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)


In praise of secular education

I wrote a letter to the Irish Times today.


Patrick Davey (May 30th) claims the right to have his children educated in a religious school. This is as unattainable a “right” as the right to live in a religious town, or to work in a religious factory. A “right” that can only be realised if others are denied their own rights is no right at all. The idea that the majority have more “rights” than minorities do is tyranny, and the removal of a right through effective unavailability is as much a violation as if it were explicitly denied in law.

Secular education is compulsory, and religious education cannot be. By conflating the roles of state school and church school we have created inequality between those of the majority faith and those of other faiths or none. The only way to respect everyone’s rights equally is to separate the roles of Church and State, leaving schools to teach a full secular curriculum to all regardless of faith, and allowing each church to supplement this with its own particular teachings outside school hours as parents wish and free from state interference.

Separation of Church and State is not an attack on religion. It releases everyone, religious and irreligious alike, from the shackles of pretence and hypocrisy. People of faith should follow the example of their brethren other countries and embrace a secular state as the means of their own liberation.

Anthem anathema

My letter in the Irish Times today. Spelling mistakes all mine, unfortunately.

Sir, – John B Reid seems to be labouring under the mistaken impression that the Irish rugby team is the national team of the Republic of Ireland. If this were the case, then it would be only proper for Amhrán na bFiann to be played at all matches, irrespective of location. But it is not.
As with many other sports, rugby is organised on an all-Ireland basis and the Irish team is not just the team of the Republic, nor even of Irish nationalists, but of the island of Ireland as a whole. Ambiguity between the island and the State is a constant cause of controversy, but the IRFU has correctly recognised that Irish rugby draws support from all traditions on the island.
The current policy that Ireland’s Call be played at away matches is entirely proper, as it reflects the cross-jurisdictional nature of the sport and does not favour one jurisdiction over another. To play the anthem of the Republic in addition at away games would reintroduce politics into a sport that has made a virtue of remaining above the constitutional question.
Amhrán na bFiann is played at home games in the Republic in honour of the State. The only inconsistency in this policy is that no State anthem is played in Belfast, which implies that games in Ravenhill are not “home” games. The honourable solution to this inequity is to play Danny Boy at Ravenhill in the same capacity that Amhrán na bFiann is played in Lansdowne Road’s Aviva Stadium.
Whether or not one finds Ireland’s Call sufficiently rousing, it performs a vital function in keeping divisive politics out of Irish sport. – Yours, etc,
Dublin 14

A rose by any other name

I’m genuinely confused.

An online friend mentioned today in passing that he refuses to use the term “Northern Ireland” – indeed he finds others’ use of it objectionable – because it confers unacceptable legitimacy upon partition. He is of course not alone in holding these sentiments. And if it were twenty years ago, I might accept that he had an argument (though I’m not sure twenty-year-younger me would concur). But surely such an argument is untenable today.

I don’t mean among the dissident second-Dail Jacobites, few though their numbers are these days. They cling to self-consistency like barnacles on a beached ship, admirable after a fashion. No, it’s the rest of northern nationalism I can’t fathom.

Whether you believe that partition was legitimate in 1922, and I understand the argument that it wasn’t, one can only hold that it remains illegitimate today if one discounts the 1998 referenda. The Jacobites have no problem with this – the referenda themselves were illegitimate, therefore so is anything that flows from them. Even those who took part but voted no could make a case on the basis that they only did so to ensure their objections were properly recorded.

But those who voted yes cannot deny the legitimacy of the vote or its consequences. Even if one voted yes only on the basis that it was the least-worst option, the concepts of desirability and legitimacy remain distinct. If refusing to use the name of “Northern Ireland” is a refusal to accept the legitimacy of the state, then how can one simultaneously support the document and subsequent referenda that purport to confer that very legitimacy? The crux of the GFA was a grand bargain – accept the current legitimacy of the state, while retaining the right to object to its desirability. What else is legitimacy if not a broad consensus that Northern Ireland should continue to function for the time being?

I’m genuinely curious: if you think a landslide vote in favour of what is effectively the founding document of NI v3.0 does not confer legitimacy, then what would? And why did you vote Yes?

A people without a name

It seems to me that the root of many of Northern Ireland’s problems is that Huns do not have a well-defined sense of communal identity. For the last hundred years or so it boiled down to the Orange Order – understandable given the Order’s involvement in the foundation of NI and the UUP’s political hegemony. But the OO is too narrow a strand to support the weight of an entire culture, and is in many ways a relic of a bygone age.

