Clean hands

FitzJamesHorse pithily describes the formality that Irish is the “first national language” as Ireland’s “first national hypocrisy”. But Ireland is not short of hypocrisies. Its second national hypocrisy has long been the pretence that Ireland is somehow free of the sin of abortion. And to this list we should add a third, the conceit that Ireland is a “neutral country”.

The second and third national hypocrisies are remarkably similar. In both cases Ireland has dodged a controversial issue by washing its hands, in the sure and certain knowledge that its old enemy next door will pick up the slack. Just as the NHS in Liverpool has allowed Ireland to keep pretending that pregnancies never go wrong, the RAF at Brize Norton and the Royal Navy in Portsmouth allow it to pretend that fish poaching is its gravest military threat. When Russian bombers skirt Irish air space, it is the RAF that intercepts. When destroyers cruise near its coast, it is the Royal Navy that follows alongside.

Ireland is a proudly independent state, but a passive spectator in its own air and sea defence. Ireland’s army is widely respected, and justifiably so. For an island country in no immediate danger of land invasion, its armed forces are highly effective at the roles they have chosen to take on. But for an island country bordering some of the world’s busiest shipping lanes, its coast guard navy and propeller-powered air force might as well not exist.

Like it or not, military defence is still important. The world is still recovering from the Great Recession, economic imbalances have not been addressed, and populist nationalism is on the rise. A superpower conflict in Europe is thinkable again after nearly 30 years of comparative harmony. History teaches us three potentially relevant lessons. Economic collapse increases the chances of military conflict; the new conflict is never the same as the old one; and military neutrality is a strategy, not a principle.

Neutrality, like any military policy, only exists to the extent that it can be enforced. Declarations of neutrality in the face of open aggression are as ineffective as thoughts and prayers. Belgium declared itself neutral at the outbreak of the Second World War, as did the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. All were conquered without a second thought. What saved the likes of Ireland, Sweden and Switzerland from occupation was either military strength, political submission, or strategic irrelevance.

During the Cold War Ireland enjoyed a uniquely privileged position. Far behind the Iron Curtain, detached from the mainland and lacking heavy industry, it was unlikely to be the scene of a ground invasion. And with the superpowers facing each other across the Arctic, it was never going to be as useful to air defence as Canada, Iceland or Norway. But the unspoken truth was that Ireland was trying as hard as it could to pass unnoticed.

The voluntarily neutral countries on the front line of the Iron Curtain – Sweden, Switzerland, Yugoslavia and (after 1968) Albania – maintained significant armed forces to deter invasion, not because they were important in themselves but because, like Belgium in 1939, they were in the way. Finland and Austria had neutrality imposed upon them as the price of their independence. Every other European country larger than Malta joined one of the main military alliances – with the notable exception of Ireland.

Rolling up like a hedgehog is a good defensive strategy for a small neutral country, one that Switzerland has employed for centuries. But to be a hedgehog, one needs spikes – and Ireland has never invested in a meaningful national defence. The other option is to get somebody else to protect you – but this means either an explicit deal with equitable terms and conditions, or subservience to someone else’s interests. If you can’t defend (or buy a defence of) your territory on your own terms, someone else will defend it on theirs.

Or as Trotsky might have put it: you may not be interested in war, but war is interested in you.

When it comes to the old enemy, Ireland remembers everything yet learns nothing. It cherishes every remembered consequence of occupation, settlement, annexation and rebellion, but has never fully come to terms with the cause, or its implications. Ireland was not conquered for its oil or its gold. Ireland was conquered for its coastline. If England had not secured Ireland for itself, Spain or France would have done it instead. Both tried, and it is only a roll of the historical dice that they failed.

Ireland was conquered precisely because it was neutral and undefended, and the lesson that Ireland learned from the experience is that being neutral and undefended is akin to sainthood.

And so Ireland indulges itself in doublethink. It is fully committed to its deep economic ties with its European and American friends and partners, but refuses to openly acknowledge that military interests will inevitably align with economic ones. When challenged on this, Irish politicians trot out the same list of contradictory excuses. Irish diplomacy is dependent on neutrality, even though Norwegian diplomacy is not. Military spending diverts precious funds, even though the US built its post-war economy on it. And the best thing we can do to advance global security is to stand back and let the grown-up countries deal with it, because the most important thing is that we don’t get our own hands dirty.

Just like abortion.

(Originally published on Slugger)

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The vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility.

