Populism and publicity

Whether Peter Casey deliberately indulged in a little bit of demagoguery as a last resort to save his dying campaign, or stumbled upon it by happy accident in an unguarded moment, only Peter Casey knows for sure. But enough has been said about the particulars already, and this post will resist adding further to the noise. Given sufficient time and numbers, there will always be someone who crosses the line. The more important issue to consider is society’s response, and in this instance we have seen that Ireland is unexceptional.

The paradox of the news is that it consists mainly of newsworthy events, but events that are commonplace are not newsworthy. News is by definition unrepresentative of reality. Rare events such as plane crashes and natural disasters are vastly over-represented, while everyday occurrences are ignored. “Politician says something sensible” will never hold the front page, but “politican causes outrage” will be splashed across every screen.

The news thereby acts as a positive feedback mechanism, where each trip around the news cycle boosts the perceived importance of the issue in question – so long as there is something different to be said each time. The greatest hurdle on the way to domination of the headlines is getting onto the publicity merry-go-round in the first place.

Publicity is just another form of wealth and, like all forms of wealth, you need to have it to make it. Seed capital is everything, and when you are a relative minnow the trick is to stand out from the pack. In a civilised democracy, the easiest way to break free of the political peloton is to say something mildly uncivilised.

And if your momentary newsworthiness pushes you significantly ahead of the rest, the news cycle will multiply your lead – so long as you can keep saying newsworthy things. If you already had meaningful ideas, you can quietly drop the uncivilised stuff after it has done its job of getting you onto the front page. Many otherwise serious politicians succumb to this temptation now and again.

But there are also those who don’t have anything much to say beyond cheap scandal. Their only recourse is then to keep saying uncivilised things to ride the publicity of outrage. And these are the ones who are dangerous, because after a while the Overton window moves, and mild incivility becomes normalised. Ever more outrageous incivility is required to stay newsworthy.

How can democracies resist the positive-feedback cycle of publicity power? We can draw parallels with monetary power, where the rich are taxed heavily to pay for wealth redistribution. But in this imperfect analogy the demagogues and populists would still ride in the vanguard of opinion; the goal should surely be to prevent populism from gaining traction in the first place.

Some would have the news media simply ignore populists and demagogues, to avoid giving them the oxygen of publicity. But this asks news media to act as gatekeepers of acceptable political opinion, which runs counter to the fundamentals of liberal democracy.

I don’t have the answers. But these are the questions we should be asking urgently, before Ireland falls prey to a competent populist like Orban or Trump. The Republic’s political class would be well advised to examine the history of Northern Ireland politics from the 1960s onwards, because part of Ireland already has fallen for demagoguery, and it took half a century to row back from the edge.

This article was originally published on Slugger.

Bitcoin must die

The UN this week released a report urging world governments to take immediate action to mitigate the effects of the coming climate catastrophe. It is no longer a case of whether catastrophe is coming. It is just a matter of how bad it will get. When tackling any problem two approaches can be taken, which are often complementary. The long term approach is to restructure the root causes and so lay the groundwork for lasting change. This takes political will, sacrifice and hard work. But there is also the low-hanging fruit, immediate action that can be taken to get the ball rolling, to make an impact straight away.

The rise of Bitcoin has brought blockchain technology to world attention. Blockchain ledgers are a genuine solution to an important (if often overstated) category of distributed computing problems. But at the heart of Bitcoin is another, older technology called proof-of-work (PoW), and because of this legacy Bitcoin is now a significant contributor to global energy consumption. And unlike other forms of energy consumption, such as aviation fuel or heating oil, Bitcoin could be shut down tomorrow without harming individual lives or the overall economy.

In fact, putting Bitcoin to death will help save both the economy and the environment.

We must be careful to distinguish between blockchain ledgers and proof-of-work, because they are separate things that just happen to have been combined to make Bitcoin. There are energy-efficient ways of managing blockchain ledgers, such as proof-of-stake algorithms. Some of these algorithms are already being implemented by rival cryptocurrency schemes, and such schemes are not the subject of this post. PoW is however the most commonly used mainly because it is simpler to implement, and also because so much of the blockchain ecosystem is built on top of Bitcoin, the first successful implementation.

PoW is obscenely wasteful, consuming more electricity than all of Ireland to generate an endless stream of mathematical garbage. To understand why, we need to understand how this garbage is made.

