does not include financial services – the UK would be desperate to have these included, making its negotiating position in other areas weaker.

(There seems to be one school of thought among Leavers that the UK’s current predicament is the fault of weak politicians who won’t bang the table hard enough during negotiations, and that all the UK needs is a tougher stance to extract more concessions. To that hubris one can only say: if Thatcher’s handbag couldn’t get the concessions you want, what chance do you think you have?)

There is currently no non-EU country that is a member of both the Customs Union and the Single Market, but there is no reason in principle why this could not happen. In practice, simultaneous membership of the CU and SM is effectively full EU membership without the CAP and without a vote. It would be hard to sell any Single Market option (either inside or outside the CU) as a victory for democracy, and a Conservative government that came back with a deal that failed to address the three main Leave complaints (immigration, regulation, taxation) would be vulnerable to attack from UKIP (who are already positioning themselves in anticipation).

Despite those concerns CU+SM is the most likely scenario, one that most Remainers and a sufficient number of Leavers will accept. But because of those concerns, it will probably not be the last word on the subject.

Likelihood: ****. (with or without CU) Minimum economic chaos, maximum political chaos.

Scottish Independence

If Scotland wants to remain in the EU after Brexit, then the only way to do so is to declare independence from the UK. EU members are by definition signatories to the Treaty on European Union (aka the Maastricht Treaty), and only sovereign states under international law have the capacity to sign treaties. The Greenland precedent does not apply, because in that case it is Denmark who is the signatory and therefore the member. Opt-outs and opt-ins are not mirror images. Any territory wanting to be a member of the EU must do so via a sovereign signatory, whether that be itself or its parent state. That means that clever workarounds such as a federal UK will have no bearing on EU membership. You’re either a sovereign state or you’re not.

And this hard choice may be the undoing of Scottish independence, at least in the short term. Scottish resentment may have grown, but its economic predicament has just become more difficult – even setting aside the oil price. Before Brexit, it was a plank of the independence movement that an open border would remain between Scotland and the rUK on the same basis as its Irish counterpart. If the rUK tightens its immigration rules and/or leaves the customs union after Brexit, then a hard(er) border would have to be drawn.

It should be noted however that one commonly-cited impediment to Scottish independence within the EU is nonsense. Scotland cannot be forced to adopt the Euro if it does not want to, even if it is made to sign away the UK’s treaty exemption. Sweden shows the way:

Sweden maintains that joining the ERM II (a requirement for euro adoption) is voluntary, and has chosen to remain outside pending public approval by a referendum, thereby intentionally avoiding the fulfilment of the adoption requirements.

Likelihood: **… (Short term) ****. (Eventually)

The Catalan Precedent

The big “if”.

If both Brexit and Scottish independence happen, and if they happen within a short enough timeframe, it may be possible to strike a deal to allow Scotland to continue its EU membership – either by inheriting the UK’s membership at the moment of independence (which would require a feat of choreography and an innovative interpretation of international law) or by preparing well in advance so that Scotland could be admitted at the stroke of a pen afterwards. Scotland is currently enjoying a moment of remarkable goodwill, but this will only translate into a special arrangement if it can be written in a way that does not set a Catalan precedent, and therefore escapes a Spanish (or Belgian) veto.

A Catalan precedent would be set if the EU allowed a region of a member state to secede and afterwards join the EU without going through the full accession process from scratch (which under Article 49 can be vetoed by any member state). Spain fears that Catalonia and the Basque country would be encouraged to secede if they were able to join the EU afterwards, so threatens to use its Article 49 veto on their (hypothetical) membership applications. If a precedent were to be set that Article 49 could be bypassed, then this veto threat would be worthless. So Spain (and for similar reasons, Belgium) will in turn veto anything that might set such a precedent.

This was brought up in the original indyref as a stumbling block. Scottish independence would have to be followed by the full membership process, just like everyone else. This process would be shorter than for most countries, as Scotland already applies all relevant EU law, but would still be onerous. The UK might be able to persuade Spain and Belgium not to veto Scottish membership outright, on the basis that an amicable divorce would not set a precedent for a contentious one. But Article 49 would have to be obeyed.

