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)

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The flaxen revolution

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A flaxen revolution?

Northern Ireland needs a final settlement

It is now fifteen years since the Good Friday Agreement, and seven years since the St Andrews Agreement. Time has moved on, but Northern Ireland is in a rut. Political institutions are bedded in, complete with safeguards against communal domination, but politics has not kept up. Elections are still fought on the basis of Keeping Themmuns in Their Place. Political protests are limited to turf wars over ownership of public space.

What happened to our brave new future?

The mood in NI, beyond the headline-grabbing onanism of dissident republicans and flag protesters, is one of resigned apathy. The deadly combination of fatalism and fear, knowing we can’t go back but unable to see the way forward, keeps NI trapped in a perpetual twilight of political cowardice. The dawn will come, surely? Some say it will come in the east and some say in the west. Best wait, and when we are proven right the doubters will fall silent.

But political dawns do not come from waiting. They come from political will, and Northern Ireland has precious little of that. The temporary twilight becomes a permanent gloom.

Richard Haass is the latest in a long line of the great and good to try his hand at dragging our political donkeys out of the tribal midden. But it is not his job – it is ours. It is the electorate who should be driving change; it is the people who should be demanding better of our political masters. Haass is merely filling in because the electorate have not stepped up. Why else does Northern Ireland see an endless procession of outsiders attempting to save it from itself?

Northern Ireland has not yet grown up. Northern Ireland has not yet taken responsibility for its own future. We cry to Dublin and London to fly in and save us from Themmuns, when the real problem is not Themmuns, but ourselves. It is our lack of belief in ourselves and our own ability to make common cause that leaves us trapped in the trenches of a war now decades in the past. The Agreements gave us political institutions that were safe, non-threatening, almost comfortable. They allowed government to return to Belfast without requiring politicians to change their minds or their behaviour. They ended the war, but they cannot build peace.

The Agreements have fulfilled their function. It is now time to take the next step, and build a final settlement on which a new politics can grow. The old tribal divisions must be cast off; old political parties must be destroyed and new ones allowed to take their place. We, the people must assert ownership of the state and impose upon all our politicians the duty to be servants of all the people, without tribal favour.

The Basic Law of the Commonwealth of Northern Ireland is an outline of just such a final settlement. It is a document of the people, where political institutions are subordinate to the popular will. It is a statement of both rights and duties, of limited government and the separation of church, nation and state. And it is a vehicle in which both unionist and nationalist are free to aspire, without threatening the foundations of our still fragile peace.

In return, each and every political party is required to be broadly representative of the ethnic (and gender) composition of Northern Ireland. Without this requirement, nothing changes and politics remains trapped in the endless twilight. With it, fundamental change is imposed upon politics at the lowest level, and a new future opens up before us.

We must reject Catholic political parties and Protestant political parties, just as we rejected Catholic workplaces and Protestant workplaces. The Agreements reward the victors of the tribal bearpit, silencing those who willingly co-operate and empowering those who must be dragged to the table; the Commonwealth makes tribal co-operation at grassroots level a condition of entry. The Agreements guarantee that all politics is defined along orange-green lines; the Commonwealth encourages politics to realign.

The Commonwealth is an idealistic enterprise, but with a realistic pathway to implementation. All it requires is a majority vote in the Assembly and a referendum; Northern Ireland has done this before and can do it again. It provides a modern, liberal basis for government that both unionists and nationalists can find much to admire in. It copper-fastens the principle that the future of Northern Ireland is in the hands of the people, and protects them from the abuses of power that have been all too common in our long, troubled history.

But most importantly, the Commonwealth gives the people of Northern Ireland a future worth believing in, a goal worth striving for, and the hope that tomorow will finally bring dawn in the North.

“Power-sharing creates weak governments; nobody trusts anyone else enough to grant them real power”

The Economist has an interesting article about civil conflicts. It doesn’t mention NI, but one paragraph in particular caught my eye:

One reason for backsliding is that peace often fails to bring the prosperity that might give it lasting value to all sides. Power-sharing creates weak governments; nobody trusts anyone else enough to grant them real power. Poor administration hobbles business. Ethnic mafias become entrenched. Integration is postponed indefinitely. Lacking genuine political competition, with no possibility of decisive electoral victories, public administration in newly pacified nations is often a mess.