The guessing game

Proof-of-work is based on mathematical hashing operations that are similar to encryption, only irreversible. Think of encryption like a Rubik’s cube – one sequence of operations will turn a solved cube into a scrambled cube, and the inverse sequence of operations will unscramble it. Every step in the process is perfectly reversible.

Hashing intentionally avoids reversible processes. A good hash algorithm is a mathematical mincer, chewing up its input until it is not only scrambled but effectively destroyed. But if you look at the minute details of the mincemeat produced, different inputs will produce outputs that are (almost) never twice the same. And because this is a precision mathematical mincer, two identical inputs will always produce identical outputs. One can tell that they used to be the same, just not what they used to be the same as. We can identify what input produced a particular output – but only by taking a guess, mincing it up and comparing the scrambled outputs. This brute force guessing game gets tedious very quickly, its difficulty increasing exponentially as the size of the input increases.

So it is usually sufficient to only store and compare a small amount of hash output. This increases the chance that two different inputs will produce the same output (a hash collision), but the probability that any two randomly chosen inputs will collide is small. Just as a partial fingerprint is enough to identify a suspect, even a short hash is sufficient to identify an input to a high degree of confidence. The chances of randomly finding a match for a three digit hash is 999:1. For six digits it is 999999:1. For the most secure hashes in common use today it is 2^256:1 (1 followed by 77 zeros).

Yet these high-security hashes are still just 78 digits long, and can be calculated from an input of unlimited size. Hashing is therefore used wherever one wants to compare two things without revealing in advance what is being compared, and without having to store full size encrypted copies. Digital signatures, password databases, integrity checking, all rely on both the storage efficiency of hashing and its resistance to brute force guesswork.

But what if it was all a game, and we wanted someone to guess the answer? Then we would reduce the size of our hash output until it becomes possible to find a solution by trying every valid input in turn. We generate a target output by some prearranged method and challenge our gamers to find an input that produces it. This solution would not be unique – for every output there are an infinite number of possible inputs because we have not specified a particular size, and doing so may inadvertently make the puzzle impossible. The crucial feature is that solutions are hard to find, but once found are easy to check.

The solution itself is worthless trivia, useless for anything other than proving that you really did the hard work searching for it.

Lighting a cigar with a $100 bill

Such proof-of-work games serve one purpose only, to be a public demonstration of computational excess. One early antispam proposal, called Hashcash, proposed that every email sent should have a PoW solution attached. The puzzle would depend on the full details of the email in question, meaning it had to be computed afresh for every message and every recipient. Any email without a valid PoW solution attached would be treated as spam. The difficulty would be calibrated so that sending small volumes of email would be mildly inconvenienced, but a high-volume low-margin spam campaign would be prohibitively expensive.

Hashcash was never used for antispam, but it was reborn a decade later as a way to ensure that only one block of transactions at a time could be written to the Bitcoin public ledger. To add a new block, one of the self-appointed accountants of Bitcoin must solve a Hashcash puzzle generated using the contents of previous blocks. The solution then becomes part of the puzzle for the next block, ensuring that transactions are appended in a strict sequence and inconsistencies can be immediately detected. So long as no one person owns enough computational power to find two valid but contradictory solutions in less time than it takes someone else to find just one, inconsistent (i.e. fraudulent) transactions can be immediately detected and deleted.

Crucially, being the first to solve the puzzle gives the winner the right to create (or “mine”) some new bitcoins, a lucrative prize. And this is where economics takes over. If you give people money for solving useless puzzles, they will solve useless puzzles day and night so long as the prize money exceeds the costs. And as the price of bitcoin has soared, so more people have decided to play the hashcash game, by investing in ever larger, ever more electricity-hungry mining computers.

Equilibrium is reached when the total value of bitcoins mined globally per day matches the total cost of running the equipment. And since Bitcoin is designed to self-regulate so that new coins are produced at a roughly constant rate, the total value of coins mined depends almost entirely on the bitcoin exchange rate. The higher the price of bitcoin, the more mining is done, the more electricity is consumed, and the more mathematical garbage is calculated.

The unintended consequence of this is that the Bitcoin blockchain will consume as much electricity as Austria by the end of this year.