In the case of Brexit, the UK would no longer be a member of the EU after Scottish independence – unlike the Catalan case where Spain would absolutely want to stay in – so it could (theoretically) be argued that this would not set a Catalan precedent either. But this decision would ultimately be a political one, and would depend heavily on the mood music. Expect utter carnage if Gibraltar comes up at any point in the discussions.

Likelihood: ????? This bookie is refusing to take bets.

The Irish Border

If the UK stays in the Customs Union then there will be no need for customs controls, and the smugglers will be disappointed – more so if the UK also stays in the Single Market. The great unknown then boils down mostly to immigration control. The current Common Travel Area arrangement relies on the immigration rules for the UK and Ireland remaining broadly equivalent. Shared membership (or non-membership) of the EU, and shared non-membership of Schengen meant that the two states were mostly free to arrange this between themselves. But if the UK tightens its rules regarding EU citizens then Ireland will, for the first time since independence, be unable to follow suit due to its EU obligations.

The only recourse in that event will be for the UK to impose immigration controls on travel to the UK from Ireland, to prevent EU citizens from entering the UK by the back door. Ireland may be able to get away without imposing controls, so long as UK immigration rules are consistently stricter (you only need to impose controls going from a less-strict jurisdiction to a more-strict one, not the other way).

If that is the case, then the most likely arrangement will be to impose controls at the sea/air border, on travel from the island of Ireland to GB. Security checks take place on all sea and air routes already, and these will be further hardened into de-facto immigration controls (but without admitting it, for fear of upsetting the unionists). This effectively leaves NI outside the UK border (and inside the EU) for immigration purposes, but inside the UK for all other purposes.

The price will be more sharing of data between the two border agencies, tolerating EU citizens entering NI so long as they don’t try to get a job, and annoying the unionists who see through it.

Likelihood: ****.

A Border Poll

There will be no border poll for the foreseeable future. The GFA is clear on the conditions, and any decision made by the SoS without supporting evidence would be subject to judicial review.

(And on a side note, Sinn Fein might take a leaf from Cameron’s book and stop banging on about about a border poll – it would do no harm to their unionist outreach programme, if they care about it that is…)

In the longer term however, there may be hints of movement. Young people-of-a-unionist-background of a liberal or left-wing persuasion have been openly questioning the UK government’s (and English voters’) ability to act in NI’s best interests, and their own commitment to a UK-wide identity. While this will not translate into any significant change on the border issue in the near future, it does demonstrate that young people-of-a-unionist-background (we really need better names for these things) do not have infinite patience with the UK government either.

And don’t forget, the practical arguments against a UI haven’t gone away you know.

Likelihood: ….. (Short term) ***.. (Eventually)

Renegotiation

The Hail Mary pass.

It is of course possible that more countries will threaten to follow the UK out the door. If this happens before the UK actually leaves, then there is a slim chance that they could collectively demand treaty change as a price for changing their minds. The UK by itself has already got as much as the EU will give, and has vanishing hope of yet another renegotiation (ah, go on). But with France, Netherlands, Denmark joining in?

Europe has always proceeded by crisis, but a treaty renegotiation in the middle of the current one may expose gulfs too wide to bridge. See the next option.

Likelihood: *…. Stranger things have happened.

Collapse

The hospital pass.

On the other hand, the spectacle of a second, and then a third country voting to leave the EU could trigger a mass loss of confidence and a sudden collapse. Morsels such as the Customs Union might be salvaged from the wreckage, but otherwise it would be a blank slate and a step into the great unknown. Governments freed from the corpus of EU law would be quick to enact reforms in the narrow national interest to deal with the economic and social fallout. Some of these reforms will be more effective than others, some will be less liberal than others and some will be downright nasty.

Likelihood: *…. Terrifyingly possible

(This post was first published over on Slugger)

The cure for creeping: four-state traffic lights

Since moving to Dublin, I’ve noticed a phenomenon that I don’t remember seeing in the north, and is rare even in Galway. At traffic lights, the first car in the queue will regularly start moving forwards long before the lights turn green. In extreme cases, presumably because the driver has misremembered the order of the phases, this can result in a car being left stranded in the middle of the junction while traffic from another direction attempts to negotiate around it.

I’m convinced (albeit unscientifically) that this results from the combination of two main factors: the desire, particularly common in cities, to be prompt in clearing the junction; and the lack of advance notice that a three-state traffic light provides. This results in a hair-trigger disposition in many drivers and a high rate of premature action.