Huns opposed the Irish-nationalist thesis, but at the same time they also rejected wholesale the idea of separate identities. Not only did they stand apart from the “Irish” (Taig) ethnic identity, but they did not expend much energy developing one of their own, instead falling back on religious (Protestant) or political (Unionist) identities; or the vague concept of “Britishness”. But to most, the shared “British” identity is one that is (to varying degrees) held in addition to their ethnic ones – there are many black and Asian minorities in England who would never consider themselves English but are quite happy to be British, as to them it is bereft of ethnic overtones.

To Huns however, Britishness became by default their ethnic identity. The English share this confusion, but they have the excuse of being numerous. When the English decide to define Britishness, the others have the option of either going along or (increasingly these days) opting out. When Huns attempt to define Britishness, the others look at them funny and wonder if they fell on their heads trying to kiss the Blarney stone. By failing to define their own ethnic identity, they have ended up in the uncomfortable place where outside forces define their identity for them.

That’s why we Huns need a name, so we can start defining ourselves for a change.

(This post is based on a comment I made on IJP’s blog)

The Sporting Banner of the Emerald Isle (“The Power and the Glory”)

The Sporting Banner of the Emerald Isle

Ireland (the island) presents an inconsistent face to the world. At all-Ireland sporting events a variety of symbolism is in use, while most countries make do with only one or (sometimes) two distinct flags. Confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the sovereign state results in the alienation of many Unionists from all-island sporting organizations. This has led to many sports adopting more inclusive symbolisms, however these have been done on an ad-hoc basis and suffer from a lack of consistency and design impact. The result is a confusing assortment of State, organizational and unofficial flags being flown, producing a fragmented brand and a divided community of supporters.

A similar problem with anthems led to the commissioning of the song “Ireland’s Call” by the IRFU, which has since been adopted by other sporting organizations, thus becoming a de-facto “sporting anthem”. We are therefore motivated to design an analogous “sporting banner”, with a view to unifying the disparate symbolisms currently in use and presenting a distinctive, common brand.

Design brief

  1. Must represent the island of Ireland across multiple sporting disciplines
  2. Should avoid divisive or controversial design elements
  3. Should be distinct from existing flags, Irish or otherwise
  4. Must be bold and readily identifiable from a distance
  5. Must be able to command broad allegiance
  6. Should be based on existing symbology

Prior art

Most of these can be found on Wikipedia.

  1. IRFU flag
    Pro: already in use, uncontroversial (2,5)
    Con: poor design quality (4), non-universal (1)
  2. Irish Hockey flag
    As IRFU, marginally cleaner design
  3. Irish Cricket flag
    As IRFU, but even worse design
  4. The four-provinces flag
    Pro: widely recognizable, already in use (1,2,5), explicitly represents island of Ireland
    Con: confused design, lack of Unionist engagement
  5. Tricolour
    Pro: in use, recognisable
    Con: politically divisive
  6. Geraldine (“St. Patrick’s”) cross
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: obscure, lack of Republican engagement
  7. Harp on green field
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: already in use as flag of Leinster
  8. Harp on blue field
    Pro: simple, bold design
    Con: already in use as RoI presidential standard

The above can be broken down into the following pool of design elements:

  1. Green field
    Most commonly used element – uncontroversial and universally recognizable.
  2. Blue field (“St. Patrick’s Blue”)
    Less common, somewhat archaic alternative to the above
  3. Flags of the Four Provinces, in combination
    Explicitly all-Ireland (possible negative connotations for some Unionists)
  4. Orange
    Ironically, the presence of (supposedly Protestant) orange on much Irish symbolism serves to alienate Protestants, whereas green is broadly acceptable.
  5. White
    Commonly found as secondary element
  6. Harp
    Uncontroversial, easily recognizable
  7. Shamrock
  8. Red saltire
    Originally arms of FitzGerald, repurposed as ersatz “St. Patrick’s cross” in 19th C. Slight bias towards unionists (and Blueshirts) but also found in establishment contexts across Ireland


The starting point of our preferred solution is to explicitly draw parallels with “Ireland’s Call”, as the banner and the song are intended to solve similar problems and be used on the same occasions. Linking the banner with the song also helps to underline its design brief as sporting rather than political symbolism.

The lyrical theme of “Ireland’s Call” is one of teammates from the four provinces standing together to face their opponents with pride – the second verse is devoted entirely to poetic descriptions of those four provinces. It would seem natural then to start with the Four Provinces flag (pool element 3), however it suffers from serious design flaws – by combining four complex, disparate designs, one ends up with a whole that is graphically much less than the sum of its parts.