Ashes to ashes

If you turn gold into a coin, the gold still exists. Resources have not been destroyed, just altered. If you turn paper into a banknote you spend some resources to get it printed, but many times less than its face value, and when the banking system collapses you can use the banknote for toilet paper – because that’s all it ever was. If you use electricity to solve a hashcash puzzle, the valuable (and polluting) ton of fuel that was burned to generate it is gone forever, yet the puzzle solution contains no value outside the Bitcoin system. It thereby combines the worst of both gold-backed and fiat currency.

Unlike gold coinage, which is expensive to produce but also represents an independent store of wealth, or fiat currency that has no intrinsic value but is cheap to produce, Bitcoin is neither cheap to make nor a reliable store of value. It is unique among modern currencies because its value depends not on how much wealth its backers have locked away in a safe, or on how much wealth is contained in their national economy, but on how much wealth they have set on fire.

There is a historical precedent though. In many pre-industrial societies cowry shells were used as currency. This had the unfortunate side effect that you could literally fish money out of the sea. In more advanced shell currencies, the shells had to be laboriously worked in order to make them valuable. This stabilised the currency, but only by pegging it directly to the value of the hours spent grinding down shells by hand, time that could have been more productively used elsewhere.

And this is why Bitcoin, and all other proof-of-work schemes, must die. It is the computational equivalent of shell currency, the only difference being that the value is dependent on electricity consumed rather than hours worked. Shell currencies, like rhino horns and tiger bones, are objectively worthless and irrational demand for them is an immoral waste of resources, both human and environmental.

Hashcash puzzles are objectively worthless, but irrational demand for them is incinerating the earth.

Calling time

Proof-of-work cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin are vulnerable both politically and practically. They are politically exposed because many countries, including China, are already cracking down on the use of Bitcoin for a variety of reasons, not limited to its wastefulness. They are also practically vulnerable because you can’t easily buy Bitcoin without a bank account or credit card, and banks can simply refuse (or be forbidden) to do business with proof-of-work schemes. Shuttering Bitcoin could therefore be done within the existing framework of international banking regulation.

If Bitcoin were to cease trading tomorrow, 0.5% of the world’s electricity demand would simply disappear. This is roughly equivalent to the output of ten coal-fired power plants, emitting 50 million tonnes of CO2 per year – which would cover one year’s worth of the carbon emission cuts required to limit temperature rises this century to 2C. It is not a solution by itself, but it would be a good year’s work.

Bitcoin is made from ashes, and if ashes were legal tender, humanity would burn everything in sight and call it progress.

This article was originally published on Slugger.

The nightmare scenario

Both the British and Irish Governments have this week warned their people of the dangers (however seemingly remote) of a no-deal Brexit. No doubt there have been junior staff on both sides beavering away in basements to plan for the possibility, whether or not their superiors took them seriously. And the probability of those contingency plans being dusted off has surely increased in the last few days.

But we must also entertain the even smaller chance of a perfect storm, of which a catastrophic Brexit is merely the first act. Consider that, with hindsight, betting on the worst possible outcome at every major decision point over the last two years would have net the pessimistic punter a hefty profit; and that political chaos can set in motion a domino effect of system failure unthinkable in more stable times.

So let us borrow Jason O’Mahony’s crystal ball and peer into the cosmic accumulator.

Imagine that Brexit talks drag on for so long that the EU cannot possibly ratify in time. This will become inevitable before the end of 2018. A motion to extend the Article 50 negotiation period by six months passes unanimously in the European Council, but the UK government fails to get legislation through the Commons to alter the legal Brexit date. Theresa May loses a vote of confidence among her own MPs and the negotiations collapse. In a last desperate bid to avoid a general election that could return a Corbyn-led government, Jacob Rees-Mogg is elected PM.

An emergency deal covering uncontroversial matters such as aviation and medical isotopes is patched together at the last minute, but without a transitional trade deal or an agreed backstop a hard border is now inevitable. Northern Ireland polarises, with Unionist politicians now entirely backing a hard border, and Nationalists calling for an immediate border poll. A last-ditch campaign to locate customs controls in the Irish Sea gets no traction. An opinion poll comes out showing 52% (discounting don’t knows) in favour of a United Ireland. Senior members of the Alliance and Green parties join the campaign for a border poll in advance of the Brexit date in March 2019.