The slippery slope argument is a well-known logical fallacy for two reasons. Firstly, it is almost universally wrong. Secondly, it is almost universally believed. This is because human beings are innately loss-averse, preferring the certainty of the here and now (however imperfect) to the unknown possibilities of change.

It is only when the here and now crosses a significant threshold of imperfection that uncertainty begins to look inviting. The mildly discontented compare the known and the unknown and say “don’t rock the boat, it could be worse”. The strongly discontented make the same comparison and say “anything would be better than this”.

This is the fundamental distinction between conservatism and radicalism. It is common in the West to assume that “conservative” is a synonym for “right-wing” but this is not strictly true. Margaret Thatcher fit the description of the classical social conservative but her economic reform programme was profoundly radical, coming from a conviction that the economy was in terminal decline and could only be rescued by extreme measures. During the putsch against Mikhail Gorbachev in 1991, the “conservative” faction consisted of the hard-boiled gerontocrats of the unreformed Communist Party, and the radicals were Yeltsin and his free-market advisers.

So conservatism-with-a-small-c is not a left- or right-wing label, but a resistance to movement, in any direction, away from the established local norm. And a little bit of conservatism is usually good for you, as it discourages hasty change and allows space for due reflection before taking action. But too much conservatism, too acute a fear of the mythical slippery slope, leads inevitably to paralysis.

Unionism (in a UK context at least) is a fundamentally small-c conservative position, in that it is primarily concerned with the risks of change. A mild form of conservatism would seek to manage these risks without ruling out change entirely. But the Northern Irish version often tends towards resisting change at any cost, and this resistance to change is not limited to the constitutional question.

Conservatism, like other broad -isms such as fundamentalism or liberalism, is not a logical position so much as it is an emotional one, a conviction born of temperament rather than intellect. Someone who is conservative on constitutional matters will tend to be conservative in other political areas, because they employ the same emotional vocabulary.

And we can see a broad party-political correlation between constitutional, social and economic conservatism. No matter how much one may argue that gay marriage has nothing to do with national identity, it is still remarkable how strongly aligned the conservative-radical axis is in both matters. This correlation is stronger in party politics, where following the agreed line is expected, than it is in the opinion pages, where free-thinking political catholicism (with a small c) is more acceptable.

The DUP can therefore be understood on one level as a small-c conservative party, one which is quite content (unlike Thatcher) to drink the milk of government subvention, while standing firm against both social reform and constitutional uncertainty. They look out across the vast, terrifying vista of boundless possibility and see only lions and tigers and bears.

And yet they voted for Brexit.

Because the DUP are also a deeply fundamentalist party. Religiously fundamentalist due to their roots in evangelical Protestantism, with its emphasis on returning to a simpler time when the faithful communed directly with God; but also politically fundamentalist, clinging to a concept of Westphalian sovereignty that dates from a simpler time, when a country could do whatever it liked within its own borders.

This “return to a simpler time” trope is key: while religious and political fundamentalisms may style themselves as “more authentic” forms of conservatism, they are not conservative at all. Because to make the world that they desire, they need to unmake the world that exists now. By trying to retreat into a sketchily-remembered past, they are just as radical as those who want to rush headlong into a sketchily-conceived future.

The nostalgic line drawings of Brexit fundamentalism could no better survive harsh reality than the idealistic line drawings of Communism. And yet simplistic ideas are seductive precisely because of their simplicity. The modern world is complex, baffling, exhausting. Simplicity is bliss.

And so the DUP, like their big-C Conservative allies, find themselves torn between their small-c conservative and radical wings – and in both cases the conservative factions are the pragmatic centrists, while the radical factions are the fundamentalist Brexiteers.

The triumph of the radicals may also help to explain their sudden onset of incompetence. Because when one is defending a strongly conservative position, all one needs to do is obstruct. The DUP’s infamous immovability is highly adapted to slow down processes, drag out negotiations and force the opposition to exhaust themselves into submission.

But this tactic does not work when one’s position is radically fundamentalist. Brexit is about action and change, and it is the EU’s institutional apparatus that is the conservative boulder in the road. Europe is standing still and the UK is the one squabbling itself into submission.

The DUP can’t stonewall Michel Barnier, because he is the conservative now, and the DUP are the radicals. They are the ones who took the leap into the brave unknown. And they’re still struggling to understand what just happened.

(Originally posted on Slugger)

Surf and turf

As blogger David Allen Green has pointed out, whoever produces the first draft of a legal document has the advantage. While the EU has been criticised for its backstop-Brexit draft, the UK has conspicuously failed to produce any draft at all, and shows no signs of doing so. The final transition agreement is thus unlikely to differ from the EU’s draft in anything other than some finer details and cosmetic language.