This is not an insurmountable problem – many flags balance the competing requirements of symbolic inclusivity and graphic simplicity by defacing a bold primary design with a complex coat of arms – the flag of Croatia is particularly apposite. We have therefore chosen to include the Four Provinces symbolism in the form of a shield defacing the main flag.

The primary element of the main design was chosen to be a green field (pool element 1) – although St Patrick’s blue (element 2) has an older pedigree, green is more readily associated with Ireland, particularly in sporting contexts where Ireland competes in a green strip. At this stage, we could construct a design similar to the current hockey flag, but such a flag lacks any bold design elements and therefore appears bland and is hard to identify from afar (brief point 4). As brief point 4 is arguably the entire purpose of having a flag, we cannot disregard it.

Orange (element 4) is reminiscent of the republican flag, and therefore too politically charged for our purposes. We have already chosen to deface our flag with a design that includes a harp (element 6). Shamrocks (element 7) would not stand out against the field unless rendered in an unnatural colour. The only element left in our design pool is the Geraldine cross (element 8), but by a stroke of luck it fulfills our requirements perfectly – it is bold and distinctive; the red saltire is nowhere else seen against a green field; and any perceived pro-Unionist bias may be regarded as an appropriate counterweight to any perceived pro-Nationalist bias of the Four Provinces shield.

When the final design is assembled, the Four Provinces stand powerfully at the centre (“shoulder to shoulder”) while the red saltire (with customary white fringing) appears to radiate gloriously outwards. Together these themes draw multiple parallels between song and banner, hence our suggestion that a nickname be lifted directly from the lyrics of Ireland’s Call in order to emphasise a unity of purpose.

To minimize stylistic clashes (and printing costs!) we have reduced the colour palette down to a set of six commonly used bolds. Connacht forgive us.

Although the design is straightforward (green + red saltire + four provinces), bonus symbolism can be milked if one is motivated. The green, white and red colour scheme is partway between the green-white-orange of Nationalists and the red-white-blue of Unionists. The white fringing can be regarded as a white saltire in its own right, a Dissenter counterpart to the red saltire of Anglicans and Gaelic green. The four green triangles visible between the arms of the saltire can be read as a secondary symbol of the four provinces.

By using pre-existing all-Ireland symbols in the design (to wit, various defacements of a green field; red saltire; Four Provinces flag), we also unify those symbols in a coherent brand, so that familiarity with the sporting banner automatically implies familiarity with the components when taken individually. The introduction at an event of even a small number of sporting banners amongst a population of Four Provinces, St Patrick’s crosses and official IRFU flags (say) would likely have a disproportionate effect on brand image, with the other three flags appearing (to the uninitiated) to be special cases of the sporting banner. Thus the combined effect is one of a single brand with complementary strands, rather than an assortment of disconnected brands. This brand is further reinforced by tying it into the lyrics of Ireland’s Call – the aim being that the audio and visual symbols should each invoke a mental image of the other.


vert a saltire gules fimbriated argent, centred an escutcheon quarterly; 1st or a cross gules centred an escutcheon of pretence argent, a dexter hand gules; 2nd azure three crowns or; 3rd per pale first argent a dexter half eagle displayed sable, second azure a sinister arm embowed fessways holding a sword all argent; 4th vert a harp or

Adobe Illustrator source file

16×28 units green field (1:sqrt(3))
red saltire width 2u, white fringing width 1u
shield 6.5x8u, centered, black border 0.2u

four equal area quadrants
centred on quadripoint
upper quadrants square aspect
clockwise from top left: Ulster,Munster,Leinster,Connacht
U cross width 1/8 shield width
U shield 1/4×3/8 s.w.
U hand height 1/4 s.w.
M crowns 3/16×3/16 s.w.
L harp height 7/16 s.w.
L harp turned so strings vertical (to avoid curve of shield)
C eagle height 7/16 s.w.

Pantone (CMYK) palette:

gold: 116C (0,16,100,0)
red: 186C (0,100,81,4)
blue: 281C (100,72,0,32)
green: 364C (65,0,100,42)


The files presented in this post contain some public domain elements from wikimedia commons. All other designs and design elements in this post are hereby released into the public domain.

The island of Ireland is a political straitjacket

One of the great ambiguities about modern Ireland is the confusion between Ireland the island and Ireland the independent state. Both officially go under the same name, although one can often avoid ambiguity by using prefixes (Republic of Ireland, island of Ireland). This actively contributes to Ireland’s political problems, because it closes one of the escape valves normally used to resolve ethnic conflict – redefinition.

