Slugger O'Toole

Conversation, politics and stray insights

A Northern Ireland that cannot govern itself will always be brittle and unstable

Tue 15 January 2013, 9:19am

#FlegOkay, Nuala McKeever’s piece for the Belfast Telegraph put me in mind of the paper we pulled together and published ten years this May on, as it happens, the future of unionism:

This is not about making unionism more yielding. A ‘long peace’ will not be an easy peace and unionists will often need to be tough in their projection of power.

But ‘no’ should never be their final answer. Defensiveness is far too predictable a strategy. A genuinely disruptive politics must shape the terrain on which future contests for the Union will be fought, opening up alternatives, rather than shutting them down.

It relies on democracy – a Northern Ireland that cannot govern itself will always be a brittle and unstable entity.

Quite.

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Comments (33)

  1. Nevin (profile) says:

    “It relies on democracy – a Northern Ireland that cannot govern itself will always be a brittle and unstable entity.”

    Well, NI is becoming an increasingly brittle and unstable entity – unionists 48%, nationalists 42% and others 8% – and I spent over two hours in Moyle’s House of Shame last night observing democracy/majoritarianism in action; Moyle is mainly nationalist – a unionist ward, a nationalist ward and a mainly nationalist ward. I wanted to hear the discussion on item 7 but a unionist called for the Council to go into committee so I had to leave. The councillor won a small victory in the chamber but the matter won’t end there :)

    A visitor to Moyle DC deliberations would be underwhelmed at the best of times but last night’s performance was truly embarrassing; the fall out from events in Belfast CC was much in evidence; the Ballycastle Chronicle correspondent will print an expurgated account of the exchanges.

    As someone with an interest in letter shifts in words there was one episode of hilarity that appeared to go over the heads of our elected representatives. A nationalist councillor teased an Ulster-Scots promoting unionist councillor about the latter’s interpretation of cultural expression in the unionist ward and almost immediately afterwards another nationalist called said unionist, amongst other things, a wee skitter. Skitter is an Old Scots word for thin excrement and linguists will probably see the shift from skite to shite and the link to the less awesome squirt.

    It seems that our councillors share the Scotch tongue if, at present, little else. There appeared to be some unity against National Trust charging at the new visitor centre. The centre acts as a Tourist Information Centre, a TIC, and a tourist had to pay £8.50 to solicit information about local B&Bs.

    All of the above is where a reliance on democracy under the tug-of-war 1998 Agreement gets you :(

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  2. Nevin (profile) says:

    “I’m on the side of wanting people here to see that we have to share and the sooner we accept that, the better.” .. Nuala

    We don’t have to share but sharing for me has always been great crack; variety is the spice of life but our politicians are stuck in the old familiar tramlines of history.

    There certainly are class differences and it’s likely that the chattering classes don’t live on an interface but no amount of hand-wringing by said chattering classes will make life better for those living on the ‘front line’.

    We need a political landscape that fosters sharing but the current one restricts the politicians to sharing out at Stormont level and discriminating at local council level, irrespective of the presence of a power-sharing tag.

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  3. PaddyReilly (profile) says:

    unionists 48%, nationalists 42% and others 8%

    leaving 2% as what?

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  4. streetlegal (profile) says:

    The other 2% would be people like me who recognise neither state nor flag – nor the politicians behind them.

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  5. Nevin (profile) says:

    Thanks, Paddy! Faulty memory recall at work! I’d previously IIRC put the approximate statistics down as unionists 48%, nationalists 44% and others 8%.

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  6. BarneyT (profile) says:

    A kick in the sheuch is what they really want! Another pan-community word.

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  7. BarneyT (profile) says:

    I though 2% was a loyalist rapper

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  8. BarneyT (profile) says:

    typo

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  9. JimmyMac (profile) says:

    Those who contemptuously refer to the protests as being ‘about flegs’ are of the same mentality as those who refer to the Health and Safety Act as ‘Elf ‘n’ Safety’.