This was of course predicable and widely predicted back in December.

90% of the backstop draft is legalese for “the UK is out on its ear after the transition period ends, but anything that is in progress at that moment remains under EU jurisdiction until it is finished.” The other 10% reads (more or less) “the trade border will be in the Irish Sea unless the UK comes up with something that we like better in the meantime.”

The UK is not toast by any means. This agreement is still just a slightly altered default position, the current default being a catastrophic, no-transition crashout at midnight on March 31st 2019. All of the language is designed so that if some better agreement were to be reached within the transition period, this agreement could be washed away.

But the EU’s draft is important in that it narrows the menu of possible outcomes to three broad categories. Like an office christmas party, the choice will be surf, turf or vegetarian, with the only variation available being the style of potatoes.

Firstly, the red-meat turf option. Until a withdrawal agreement is signed, a no-deal hard Brexit is always a possibility. At best, this would be WTO rules on day one. Or the UK might follow through on its threat to ignore WTO rules requiring border customs controls, and thereby start a trade war with just about everyone that matters. Or it could fail to join the WTO, and throw itself on the mercy of the open sea. Given that the UK would have just violated a solemn agreement with the largest trade bloc in the world, mercy would not be forthcoming.

None of the above are appetising, but all are quite possible. And all would inevitably mean a hard border in the terrain, whether on the UK’s orders, the EU’s, or the WTO’s.

So perhaps surf would be more digestible. The backstop agreement, or some derivative of it, could be agreed now, but the long-term relationship talks could fail. This would mean that the backstop deal would become reality on 31st December 2020 and the border would remain in the sea. Unionists would be horrified, but some of the little-Englander Brexiteers might see it as a price worth paying.

Or thirdly, vegetarianism. A close, permanent trading accord could be agreed in the 21-month transition period. Perhaps nothing in the backstop deal might have to be implemented. But any alteration would certainly come at a cost to the UK’s red lines, leaving carnivorous Brexiteers dissatisfied. And based on the current government’s track record, it would likely be a humiliation.

At the moment the vegetarian option looks most likely, despite the political chaos it would cause in Westminster. This is because of two plain facts. Firstly, the UK doesn’t have an alternative on the table. And secondly, once the backstop deal is signed, it’s either a surf border or I Can’t Believe It’s Not Brexit. And a surf border is anathema to both Remainers and Brexiteer unionists.

With luck, unionists and Remainers will come to understand that they are on the same side. But there could be another two years of political histrionics before that decision becomes inevitable.

The only plausible get-out-of-jail-free card for the carnivores would be a swift and decisive border poll. But that decision is entirely out of their hands.

(Originally published on Slugger)

And man created the nation in his own image

When we say we belong to a particular ethnicity or nationality, we are implicitly saying that we share traits in common with the other members of this group. Or are we saying that the other members of this group share traits in common with us? There is a subtle but important distinction.

In the popular imagination, the formation of an ethnic or national identity is an objective process whereby the members of the group find commonalities amongst themselves and thereby come to regard each other as kinsmen. But people are rarely objective. Our views of ourselves do not necessarily match those others have of us, and our views of them will not always match their self-image.

This is particularly problematic when disparate groups come (or are forced) together to form a larger grouping. Group A may see themselves as kinsmen of group B, but the feeling may not be reciprocated. This is because even though A’s self-image may correspond to their image of B, B’s self-image may not correspond to their image of A. This error can come about in two ways – either one does not fully understand one’s own identity and fills in the blanks from an outside source (so-called “false consciousness”), or one does not fully understand the identity of others and projects one’s own identity onto them. This can be illustrated by considering the relationships between the English, the Scots, and Irish unionists and nationalists (being aware of course that these terms are woefully inadequate).

Many people consider the English and the Scots as kinsmen in a British nation. But if you ask a sample of Englishmen and a sample of Scotsmen to define “Britishness” you will get a wide range of answers. John Major’s famous response to this question – long shadows on cricket grounds and warm beer – would strike most outside observers as a description of Englishness rather than Britishness. In this case an Englishman has projected an English identity onto Britain as a whole. The Scots and the Welsh are less likely to make this error, having a heightened awareness of their relative size and status.