The great and good have been flocking to our shores to learn How It Should Be Done. That is justified up to a point, but the really hard work comes after the immediate conflict is over and the threat of violence recedes. How well do we compare against other post-conflict societies in draining the swamp?

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?

Probably the worst road in Northern Ireland

News has just reached me of yet another fatal crash on the A27 Portadown-Newry road. My sympathies are with the family at this time.

The A27 is one of the – if not the – worst trunk roads in NI. Whereas most trunk roads are generally of good quality with occasional lapses, this one is little better than B-class for most of its length, with only short stretches of quality (ironically, the best section of the whole A27 is the non-trunk section between Portadown and Lurgan). This is the official route between the third-largest urban area in NI and Dublin?

It wasn’t supposed to be like this. In the 1960s, the proposal was that a motorway – the M11 – would run from Lisburn to Newry, and the Craigavon Development Plan had provision for road links from this motorway to the New City. But the motorway plans were shelved and Craigavon itself was abandoned half-built, with several roads that it didn’t need and without several roads that it did.

I have a personal hatred for the A27, having lived south of the border for the last few years. Driving north to visit family I face the unappealing prospect of twenty miles of substandard road, and on most occasions I avoid it altogether. I prefer to take the 5-mile C-class road from the A1 at Loughbrickland to Gilford instead – although it is of much lower quality, it is relatively short and almost always deserted. This is of course far from ideal.

The ideal solution would be a new trunk road that takes the most efficient route across country between the A1 and Craigavon, and would replace not only the substandard A27 but also the substandard A50 between Portadown and Banbridge. If the B3 from Lurgan to Gilford was also upgraded, it could take further traffic out of Waringstown and Banbridge. The economic benefits of improved connectivity to the A1 Belfast-Dublin strategic route would be substantial, and lives would be saved. 10 miles of safe new road to replace 20 miles of deadly old road sounds like a bargain to me.

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 tragedy of the middle classes

The Economist had an interesting article about Russia a while back, but one paragraph in particular stands out as having more general application:

The old social contract, with a weak, passive middle class enriching itself while staying out of politics, cannot become an indefinite right to rule.

Isn’t this the problem in Northern Ireland too? The middle classes, such as the apocryphal “garden centre Prod”, have withdrawn from politics and left the tribal bases to prop up an ossifying system. Electoral turnout has been on the wane ever since the GFA, and it can be argued that this reflects not consent but apathy.

The peace dividend, consisting mainly of a bloated public sector, has left the middle classes comfortable. But this is the lazy comfort of managed decline – there is precious little fresh thinking in either the business or political establishments. And meanwhile the tribal divide continues to fester, with Girdwood the latest integration plan to have its teeth pulled. Political announcements by the main parties seem designed not to break out of the trenches, but to consolidate their position within them.

In most advanced countries the middle classes hold considerable political power – it is the middle classes in the main that parties from both sides try to woo through tax schemes and public order initiatives. But politics in Northern Ireland is divorced from such concerns. If one has no interest in the tribal balance of power, NI politics holds no appeal. If one’s livelihood is funded (directly or indirectly) from London then there is no incentive to get involved in provincial affairs.

Stormont cannot do anything about the economy, and will not do anything about society. What remains of middle-class politics? The garden centre has never looked more attractive.

NI local government reform – boundary suggestion

I blogged previously about the need for a proper, joined-up local government reform process in Northern Ireland. To summarise, councils should be both larger and more powerful in order to be worthwhile, and the traditional counties would provide a foundation of legitimacy. As an addendum, here is a map I made of my preferred model based on electoral wards, following a recent discussion on Slugger. Please note these boundaries are indicative only, and would of course be subject to local consultation – the boundary around Dromore in particular would require some tweaking at the townland level.

Image

Performing a napkin calculation based on current council areas, we get:

BELFAST ~ 350k:
Belfast, Castlereagh (minus Carryduff and Dundonald) plus bits of Lisburn

ANTRIM ~320k:
Ballymena, Ballymoney, Moyle, Larne, Carrickfergus, Newtownabbey, Antrim plus Glenavy.