    There is much more to the protests and sporadic violence than about the flying of a flag. It is about people being marginalised , something which is happening all across Europe and the rest of the UK not just in this small corner. Ordinary people are divided by institutionalised sectarianism which is rooted in the Belfast Agreement / GFA. It lays out the basis for a shared future but not an integrated one. This is the fault line that lies within NI society.

    The Sinners have nothing to offer their constituents, they don’t even represent them at Westminster were they should be to oppose the ConDem Social security and Pension so called reforms. Once these become law NI must follow suit. SF has undoubtedly been knocked back by the recent Census data and the Opinion Polls showing a vast majority of NI people wishing to remain within the UK. So they revert to ‘cute hoors politics’ as what happened at Belfast City Council regarding the removal of the Union flag.

    As for the Unionist politicians they have never came out once to say that the IRA was defeated and that SF has accepted a partitionist settlement. By refusing to state the obvious the Unionist leaders, like the Sinners and their poodles the SDLP, keep sectarian tensions on the boil for their own electoral advantage.

    It is interesting that a poll in the RoI shows that 47% say SF was wrong to put the ‘flag removal’ motion forward .

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  10. redstar2011 (profile) says:

    It was to be honest a bit if a botched poll

    Small sample, ambiguous questions etc

    To be honest I am fed up hearing about telephone polls and opinion polls etc. it matters not a jot what you say your political preference is if you do nothing about it, ie vote

    On the results of voting and political representation the claims of unionist support in the minority community are shown to be utter nonsense

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  11. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Thanks for that piece of good sense, redstar2011.

    A telephone poll conducted today might reveal widespread disenchantment with the DUP, but the DUP would probably come out as the biggest party if an election was held tomorrow.

    Many people who give a wonderful cerebral answer to a telephone pollster take their guts with them when they go into a polling booth.

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  12. Cric (profile) says:

    The Union may not be at threat as McKeever states, but this is despite Sinn Fein’s best efforts. I sound like a bit of a ‘fleg’ protester in saying this – but they’ve never hidden the fact that they want rid of the Union to anyone, it’s in their manifesto, their Party Political Broadcasts are filled with boke inducing Irish Nationaism. So I don’t understand why anyone is surprised, or accusative toward Sinn Fein when they are basically striving to deliver on their election promises.

    Northern Ireland will be brittle as long as a sizable minority of the population wish that the state be removed – and the consolation for Unionism at this point is that it is a minority – not that there is seemingly a desire within that minority to be assimilated into a pale form of unionism.

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  13. redstar2011 (profile) says:

    Your exactly right David C

    We hear of polls and tales of polls ad nausea that in their droves the minority community are now unionist. Come election time Sdlp, SF take , what 90%? of the vote in their community

    Sell papers and good for forums and debates but these polls aren’t really true to life

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  14. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Altogether agree with you, redstar2011. If the union really was safe for centuries to come, we wouldn’t be getting all the incredibly sophisticated higher maths that we’re getting from several unionist spokesmen.

    I’ll tell you the trouble with some of these spokesmen. They draw their conclusions first, and then fiddle with the statistics.

    Here is something that very few people consider. If a referendum makes a UI a genuine possibility, many hard-headed nationalists may go for broke, put an X beside WHAT THEY YEARN FOR IN THEIR HEARTS, and worry about the consequences afterwards.

    Those consequences might not be as economically horrendous as we are often led to believe. Will Britain turn off ‘the subvention’ as soon as ungrateful voters take NI out of the UK?

    No. Britain will be so grateful for our departure that she may undertake to maintain the subvention for at least the next twenty years.

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  15. Nordie Northsider (profile) says:

    “SF has undoubtedly been knocked back by the recent Census data and the Opinion Polls showing a vast majority of NI people wishing to remain within the UK.”

    No offence, JimmyMac, but any Shinner I’ve talked to has been grinning like a Cheshire cat over the census results. You may argue that have no business to, but that’s another matter.

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  16. Kevsterino (profile) says:

    Sinn Fein has stuck to “Peaceful and democratic means” to work toward their goals. Is that not all they agreed to?