To clarify, a three-state traffic light goes from green to amber to red on stop, but straight from red to green on start. This system is used in France, the US and the RoI (amongst others). The amber “prepare to stop” light is necessary to avoid a sudden change from green to red, which could obviously result in driver panic and serious accidents, but no similar facility exists going from red to green.

A four-state light, as found in the UK and Germany, adds a red+amber “prepare to go” state between red and green so that drivers do not need to remain in a prolonged state of readiness. This is useful for any vehicle that takes time to put into gear, or has a handbrake, or whose driver’s mind is likely to wander.

If the RoI were to introduce this fourth state into its traffic lights, I’m confident the incidence of creeping through red could be significantly reduced. And since all our new traffic lights are made in Germany by Siemens, the change is likely nothing more than a setting in the software, so could be introduced at minimal cost.

The flaxen revolution

I find myself in the unaccustomed, even uncomfortable position of agreeing with Jamie Bryson. This may be because in a democratic system at least some of the people are happy, while an undemocratic system is offensive to everyone except those in power (and in the case of NI, perhaps not even them).

NI is not a democracy, and grafting standard-issue “democratic institutions” on top of the current state of society will not magically make it one – we had those before in Old Stormont and it did not work. There are preconditions for majority rule to succeed as a democratic system – the willingness of voters to hold the elected to account by withholding or changing their vote; the commitment of the elected to act in the interest of those who did not vote for them; the resolve of both electors and elected to submit to the rule of law and uphold it impartially. None of these conditions prevailed in 1922 and few of them prevail today.

All this is well understood. What is less well understood is that the current system is not a route out of the undemocratic rut but merely a different, less violent rut. We must ask ourselves what we are trying to build – is it a society where power changes hands in the polling booth and the strong are accountable to the weak? Or is it merely a society where anyone likely to make trouble is kept placated with the spoils of office? We have achieved the latter, but seem as far away as ever from the former.

The usual argument against majority rule in NI is that the communal parties can’t be trusted with sole power, an argument given force by history. It is clear that whatever comes after must include safeguards against abuse of power at least as strong as the ones we have today. Those who wish to abolish mandatory coalition have proposed several alternatives, none entirely satisfactory. The most common are weighted or dual majorities, which require a majority of the entire Assembly and a minimum percentage of each community in order for a bill to pass (and in some variants, for the Executive to be elected). The problem comes when that minimum percentage is defined. Too low, and it raises the prospect that one particular party could be ganged up on and excluded forever, even if it were the largest single party. Too high, and it looks little different from mandatory coalition. It is not clear if a sweet spot exists, or if such a system would be sufficiently radical to be worth the effort.

The problem in all these proposals is that they treat the symptoms rather than the cause. Sectarian violence, cultural conflict and ethnic nationalism are far from unique problems – most countries have suffered to some degree from the same. What makes the few hard cases such as NI, Bosnia, and Lebanon special is the way these problems have so comprehensively infiltrated the political system. In each case, structures have been created to manage the symptoms of a dysfunctional politics – but the relationship between the system and its participants runs both ways. We soon find that because the structures of state have been shaped to fit the dysfunctional, only the dysfunctional fit into them.

On paper, there is little wrong with the Assembly as it stands. Everyone is represented, everyone gets a turn, nobody is excluded – and business can still continue if the participants are willing to compromise. The problem is prima facie not with the rules, but the players. However, there is little incentive for parties to compromise when the system rewards brinkmanship and extremism, so maybe the problem really is with the rules.

If we look at how Stormont differs from other, more successful systems, we see that the main innovations are motivated by the desire to prevent exclusion of one ethno-national grouping by another. This is understandable, as this is exactly the problem Old Stormont had, and the one that nationalists in particular still rightly fear. But it leaves as an unstated assumption that ethno-national groupings and political parties are more or less the same thing – and this is a peculiarly NI phenomenon. If we compare to the USA, where the treatment of the black minority was incomparably more brutal than anything dreamed up under unionist rule, we do not see a “black party” in permanent conflict with a “white party”. There may be imbalances in the percentages of different ethnic groups in the political parties, but these are as much a reflection of socioeconomic status as they are of identity. Before the Democrat Barack Obama, the most successful black politician in America was the Republican Colin Powell. The progress of black politicians is a bipartisan success story, and it is also in many ways a colour-blind one. Obama’s voting demographic was correlated with ethnic origin, but by nowhere near the degree we have come to expect in North Belfast.