DOWN AND LAGAN VALLEY ~330k:
North Down, Ards, Down, most of Lisburn plus bits of Castlereagh, Banbridge and Newry&Mourne

ARMAGH AND UPPER BANN ~290k:
Craigavon, Armagh, most of Newry&Mourne and Banbridge

TYRONE AND FERMANAGH ~250k:
Cookstown, Dungannon, Omagh, Strabane, Fermanagh

(LONDON)DERRY ~250k:
Coleraine, Magherafelt, Limavady, Derry City

Urban, eastern councils will be slightly higher in population and lower in area compared to rural, western ones. Drumlins Rock suggested that Belfast should be expanded further to take in Dundonald, Holywood and Newtownabbey, however I have not shown that here as I feel it is an argument for another time.

Rethinking “Irishness” – definitions and symbolism

We have already seen how the unique geography of Ireland rules out some of the usual political options for solving its ethnic dispute, by making the redrawing of borders to match the ethnic divide impractical. But it also leads to problems defining an Irish identity, because unlike most other countries in Europe, it is not the people who define political geography, but the geography that defines the people.

20th century political philosophy accepts the idea that nations have the right to self-determination, that ethnic geography should therefore define political geography. This has led to the current ideal, best exemplified in Europe, of state borders being drawn along ethnic dividing lines. The ethnic patchwork that has taken shape organically over thousands of years is therefore taken as the starting point, and (in theory at least) political geography derives its legitimacy from it. The Danes are defined by their cultural identity, and Denmark is defined as the homeland of the Danish people. When the people did not match the territory (in Schleswig-Holstein) the eventual solution was to redefine Denmark.

But Ireland works the other way around. As an island, its borders are fixed. The Irish people are themselves fixed by the territory, i.e. those people who live (or were born in) Ireland. If you try to define “Irishness” on the usual cultural basis you create a second kind of “Irishness” in conflict with the first. The only way to resolve this ambiguity is to let go of one of these definitions. If one prefers the cultural version, then one defines an “Irishness” that does not cover all natives of the island, so what then does one call the other natives? If we do not call them “Irish” then we implicitly question the legitimacy of their presence. But if we do call them “Irish” then we are guilty of forcing a cultural identity onto those who do not want it.

Alternatively we can choose the geographical definition of “Irish”, but then there must be several native Irish ethnic groups, of which the majority group is just one. We are not short of names for these groups, so long as we are not easily offended: Taig, Hun and Pavee. We thereby place the island’s majority ethnic community on an equal footing with the native minorities (and implicitly also with immigrant minorities), and reserve “Irish” to describe the whole.

Some things which are conventionally identified with Irishness may then be found to be relevant just to the majority Taig ethnic group. In particular, the novel symbols of nationhood deriving from the Home Rule and independence period have no meaning for Huns while older symbols, such as those deriving from the legend of St. Patrick, continue to have broad relevance to all Irish people. The Irish language also has a personal relevance to many Taigs that most Huns do not share.

We see therefore, that neither standard interpretation of modern Irish symbolism is entirely correct. The standard Taig view of independence-era symbols such as the tricolour and anthem is that they are the national symbols of Ireland (the island), even though this was an ideal that was never realised. The standard Hun opinion is that they are the symbols of the Republic of Ireland, despite the strong allegiance they continue to attract from inside the North. It would be more accurate to say that they are the national symbols of Taigs, for if we recognise the right of people to self-identify then we must also recognise their right to show allegiance (or not) to symbols of that identity. By a similar argument, most supposed Northern Ireland symbolism is effectively Hun symbolism in disguise.

It should not come as any surprise that political symbols now have de facto ethnic meanings not intended by their creators, nor should it be any cause for concern. Separating symbolism from politics is one way of defusing tensions – while even politically moderate Huns will balk at any symbolic suggestion that NI “belongs” to the Republic (as flying the tricolour is often viewed), acceptance of the distinct identity of Taigs is mainstream. If existing flags and symbols could come to be accepted as markers of ethnicity rather than political ideology, much of the heat could be taken out of the symbolism debate. This would also then leave the way open for new NI and all-Ireland symbolism to be developed that is free from ethno-political baggage.