The new Secretary of State is a hardliner, like the rest of the freshly-purged cabinet, and refuses to grant a poll – but that decision goes to judicial review and is overruled. By this stage Brexit is six weeks away. A border poll is organised in haste and passes by a hair breadth in NI on the eve of Brexit.

But despite (or perhaps because of) universal political backing, the simultaneous poll in the Republic is defeated by the same wafer thin margin. The Irish Government’s popularity is on the slide, in large part over its inability to force a backstop deal past Brexiteer intransigence and EU realpolitik. Plans are immediately put in place for a second referendum. But since Brexit is inevitable, “temporary” customs posts have already been put in place on border roads, manned by dew-faced young recruits with barely a week’s training in inspection procedure.

Barely a week into April 2019, the M20 in Kent and the A16 in France have become the world’s largest vehicle parks. Several hundred acres of Anglesey are being covered in hard infill at high speed. The Dublin Port Tunnel is gridlocked for four hours each morning, and queues at the Carrickcarnan border are tailed back as far as Loughbrickland in the north and Castlebellingham in the south. The Irish Government issues an order forbidding lorries from using the overtaking lane. This helps ease car traffic delays but doubles the length of the lorry queues overnight.

Paddy Power unveils a publicity-stunt sweepstake over the date when the ends of the M1 northbound and Port Tunnel customs queues will back up past each other.

All work to restart the Northern Ireland Assembly has ceased. Republicans argue that the changed context of the border poll means that devolution will need to be renegotiated in a new all-Ireland framework, which the DUP naturally rejects. Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve and Philip Hammond quit the Conservatives to set up a new pro-EEA party, and the government collapses again. A general election is called for June 2019, and this will include Northern Ireland because it hasn’t left the UK yet.

Unionists rally behind the flag, while post-victory nationalism is divided and complacent. In a shock result, the DUP wipes out all other unionist candidates and actually increases its seat count. Nevertheless, Jeremy Corbyn becomes PM and pledges to withdraw from NI immediately. The DUP are now in open revolt against their own government and demand that the border poll be annulled.

There have been several instances already of vehicles refusing to stop at border checkpoints, in one case running over a customs officer and crushing his leg. Both governments quietly increase armed police support at customs, and reinforce checkpoints with concrete chicanes. The Polish and Hungarian governments bring Ireland to the ECJ, citing vast discrepancies between Irish border controls and the ones they are required to implement on their borders with Ukraine. The Irish government loses and, to howls of delicious outrage from the Brexit press, begins stopping up minor border roads.

The second referendum squeaks through in October, but the DUP argue that the result is invalid since it was not held on the same basis as the one north of the border. Nationalists are horrified because another border poll cannot be held in NI for a further seven years. Legal challenges are brought before both the UK and Irish Supreme Courts.

By now there are almost daily protests and counter-protests calling for the border poll to be either annulled or implemented immediately. And despite it being October, the usual Belfast flashpoints have been burning more or less continuously since July. Meanwhile, the Republic’s newly-refurbished Department of Unification has been sitting empty for six months. An inner-city Alphabet-Left TD demands that it be repurposed for housing the homeless.

Sinn Féin reiterate their demand that the UK should continue to support NI with cash transfers for the next 25 years. But Treasury estimates of the cost of Corbyn’s renationalisation programme have turned out higher than anyone had predicted, and the post-Brexit economic forecast is catastrophically grim. The UK replies that it has no money to spare and suggests that if the EU wants a United Ireland as a member it should be willing to pay for everything. But the EU budget has already been agreed, and repeated attempts to get negotiations reopened are blocked by a small group of creditor states. Ireland’s GDP forecast is revised downwards, again.

The Irish Supreme Court finds in favour of the DUP, quoting a narrow reading of Article 3; but the UK Supreme Court finds that the poll results in NI alone are sufficient for the British government to legislate for unification. A third referendum is scheduled for March 2020, this one explicitly revoking Article 3. The DUP pledges a fresh legal challenge regardless of the result.

The British Government passes the Northern Ireland (Withdrawal) Act 2019, but delays its implementation until the result of the third referendum. After a particularly fraught day of negotiations at Stormont aimed at reducing tensions on the street, thirteen young loyalists barricade themselves inside the disused Assembly chamber, elect a Speaker, and declare unilateral independence. An eight-hour standoff ends when one of the rebels tries to sneak out a side door for a toilet break. All are arrested and removed by the PSNI. A riot breaks out that evening in East Belfast, and six families are burned out of their homes.