    If people are under the impression that the GFA and St. Andrews agreements meant Sinn Fein’s struggle was at an end, it wasn’t Sinn Fein who led them to that belief.

    I think the Unionist leadership could be more candid with their constituents.

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  17. OneNI (profile) says:

    ‘Shinner I’ve talked to has been grinning like a Cheshire cat over the census results.’
    Are you suggesting that Sinn Feiners are sectarian bigots? Surely not?

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  18. OneNI (profile) says:

    “If a referendum makes a UI a genuine possibility, many hard-headed nationalists may go for broke, put an X beside WHAT THEY YEARN FOR IN THEIR HEARTS, and worry about the consequences afterwards.”

    Here speaks the comfortable b*llsh*t of a middle class bigot

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  19. David Crookes (profile) says:

    I’m grateful for your comment, OneNI, and sorry to learn that you’re troubled with coprophily.

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  20. oneill (profile) says:

    “A Long Peace” is as fresh today as it was when I first read it.

    It described very well the position “B” where political Unionism needed to be, although it was less successful in outlining the means of transport in moving on from Bunker “A”.

    The Union is pretty much at “B” now, a majority (for whatever reason) want the link to continue but it is not a majority wanting the traditional Ulster version of the link.

    That is bad news for the Unionist political elite but I am not sure I care anymore about that. At least, not enough to vote for them.

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  21. abucs (profile) says:

    The unionist politicians are trying to figure out where the narrative is that appeals to both the majority of unionist voters and also comfortable soft ‘n’ nationalists. They’ll find one sooner of later but it is ‘work in progress’ at the moment.

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  22. David Crookes,

    ‘I’ll tell you the trouble with some of these spokesmen. They draw their conclusions first, and then fiddle with the statistics.’

    Indeed, it’s called confirmation bias (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Confirmation_bias) and the North is coming down with it.

    Abucs,

    ‘The unionist politicians are trying to figure out where the narrative is that appeals to both the majority of unionist voters and also comfortable soft ‘n’ nationalists. They’ll find one sooner of later but it is ‘work in progress’ at the moment.’

    Any evidence for the above re finding the narrative and them finding it eventually or can we put this down to another bout of confirmation bias on your part?

    Robbo’s ‘kafflik outreach’ has been shown to be a complete sham, and unionism continues to show the unique skill of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory. They hold all the good cards here (see NHS and being in a better financial position than the South) while Nats have to try and get people to jump into the relative unknown, yet unionism is out on the street, trashing the place, go figure…

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  23. tmitch57 (profile) says:

    @David,

    The same thing about polls has long been said about Israel. It used to be said that people revealed their hopes to pollsters and their fears in the polling booth. Some have even said they told the truth to pollsters and lied in the booth.

    In apartheid South Africa it used to be said about English-speaking whites that they talked like Progs (the equivalent of Alliance), voted for the United Party (the equivalent of the UUP) and thanked God at night that the Nats (the equivalent of the DUP) were in power.

    In deeply-divided societies tribalism and tribal identity are very strong for the same reason that gangs are powerful in slums–as a form of protection. Ordinary people, especially those without the means to go elsewhere and make a new start, are afraid of losing the security that tribal rule brings. Change came about because David Trimble and John Hume had the courage to risk their political futures. And what was their reward for this courage? What was Yitzhak Rabin’s reward for daring to attempt to make peace? Ian Paisley made peace when all the risk had gone out of it.

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  24. JoeBryce (profile) says:

    Here’s the alternatives as I see them. On the one hand, the GFA makes it seriously possible to secure NI’s presence in the UK over the longterm – provided the UK lasts, something that Scotland will decide, not Ireland. For that to be done, however, compromise within NI with nationalism will be necessary and that will entail two flags, no flags, or designated days flags. And a great deal more which means little or nothing to me as a middle class professional but appears to mean a great deal to working class and unemployed people. If matters go on as they are, there will be continuing paranoia, insecurity and occasional outbursts of hysteria, which humiliate NI internationally.