Of course, black Americans do not seek the overthrow of the state. But if the polls are to be believed, neither do most Irish Nationalists. And in any case this in itself cannot be the reason for NI’s special problems, because Lebanon has no significant separatist movement and still suffered an ethno-religious civil war far worse than ours.

The common thread that separates Lebanon, Bosnia and ourselves from the US and other countries that are making progress with their divided past is the primacy of identity politics over practical considerations. Catholic Unionists and Protestant Shinners do exist, but they remain remarkable exceptions. Half-hearted “outreach” attempts are undertaken not in the hope of converting the doubtful, but of soothing those whose consciences are troubled by this obvious lack of progress.

Any attempt to fix NI must address this immovable object. Removing the Border from the competency of the Assembly was supposed to make normal politics possible. It did not. The constitutional question “went away”, but the parties merely found something else to fight over. Identity politics abhors a vacuum – no doubt if Westminster took flags and emblems off the hands of local politicians, they’d find some other reason to despise each other.

Because it’s not about the Border. It’s not about the flag, or a parade, or the Irish language. These things are excuses, rationalisations, bedtime stories we tell ourselves to make our own fears sound less preposterous. Greater problems have been solved over dinner and cigars. We can’t stand to make common cause with each other because in our gut we know we are still sharing a small box with someone, some thing that once hurt us. This is not going to be solved quickly. But we can make a conscious, rational decision to stop picking at the scab and making it worse.

The long term solution is the integration of our divided society. This will take generations, and it would be foolish to prejudge the details of the world that our grandchildren will build without us. The most important, the only important condition is that it is a whole society, where tales of unionists and nationalists are as misty and abstract as those of roundheads and cavaliers, and where children have to search the archives to discover which sides their ancestors were on.

The short term solution is to cut the Gordian knot of mutual suspicion and veto so that we can at least take the first steps. The current Assembly couldn’t even agree to save itself a fortune by merging two teacher training colleges, so there is no hope of it ever addressing an actual problem. Despite their protestations, the communal parties are too comfortable where they are right now, because getting where they are right now did not require them to grow, or learn. When SF and the DUP had a problem working together they fiddled the system so that they could avoid doing anything really difficult, such as voting for the same First Minister.

No, change is not going to come from within the Assembly – at least not with the current balance of parties. The first alternative is for the governments, perhaps again with the help of the Americans, to step in and impose order upon chaos. This seems unlikely, given the increasing signs of crisis fatigue amongst outsiders. And in the long term, this would perpetuate the infantilisation of NI, where the locals can’t be relied upon to sort themselves out and so will require feeding, changing and babysitting indefinitely. The other alternative is change imposed from below, from the electorate. But with turnout approaching 50% and new political parties failing to make headway, the only outlet remaining would appear to be the street.

And here I find myself agreeing with Bryson again, although for different reasons. Street politics comes in a variety of forms – sometimes joyful, sometimes angry, sometimes from the margins of society and sometimes pouring from every door and window. Sometimes the only way to fix a stagnant, failing system is with the collective will of millions. Sometimes all we need to do great things is the courage that comes from knowing that we are not alone. Sometimes society needs a little bit of revolution. A joyous, multi-coloured revolution.

A flaxen revolution?

Road numbering in NI is a mess

Any outsider trying to get from A to B in Northern Ireland would be best advised to invest in a satnav. People who regularly commute from Craigavon to Belfast are well accustomed to seeing cars with Dublin license plates barrelling westward on the M1 with panicked-looking drivers inside. This is because in the Republic, the powers that be have (sensibly) decided that a motorway should have the same number as the route that it replaces, which then reverts to a regional road with a different number. The concept of an M1 and an A1 going in completely different directions therefore takes people by complete surprise.