Two days before Christmas 2019, at a minor border crossing, a 23 year old Revenue officer is shot in the neck. She survives. The 3 year old in the back seat of the car she was inspecting does not.

This article was originially published on Slugger on 2018/07/20.

The Rorschach Test

I argued in an earlier piece that the word “Unionism” should be handled with extreme care, because it has become overloaded with far too many overlapping yet inconsistent meanings. For slightly different reasons, we should also avoid using the phrase “United Ireland”.

“Unionism” refers to a collection of existing things that can, with effort, be distinguished from each other. “United Ireland”, or its modern euphemism “New Ireland”, means nothing much at all, because it refers to a hypothetical something that has never existed or even been clearly defined.

Because it means nothing, the reader or listener is free to choose what to perceive in it. And just like a meaningless Rorschach inkblot, the reader’s perceptions are determined by the reader’s mind alone. If the reader is inclined to favour Irish Nationalism, then the ideas evoked are likely to be favourable, even Utopian. If the reader is not so inclined, then the phrase “United Ireland” will prompt unease, distaste and even fear.

Because what comes to mind when a vague phrase is uttered is equally vague. Nobody believes for a second that a United Ireland would lead to Protestants being driven into the Bann. But such associations are stored in the subconscious and, even if not remembered explicitly, their presence colours and shapes the reaction to even marginally related ideas. How many people reading the words “United Ireland” involuntarily hear it in an Andytown-accented inner voice?

The art of persuasion is mainly the art of minimising the number of negative associations while maximising the positive ones. And a speaker who wishes to persuade, to sell, must work backwards from what he wants the listener to think, not forwards from what he himself wants to say.

Brexit was such an inkblot. There were well-informed people on both sides, but the majority would freely admit to being ignorant (to varying degrees) of the workings of the EU and the consequences of leaving it. The question was deceptively simple, but it has become painfully obvious in hindsight that those who campaigned for it and voted for it had wildly divergent perceptions of what Brexit actually meant in practice.

Free-traders looked upon the inkblot and saw great ships bestriding the waves. Libertarians saw a bonfire of statutes and judgements. Others saw the return of jobs to provincial towns, or an end to demographic change. Not all of these could possibly be true simultaneously. Maybe none of them will end up being true. The inkblot remains inscrutable.

The 8th amendment referendum could have been as confusing, but the Irish Government took the decision to avoid a Rorschach calamity by publishing the heads of their proposed legislation. No matter what way the result falls next week, nobody can seriously claim that they were not informed.

Now obviously, full legislation could not and should not have been drawn up in advance of the result, and no amount of written detail could ever completely insulate a debate from misinformation or partisanship. But it was rightly recognised that allowing a referendum to go ahead without any constraint on the collective imagination of the electorate would have left the government with no defence against the wildest excesses of Project Fear.

And a border poll will be fought entirely on the basis of Project Fear. Fear of Brexit versus fear of a United Ireland. By the time any such poll eventually comes around, the shape of Brexit will have become much more concrete. And unless a “United Ireland” has also become more concrete, the devil that Northern Ireland knows may not seem so fearsome by comparison.

So anyone in Ireland who would like to see a border poll in their lifetime would be well advised to propose a practical constitutional framework now. Like the 8th amendment, every detail cannot and should not be drawn up in advance. Blank space must be reserved for the meaningful input afterwards of those who will understandably demur at contributing beforehand. But equally, those in favour of change must clearly demonstrate that they have given the fullest consideration to the concerns of all sides, whether actively engaged or not.

That means publishing the constitutional equivalent of the heads of bill, setting advance constraints on the scope of any post-referendum negotiations, and defending these self-imposed limitations against cries of sellout from the back benches.

Start by ruling out the vast majority of options. Cast out the bogeymen, the fevered nightmares, the implausible and the irresponsible. In this context, “United Ireland” ceases to be useful, because it rules nothing out.

It doesn’t rule out the unitary socialist republic of the old Republican faithful, a vision so removed from modern Ireland that it would attract single figures support south of the border. So why allow that spectre to haunt the debate? Rule it out.