    Or. And it is just something I have begun to consider. We could take the initiative, reach out to our neighbours, and say: OK then. What will this federal Ireland look like. Because that flag / anthem / constitution will need to go. But we’ll talk constructively now about what we can all agree on putting in their place. And then maybe all that energy that has been squandered over the last 6 weeks could be redirected into something constructive. And what I think would matter most, maybe a community that has so humiliated itself in recent weeks would get its pride and dignity back.

    The problem that east Belfast has is a problem it has in common with a number of regions, the loss of industry and manufacturing, and, to a lesser extent, the universal western world problems of family breakdown and alcohol and drugs. What political environment is more promising for tackling those problems? It is at least possible, I put it no more highly than that, that an all-Ireland framework promises more self-governance and therefore more control over the real problems.

    I am only saying it should be thought about.

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  25. Barnshee (profile) says:

    JB
    “What will this federal Ireland look like”

    This question is wholly (and carefully) avoided Look in vain for any strategy or roadmap from the interested parties-none exists. The existing process is essentially a power struggle for access to shrinking (British) tax payer funds

    I would remind you of the quote (variously attribute to O`Connoll and Parnell)

    To a road mender who asked “will Ireland be free? ”

    Reply

    “What do you care –you will still be a road mender”

    The ideas that a UI will be the solution to unemployment and disadvantage is risible.

    Bad weather and its negative impact on agriculture ,golf and an almost total absence of natural resources is hardly a world beating combination.

    The irony is that the “welfare state” and the subvention has provided a standard of living and a rate of population growth that exceeds levels sustainable by exclusively local means. Further it funds the whole panoply of Parliament,Civil service, Local Authorities and assorted quangos which would be severely depleted in any UI.

    Turkeys will not vote for Xmas -

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  26. abucs (profile) says:

    ……. “Any evidence for the above re finding the narrative and them finding it eventually or can we put this down to another bout of confirmation bias on your part?”

    As far as being able to give evidence for something that hasn’t happened yet, well i’m not that good. :)

    Perhaps Sinn Fein’s rise in the south smashing through that so called 10% ceiling is a good example of how attitudes can change with time and changing circumstances.

    Too many people are already comfortable with the present NI political structure, for a narrative not to be found. (In my humble opinion)

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  27. antamadan (profile) says:

    There’s ‘bad weather’ in the south all right Barnshee. Bright blue skies in the North thanks to being part of the UK, right? Only slagging.

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  28. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Thanks, footballcliches. You say, “……unionism continues to show the unique skill of pulling defeat from the jaws of victory.” Agree completely. In any serious debate about the future, you can rely on many unionists to play left back. Left back in the changing-room.

    Trimble did indeed do most of the work, tmitch57, and he lett his body on the historical ‘road’ for the DUP to walk over. It may be that current events are part of an inevitable punishment for the DUP. If you teach people to say no to everything for forty years, a lot of them may say no to you when you get into office.

    Joe, thanks for your visionary posting. It will be a big day for unionism when enough of its representatives decide to contemplate a unified Ireland WITHOUT FEAR. The cube root of evil is ‘never’.

    I want to see a new Transmuting Unionists Party in existence soon, standing for election on both sides of the border, and once it gets up and running I want to see it taking a lot of votes from the DUP, the UUP, the AP, SF, the SDLP, FF, FG, Uncle Tom Cobley and the boys.

    Many people in Ireland are fed up listening to #crep about ‘competing in the world market’. Let us concentrate on feeding, clothing, housing, and educating ourselves in a manner that pleases ourselves. If we educate ourselves properly as three-part human beings, rather than as highly intelligent animals, things will get better. Irish men and women will be able to go anywhere in the world and help other men and women humbly at all three levels of their being.

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  29. oneill (profile) says:

    “….an all-Ireland framework promises more self-governance”

    Joe Bryce,

    Given the present quality of self-governance visible at Stormont that is not a selling point by any stretch of the imagination.

    “I am only saying it should be thought about.”