Unionists are often accused of a similar offence, although this time as a minority projecting their own identity onto a much larger group. It has been remarked that the Ulster-Unionist vision of Britishness is not the same one that the English or Scots see, Orangeism being one notable divergence. In addition, many unionists self-identify solely as “British”, without even any regional qualification. This has led to accusations of false consciousness, of adopting another’s identity to replace their own.

But this is a misunderstanding – one only has to watch an international football match to understand that unionists are viscerally aware of the distinction between their own identity and that of the English, Scots and Welsh. The adoption of “British” as a self-identifier is not due to the lack of an identity, but partly at least to the lack of a better name. Euphemisms exist, but none of them are accurate. Bluntly descriptive names exist, but none of them are considered polite.

And yet there is still confusion over symbolism – Union flags and GSTQ are used as local identifiers by Englishmen and unionists alike (in contrast to the Scots and Welsh), suggesting that there is still something partially-formed about both identities. This confusion is infectious – in the Republic, it is my experience that many people think that unionists believe themselves to be English. But then, people in the Republic have an understanding of the term “British” that no unionist would recognise.

Similarly, nationalists have often been accused of projecting their own identity onto all Irishmen, unionists included. Indeed, the fear of ethnic homogenization was one factor behind the creation of a distinct unionist identity out of previously separate (monarchist) Protestant and (republican) Dissenter factions. Accusing all Nationalists of operating a cultural steamroller is preposterous, not to mention insulting. But the unionist fear of it is very real, and this also drives the adoption of the larger, more powerful, British identity in preference to any local equivalent.

The challenge to both political Unionism and political Nationalism alike is how to build a common identity that can transcend both Ulster Britishness and northern Irishness, when both those local identities define themselves in opposition to the other’s chosen collective identity. “Ulster is British!” and “the Six Counties are Irish!” are both statements of a larger political conflict, where rival states clash over territory. But they are also simultaneously about a smaller identity conflict, where each group refuses on principle to conform to the other’s expectations.

(This article originally appeared on Slugger)

Shibboleth and sibhialtacht

The Irish-language issue is back in the headlines again. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Linda Ervine, it is still the case that most ethnic-unionists define themselves at least in part by their rejection of the Irish language. Never mind that some of their ancestors must have spoken it, as evidenced in many cases by their own surnames. Unionists have abandoned the mother tongue of their ancestors in much the same way that German-descended Americans have abandoned theirs.

While other Americans cling proudly to their double-barrelled identities, German-Americans are now identifiable only by their names, and their culture is simply called “American”. Much of this was down to anti-German sentiment during the First World War, when “liberty sausages” were the original “freedom fries”. German-Americans were forced to choose between their past and their future, and their history became the price of their prosperity.

The Gaelic Irish ancestors of today’s unionists had a similar choice imposed upon them, and they too gave up their language (and religion) in order to secure their place in a hostile environment. The melting pot that eventually became unionism inherited not only the Planter’s disinterest in a language that held no cultural resonance, but also the ex-Gael’s conviction that the Irish language, like the Catholic church, was a prison from which they had been liberated.

Ethnic-unionists don’t just happen to not speak Irish. They are partly the descendants of those Gaels who intentionally left the language behind, and this active rejection, clouded by the passage of time, became part of the founding myth of unionism. When campaigners argue (correctly) that the Irish language is part of our shared heritage, they’re not being as persuasive as they think they are. Unionists know this already. It’s precisely what they’re afraid of.

One commonly-proposed “compromise”, that Irish should only be used or promoted in those areas where it is wanted, is merely another example of the shared-out future that has allowed politicians to evade the hard but necessary decisions. Instead of tattered flags flying from lampposts, ethnic ghettos would be identified by shiny, state-funded signage. It is hard to see how this would help to bring communities closer together.

Surely it would be better for Nationalists to compromise on the extent of any ILA in order to ensure that it comes free of any taint of segregation. Not every victory has to be achieved in the first campaign. An explicit commitment that English would remain the first language of NI would cost nothing. Campaigners should also be careful not to conflate cultural preservation with anti-discrimination. They may overlap, but they are not the same.

And it would be wise of Unionists to back down from their not-an-inch opposition and debate the legislation on its detail, rather than its symbolism. For the immediate future, the direction of change in NI is inevitably going to be away from Unionism’s comfort zone. The rebalancing of power between Unionism and Nationalism is not yet over, and political Unionism does not have a stellar track record of managing expectations.

Like all the rest of NI’s most intractable problems, the issue here is not some technicality that can be engineered around. It is a matter of face, perception, status and fear.

(This post appeared originally on Slugger)

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.

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)