Same with anything that doesn’t preserve the minority rights so hard won in the GFA. The principles that protect one minority community while NI remains in the UK must also protect the other minority community in any future settlement. Republican leaders have at times declared that all identities should be protected and embraced, but aspirational statements can be easily dismissed as rhetoric. Be specific about the legal changes you could never support, and rule them out.

Rule out the things you know Unionists most fear. Rule out the things you know southerners won’t countenance. Rein in the starry-eyed ambitions and limit the scope of this particular change. Not because ambition is wrong, or because the horizon must never be admired. But because the future is a journey that will always be in front of us, and destinations will change with the wind and the seasons.

Baby steps.

Once you rule out the impossible, the fanciful, the unaffordable, only then can you give a meaningful shape to the thing that is left.

So what is the shape of that thing?

Northern Ireland will continue to exist. The Border will continue to exist. Jurisdictions cannot be simply bodged together, because a century of legal divergence would take decades to unpick. Stormont will continue to function, as will the rest of strand one. A Northern Ireland jurisdiction requires a Northern Ireland parliament, and that means a Northern Ireland executive. Direct Rule from Dublin would be no more democratic than from London. And meaningful formal ties to GB would be of crucial importance to keep everyone on board, so strand three will also survive.

The Republic will continue to exist in much the same form, because the only people who relish the thought of sixty crabbit TDs from the wee six overturning the political arithmetic of the Dáil are the Shinners. Neither Fine Gael nor Fianna Fáil will gift Sinn Féin a parliamentary plurality. Nor will Ireland be quartered into provincial states, as per Éire Nua. There is no burning desire for parliaments in Cork or Galway, and despite its frustrations with Dublin, Donegal has no love for dysfunctional Stormont.

Strand two will be enhanced, but not replaced. The President, the Supreme Court and a reformed Senate could be shared between the jurisdictions, with equitable representation for north and south. European and foreign policy would be delegated to a beefed-up NSMC. These newly shared bodies would form the successor state to today’s Republic. But whatever the details it will be a lightweight, Belgian form of unity, nothing whatsoever like the centralised UK. Stephen Hawking was once warned that every equation in his book would halve its sales. Similarly, every extra power granted to the new Irish state will halve its legitimacy in the eyes of the losing side.

And just as the current relationship between the two parts of Ireland can only be changed by simultaneous referendums, so will any future changes to that relationship be subject to a double referendum lock, effectively preventing a future Irish government from simply abolishing the troublesome North.

Would this satisfy everyone? Not a chance. It may not satisfy anybody at all. It would meet a strict legal test for “Irish sovereignty”, but it’s not what many people – perhaps any people – would understand from the phrase “United Ireland”.

Which is exactly why “United Ireland” must be cast aside.

Because whatever emerges from the far side of constitutional change, whatever future may eventually come to pass, it won’t be what anyone currently expects. The GFA was “Sunningdale for slow learners” because everyone already knew what the only practical solution looked like; it just took longer than expected to negotiate the price. A border poll won’t be like that, because nobody yet has a clue what shape the framework will be.

All we have to go on is an ambiguous smudge called “United Ireland”. And so any border poll will be as ill-informed as Brexit unless nationalists and others (and it will have to include Others) produce a proposal with an actual text, and an actual name.

Call it a confederacy. Call it a bizonal, bicommunal federation. Call it what you will, but call it what you mean. If that causes discontent within the ranks, then good. These arguments need to be settled sooner rather than later.

Or would you prefer to sell the Irish people a pig in a poke, without even knowing yourself what animal is inside?

This article was originally published on Slugger on 2018/05/17.

The end of the world

In the 19th century national identity in Europe was more deeply entwined with religion than it is today. Witness the creation of Belgium in 1831 from the remains of the Spanish Netherlands, when formerly Hapsburg areas seceded from the United Kingdom of the Netherlands to form a Catholic-majority, multilingual state with a French-speaking aristocracy. In the 20th century the focus of national identity shifted: the same Belgian state is now hoplessly riven between French- and Dutch-speakers, regardless of religion. The focus of politics changes with the tide, but the driving force is always the same: collective power.

The nature of power is that those without it will always be jealous of those with it, and those with it will always fear having it taken away. Power may be measured by economic might, land, legal privilege or social status. But no matter the measure, there will always be haves and have-nots. And there will be times when the haves consolidate their power, and times when power passes from one group to another.