When Austria-Hungary was divided up into its component parts after WWI, the border between Austria and Hungary was redrawn. A sliver of land which was traditionally part of Hungary had over the years become majority-German speaking. On independence, this area (today known as the Burgenland) was transferred to Austria so that the border more closely matched the ethnic divide. Effectively, the words “Austria” and “Hungary” were redefined to suit changed reality.

That option is not open to Ireland. Unlike land frontiers, coastlines cannot be altered at the stroke of a pen. The Ulster Unionist movement redefined the boundary between the UK and newly-independent Ireland by creating a Burgenland of their own, Northern Ireland. But the escape was not clean – the word “Ireland” stubbornly remained in use for the entire island, and was included in the name of the new state (despite the efforts of many to adopt “Ulster” instead).

To confound matters, the sea boundary between Ireland and Scotland also forced NI to be defined maximally so as to ensure a viable territory – by contrast, the Burgenland is only 5km wide at its narrowest point. If NI had been created merely as a two- or three-county state the ethnic balance would have been much more equitable, but politically it would have been less stable. Consider a counter-factual – if Scotland and Ireland were connected to each other by a land bridge, it is likely that the frontier between them would have shifted back and forth several times in history. The plantation of Scots in Antrim and Down would have been expansionism, not colonisation. An eventual redrawing of the Ireland/Scotland frontier a few miles further into Irish territory would likely have been (reluctantly) accepted as the price of peace, as it was in Hungary.

But the North Channel is an immovable frontier, and Ireland’s status as an island is thus a political straitjacket. Its extent is fixed by the sea in perpetuity, and an equitable repartition would leave NI as an unviable state. In addition, the island as a “natural” political unit has both an economic logic and a romantic appeal – it is no accident that ethnically-divided islands provide more than their fair share of the world’s intractable conflicts. Ethnic nationalism can sometimes work if practical frontiers can be found. But islands frustrate this process, and in Ireland no such practical frontiers are possible.

One cannot define an ethnic Irish identity, because the geographical Irish identity is in conflict with it, and cannot be altered to match. Ethnic nationalism is thus doomed to failure in Ireland, because ethnic-Unionists (“Huns“) cannot submit to an Irishness based on ethnic-Nationalist (“Taig“) identity, but neither can they escape it. Political and cultural neurosis is the inevitable result.

Galway West count results are not statistically significant

Independent Catherine Connolly is right now fighting tooth and nail to overhaul FG’s Sean Kyne, who beat her to the last seat in Galway West by 17 votes in the first recount last night, prompting her to call a second full recount which is continuing as I type. But a thought struck me in the car on the way home this evening – STV as practised in the RoI is not deterministic, as there is a random element in the distribution of elected candidates’ surpluses. Surely 17 votes is less than a standard deviation? I had to find out.

STV in NI is deterministic: all the second preferences of an elected candidate’s votes are counted and then scaled down by the surplus fraction before being transferred, resulting in fractional votes for the remaining candidates. For example, say that the quota is 900, and candidate A is elected with 1000 votes. The next preferences of all A’s votes are counted and the totals scaled by a factor of (1000-900)/1000 = 1/10 before being added to the appropriate candidates’ totals. A is left holding the balance, which equals the quota, and the total number of votes in play at any stage thus remains constant. In this way, each vote for A is treated identically.

By contrast, in RoI general elections only surpluses attained on the first count are scaled. Subsequent surpluses are transferred using random selection. Instead of counting all votes and scaling down, a random sample of votes equal to the surplus is counted and then distributed at full value. Furthermore, only the last batch of votes given to the candidate is eligible for selection. For example, say candidate A has 800 of the necessary 900 quota, and candidate B with 200 votes is eliminated. A is elected with 1000 votes, a surplus of 100. To distribute this surplus, 100 of the 200 votes which were transferred from B are randomly selected (A’s other 800 votes are ignored). These are then counted and transferred accordingly. Again, A retains 900 votes (the quota) and the total votes in play are constant, however not all of A’s votes are used.

This random element introduces sampling errors – a different choice of 100 random ballots may well produce a different result, and even get a different candidate elected. We can use standard statistical methods to estimate the errors in these processes and determine how much the candidates owe to the voters, and how much to chance.

Consider count 11, the distribution of Nolan’s surplus of 326. We pick 326 ballots from O’Clochartaigh’s transfers to him of 1015, as those transfers were the ones that pushed Nolan over quota. Now, the p=.95 error in a random sample of 326 out of 1015 is 4.47%, and 4.47% of 326 is approximately 15. Therefore we can expect a 15-vote variation either way in the distribution of Nolan’s surplus. The equivalent error for O’Cuiv’s surplus is (1034 of 2101) -> 22 and for Walsh it is (116 of 2706) -> 10. Assuming that each random choice of ballots is independent, the expected error in the final count is sqrt(15^2+22^2+10^2) =~ 28. We can see that a victory in the final count by 17 votes is not a statistically significant result, and therefore has more to do with what order the ballot papers fell out of the boxes than how many went into them in the first place.