But that’s not all. Travelling from Belfast to Derry, one takes the M2, which is inexplicably renamed to the M22 shortly before downgrading to the A6*. One end of the M1 becomes the A4, but the other end becomes the A12. When driving from Derry to Coleraine one should not stay on the A2 for the full distance unless a scenic detour is desired. And nobody in their right mind would drive from Armagh to Newtownhamilton using the A29 via Keady. Then there are several routes that fork so that they have three or more ends (A2 in Derry, B2 in Lurgan, B3 in Gilford, B95 every half a mile…) and two that share the same number (A37 at Coleraine and also at Crossmaglen). It’s almost as if the person who was dishing out the numbers came in with a hangover one morning and forgot what he’d done the night before.

Several decades ago, the Republic completely renumbered all of its roads. The new system is consistent, logical and future proof. I would propose a limited renumbering of NI’s trunk routes on a similar basis, with the primary aim of making life easier for drivers of strategic traffic, who may not be familiar with the idiosyncrasies of the current system.

  • The renumbering would initially apply only to motorways, primary strategic routes and a few other border-crossing roads that connect to the Republic’s N routes.
  • Where routes cross the border they would have the same number on both sides.
  • Routes would use the same number for their entire length, the only change being an M to indicate a motorway.
  • The ultimate destination of each route would be clearly signposted, even if it was on the other side of the border (with one exception).
  • Route numbers would not need to be unique across the island, but would be chosen to minimise confusion and represent the relative importance of the routes.

The last point is important – this is an NI-specific scheme, and would be defined independently of the Republic’s system (making it easier to implement both logistically and politically). It would however be coordinated on a best effort basis, in the same way that neighbouring counties in the U.S. often coordinate the numbers of their border-crossing county roads while freely duplicating others. Strategic routes in NI would use a novel prefix (S for “strategic”, say) to avoid any ambiguity.

This scheme would entail significant costs, so would probably only happen as part of a larger project, perhaps including bilingual signage and/or metrication.

The new routes would be:

Primary Strategic Routes

  • S1 – A1 Sprucefield to Dublin (=N1)
  • S2 – A5 Derry to Dublin (=N2)
  • S3 – A509, A46 Dublin to Ballyshannon (via Enniskillen) (=N3)
  • M10, S10 – M2, M22, A6, A514 Belfast to Derry
  • M11, S11 – A8(M), A8 Glengormley to Larne
  • M12, S12 – M12, A3 Craigavon to Monaghan (=N12)
  • M13, S13 – A26, M2, A26, A37(N), A2, A515, A2 Antrim to Letterkenny (via Coleraine and Derry) (=N13)
  • M16, S16 – A12, M1, A4 Belfast to Sligo (=N16)
  • M31, S31 – M5, A2 Belfast to Carrick
  • M32, S32 – M3, A2 Belfast to Bangor

Concession Routes

These short (<5km each) border-crossing sections are not considered strategic routes by NI but are by the Republic and should have consistent signage (and quality) within NI for driver convenience (and safety). It might be best if any signs on the NI side showed only the Republic’s N designations, to avoid unnecessary confusion.

  • S14 – A38 Strabane to Letterkenny (=N14)
  • S53 – A37(S) Dundalk to Castleblayney (=N53)
  • S54 – A3 Monaghan to Cavan (=N54)

S15 is reserved. The N15 joins the N14 immediately on the Republic side of the border, and so may also be signposted from within NI.

All the numbers above match those used in the Republic apart from:

  • N10 is a short route in Kilkenny that arguably doesn’t justify a low number now that the M9 exists.
  • N11 is used for the Dublin to Rosslare route, but both N11 and S11 are part of the greater Larne to Rosslare strategic route, so the numbers do not conflict.
  • N31 is a short route used for access to the port of Dun Laoghaire.
  • N32 was once used for a very short section of road near Malahide that has since been detrunked.

The numbers have been chosen so that major strategic routes have satisfyingly low numbers (fortunately the Republic numbers roads from north to south so all border-crossing roads have low numbers already) and also so as not to use a number that the Republic might choose in the future for a road close to the border (it hasn’t yet reused a deallocated number).