In a democracy, those who don’t have power are comforted by the belief that their turn may soon come; and those with power are comforted by the belief that even if they lose, their turn will come again. But problems then arise when people start to believe that they will never have power, or that once power is taken from them they will never get it back. If power is apportioned by socio-economic class, one can always dream of climbing the greasy pole to become one of the powerful. If however the basis of power is identity, there is no such dream.

Because class is how society defines you, but identity is how you define yourself. Transgressing the boundaries of class is an act of liberation; transgressing the boundaries of identity is apostasy.

So when identity trumps class, when birth rather than passing circumstance picks the teams, politics becomes a predetermined game. One cannot work or buy one’s way onto the winning side. That has a profound effect upon the perennial losers, but it has an equally profound effect upon the winners. Because if they don’t need to fight to win, they forget how to fight. So when eventually some outside force tips the scales against them, those who were once guaranteed victory can find themselves facing defeat while simultaneously discovering their own impotence.

Unionism is in this pickle right now.

The last six weeks has seen a torrent of discussion on the future of Unionism. Every Unionist paper is running opinion pieces, and every Unionist name is throwing in their two cents. The question “what if?” is being seriously asked, and in some cases seriously answered. The constant theme is that Unionism as a movement is experiencing a dark night of the soul. Because political Unionism has never seriously examined the nature of its own self.

The American politician Tip O’Neill had a famous catchphrase that said “all politics is local”, and it can be applied to Westminster and Leinster House as easily as to Capitol Hill. In Stormont however, all politics is identity politics. Local issues still matter to the average elector, but nobody believes that they significantly affect election results. Elections are explicitly about which identity holds more power. That this power is effectively limited to symbolism and a seat scorecard makes little difference. For They must learn that We are in charge here. It’s all about the psychological victory, about status, and Face.

For as long as Ulster Unionism has existed as a movement, it has been dominated by the fear that They might gain power over Us, and They can’t be trusted to rule in Our best interest. In the 19th century, identity was (like in Belgium) largely a matter of religion, and the sectarian gulf in Ireland was understood as a religious one, backed up by a history of confessional privilege. After Irish Unionism performed its strategic retreat to the defensible north-east, it adopted the clothes of a rival nationalism. “Ulster” was the new identity around which Unionism gathered itself, one which was quite happy to have Home Rule, so long as it was from Belfast rather than Dublin. So long as it was Us in charge and not Them.

But Unionism never escaped from 19th-Century confessional identity. And this fear of Them was Unionism’s original sin. Because instead of bringing Them inside the tent, instead of selling a vision of the future where everyone prospered together, Unionism shut Them out. Perhaps it would have been an impossible task, but there was no urgent need to try; Unionism was electorally safe. But now that its majority has evaporated, Unionism finds itself temperamentally incapable of making even the smallest concession on culture and identity. And when all you ever willingly offer is thin gruel, it’s no wonder They keep asking for more.

Unionism has become an apocalyptic religion, forever warning that the end is nigh. And yet its leaders reassure the faithful that it will not come in our lifetime. This incoherent brew of brimstone and honey is a tactical advantage, but a strategic weakness. When victory is defined merely as staving off the apocalypse for a few more years, there can be no strategy, no vision, no hope.

Because Unionism gave up on evangelising the other side a century ago. To become an expansive, accommodating, all-inclusive political movement would require a fundamental cultural reappraisal. And now that the end of the world is starting to look like a real possibility, Unionism has neither the breathing space nor the self-belief that such a paradigm shift would require.

Nobody can predict when the end will come, but it’s unlikely to be a lifetime away. Attitudes are hardening on both sides, demographic change still moves in the same direction, albeit more slowly, and Unionism still fails to attract support from beyond the trenches. So there are two possibilities.

Firstly, Unionism fights to the bitter end regardless of the long-term consequences to Northern Ireland’s community relations, and succeeds merely in stretching out the life of the Union for a few more years until there is no more road to kick the can down.

Or secondly, Unionism gives way to a broader movement that maintains a belief in strong links with the UK, and stands up for the interests of the Ulster-British-Protestant-whatever community, but which doesn’t hang its entire worldview on the defence of a constitutional status quo that may soon be untenable.

Somebody’s end of the world happens every day, yet the world keeps turning. And ironically, the only way for Unionism to avoid the end of its world is to accept that it might not be so bad.

This post was first published on Slugger on 2018/05/10.

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)

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)