What does this mean for the candidates? Not much, as the legal method has been followed. It does however show that haggling over low double-digit margins of victory has nothing to do with the will of the electorate. They might as well just toss a coin for it.

The vote totals for eliminated candidates are assumed to be error-free, even though prior surplus transfers will introduce small errors. These errors make little difference to the results as the error bar formula is relatively insensitive to population size.

Numbers were taken from the first recount data in @misteil‘s spreadsheet here. Error bars were calculated using the utility here. The rules for STV in RoI general elections are here. Thanks also to @garygillanders for pointing out a mistake in my original calculation.

A response to Conall McDevitt

Since Conall seems to have decided not to moderate my comment on this blog post from last week, I reproduce it here. I don’t think I’ve said anything particularly objectionable. [UPDATE: it’s been moderated now]

The question goes from being whether there will be a united Ireland to how
Ireland will be united

You overstate your case. The GFA is quite consistent with Ireland never being
united, if the people continue to vote that way. This kind of presumption is
what drives unionists away. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is a prime
example – any hint of a preordained outcome and you end up preaching to the

Irish nationalism can take the old road of a “one size fits all” future or it
can walk into a new one in which unity is neither a unionist nightmare nor a
nationalist pipedream.

It doesn’t matter how you dress up nationalism, it is nationalism itself (or
nationalisms, as we have at least two) that is the problem. You must accept that
there will be multiple national identities in NI for the foreseeable future. So
the question is, do you want to build a fair society regardless of the national
identity of the individual, or do you want to build a new national identity? If
the former, then you have to accept the separation of nation and state, the same
way we have the separation of church and state. If the latter, you will be
waiting a while.

The need for cross-border infrastructure

As someone who travels the A1/N1 route on a semi-monthly basis, the official opening of the new Newry bypass, months ahead of schedule, is very welcome news. I have watched it take shape over the last few years and have been a regular user since the M6 reached Athlone and made the alternative routes from Galway to Portadown or Belfast comparatively less attractive (I enjoy the scenery on the N17/N16/A4 route, but not getting trapped behind a tractor). For those people travelling to Belfast, three at-grade roundabouts at Hillsborough and Sprucefield are the last remaining obstacles to a stress-free journey, and long-overdue upgrades to these junctions are now at the planning stage. These upgrades, and the A5 upgrade now in development, show a welcome new commitment to improving cross-border links from Dublin to Belfast and Derry.

But I don’t normally travel directly to either city, and my typical journey exposes where the cross-border infrastructure strategy falls down. The Craigavon urban area has a population similar to that of Derry or Limerick, and larger than Galway, but has no (existing or planned) high-quality road link to Dublin, or anywhere else across the border for that matter. To get to Portadown I have to leave the high-quality A1 and travel for twenty miles at low speed along one of the worst A routes in the country, or alternatively stick with the A1 as far as possible and take a rural short cut, which satisfies my need not to be trapped behind traffic but probably doesn’t reduce my journey time. This reflects many years of short-sightedness in official circles, when the border was treated as an edge and roads to destinations beyond it did not deserve investment.

The neglect is now starting to ease, thanks to high-profile projects such as the A1 and A5 and small-scale ones such as the reopening of severed rural roads, but in the middle there is a glaring gap in provision. With Dublin Airport offering the only direct international flights to many destinations such as the USA, links to it from regional towns in NI are just as important as those to Belfast International. The same applies to Dublin and Rosslare ports. The north-south economy is not limited to Belfast and Dublin, and concentration of infrastructure on a single axis does not bring the fruits of co-operation to regional towns. Much has been written about the economic disadvantages of the border region – foremost among those is a lack of infrastructure. Border and near-border towns such as Craigavon, Armagh, Monaghan, Cavan and Enniskillen need infrastructure links to both Dublin and Belfast if they are to become attractive places to locate businesses – with the possible exception of Armagh, each of these is currently only well-connected to one or the other.

The solution is a programme of investment in not just major cross-border routes but regional ones such as Craigavon-Newry, Enniskillen-Cavan and Cavan-Monaghan-Armagh. To complement this, consideration should be given to reopening the Belfast-Sligo railway line which used to pass through the heart of this border region, and would link up with the newly-reopened Sligo-Galway-Limerick route. The money for such investment may not be available in the current climate, but it’s not too soon to make preparations for a time when it is.