The S1 does not extend the entire way to Belfast but terminates on the M16. The M12 also violates the rule of thumb that side branches should have higher numbers than the parent route. I consider this preferable to having motorways change number partway down their length. The S13 is not the preferred route between its end points (and so should not be signposted end to end), however it is the preferred route between any other two significant towns along its length.**

Future application to other trunk routes

This scheme could easily be extended to all other trunk routes in NI. If so, then they might be assigned numbers greater than 100, as south of the border these are reserved for minor roads. Currently trunk roads in NI are defined chronologically rather than geographically, and follow some bizarre routes which appear designed to use the fewest route numbers rather than define routes that a driver would find useful. Fortunately these trunk numbers are not used on signage, but it would be sensible to redefine trunk roads using the new numbering to minimise the number of different schemes in use. The 15 additional trunk routes would then be (roughly anti-clockwise around Belfast):

  • S100 – A55 Outer Ring
  • S101 – A44 Ballymena to Ballycastle
  • S102 – A36 Ballymena to Larne
  • S103 – A57 Larne to Aldergrove
  • S104 – A26 Antrim to Moira
  • S105 – A31, A29, A505, A32 Castledawson to Enniskillen
  • S106 – A29 Coleraine to Armagh
  • S107 – A28 Aughnacloy to Newry
  • S108 – A27 Portadown to Newry
  • S109 – A2 Newry to Warrenpoint
  • S110 – A24, A2 Belfast to Newcastle
  • S111 – A7 Belfast to Downpatrick
  • S112 – A22 Belfast to Comber
  • S113 – A20 Belfast to Newtownards
  • S114 – A21 Bangor to Comber

Trunk roads leading into Belfast (other than the three main motorways) would terminate on the Outer Ring. There are also several roads that use green signage (such as the A11 Belfast Inner Ring) but which are not legally defined as trunk roads. To minimise confusion, this practice should be discontinued.

Minor routes

The inconsistencies with minor routes could be individually addressed. There is little justification for a costly wholesale renumbering of non-trunk routes. The division into A, B and C classes is broadly sensible as it reflects the importance of a route and thereby implies the standard of road a driver should expect. Usually.

Some suggestions:

  • Renumber the B32 to A29 so that the A29 runs straight up the high street of Keady and out the Castleblayney road. The old A29 from Keady to Newtownhamilton could then be an extension of the B132, and the B31 would continue on the mainline from Armagh to Dundalk (no need for an A classification as the preferred route goes via Newry).
  • The Tandragee-Keady-Monaghan, Lurgan-Scarva and Loughbrickland-Rathfriland branches of the B3 should get separate numbers. The Scarva-Loughbrickland section is of such poor quality that it should probably be downgraded.
  • The B2 is a shattered mess. There are several identifiable sections: 1. a sensible section from Downpatrick to Lurgan. 2. a hairpin shaped section from Lurgan to Portadown via Charlestown. This should be renumbered. 3. A section from Lurgan to Tandragee which never matched the signposted route between the two towns and has anyway since been partially overbuilt. This should be both renumbered and rerouted so that it uses the Tandragee Road to go to Tandragee. 4. The Clare Road beyond Tandragee should be renumbered as an extension of the B131.
  • The B95 also has several distinct branches: 1. Antrim to Ballyclare 2. Antrim to M2 J6 3. Templepatrick to Glengormley. 4. Scullions Road, Mayfield Link, Upper Hightown Road 5. Hightown Road (due for demotion once Mayfield Link is complete?). Each of these should have a distinct number.

One would think numbers were a scarce resource, observing the absurdities that the Roads Service creates in trying to avoid assigning new ones. Bypass schemes have historically resulted in the bypassed sections being awkwardly renumbered as extensions of other, unrelated roads. There does seem to be an emerging standard whereby downgraded sections of road are given new codes by appending digits to the old ones but this is not consistently applied. It should be.

(*) there is a good historical reason for this, which will never be relevant again

(**) A good general principle for route numbering would be to adopt the notion of a geodesic from geometry, thereby ensuring that a numbered route will travel in a broadly consistent direction along its entire length (which is obviously not always the case at the moment). We could define a “geodesic condition” so that a numbered route should describe a best path across the landscape that cannot be improved by incremental detours along roads of similar quality. For example, the B3 between Gilford and Loughbrickland is not a geodesic, as it does not follow the the signposted “best” route between those towns. A geodesic road may not always be the preferred route between its end points, as the existence of a high quality road does not negate the need for a parallel minor road. A ring road may be a geodesic, if it beats driving through the centre of town.