    The onus is not on the pro-Union majority to think about it but on republicans and nationalists to produce in the very first instance an independent costs and benefits analysis. Then we have the first objective point of discussion.

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  30. David Crookes (profile) says:

    Thanks, oneill. You say, “The onus is not on the pro-Union majority to think about it but on republicans and nationalists to produce in the very first instance an independent costs and benefits analysis.” Fair point.

    Have nationalists produced even the embryonic form of such a necessary analysis? If so, why haven’t we heard about it? If not, DO THEY BELIEVE IN A UNIFIED IRELAND AT ALL? Sounds to me as if the energy of transmuting unionists has a chance to become the real engine of progress.

    By the way, when transmuting unionists formally establish their new party it won’t be called the TUP. It’ll be called QGO ( = Quare Goin’s On). The very name is intended to confront sullen solemn self-important scowlers of either ‘sort’.

    It’ll be the quare geg if transmuting unionists manage to steal a march on the self-declared nationalists of NI.

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  31. abucs,

    ‘As far as being able to give evidence for something that hasn’t happened yet, well i’m not that good.’

    I don’t think you have got what I am asking abucs. You noted that unionist pols are trying to figure out where the narrative is and I asked have you anything to show us that this is the case? Anything at all or are you merely speculating? It would appear that you were speculating and that’s fine, but aside from Robbo’s ‘kafflik outreach’ speech which had some here and elsewhere wetting their pants and seeing a new Norn Iron emerging with Robbo taking on the mantle of a Mandela figure, it would appear that unionism hasn’t figured out what they want re the future perhaps in the union or with their Nat neighbors, in this instance with regard to cultural expressions, something Chris Donnelly has touched on repeatedly, but also in relation to how the institutions will work.

    ‘Perhaps Sinn Fein’s rise in the south smashing through that so called 10% ceiling is a good example of how attitudes can change with time and changing circumstances.’

    Oh agreed, definitely, however, in that instance one could point to extensive evidence of SF putting a lot of man hours and money into increasing their presence in the Dail, I just don’t see much evidence outside of occasional speeches which are later showed up by events of unionism finding a narrative. There are notable exceptions such as Basil and John when they have addressed Nat events and their actions thereafter, but they are on the periphery of unionism in all honesty.

    ‘Too many people are already comfortable with the present NI political structure, for a narrative not to be found. (In my humble opinion)’

    I think you are on the money there. We see this with the UUP dying by a thousand cuts for instance, there is a gap in the market there and someone should be trying to fill it but I won’t hold my breath. It will most likely be filled due to events as opposed to by design.

    David Crookes,

    ‘In any serious debate about the future, you can rely on many unionists to play left back. Left back in the changing-room.’

    I think that was the case previously; they had the numbers and could say no whenever they wanted but after the census results we know that over the next 10 years or so they will face more problems up on the Hill and they will have to come out and debate, propose and be somewhat more rational or lose more ground and control of their destiny. I do suspect, however, that they will (politically) become even more intransigent, akin to the Tea Party, and while this will perhaps pay off at the beginning it will become subject to the law of diminishing returns.

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  32. abucs (profile) says:

    I agree they haven’t worked it out yet. The outreach is one example. As is the continuing stated public point (hope) that many Catholics would support the present politics in a border poll.

    I think the move to de-segregate schooling (read scrap Catholic Schools) is also an indirect heavy handed attempt to bring more Catholics inside the tent.

    It’s a bit like a shy boy asking the girl to dance. You kind of hope she’ll come over by herself and not put you through all the growing pains of recognising your own vulnerabilities and co-dependence. :)

    I think many unionist politicians are sitting down at the moment, but glancing across the hall, trying to figure out what will work with a minimum of pain on their part.

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  33. abucs,

    ‘The outreach is one example.’

    Are we really to believe it was an outreach to ‘Kaffliks’ or more likely to middle of the road unionists, those who would never vote for the DUP? Events have shown us what that really was.

    ‘As is the continuing stated public point (hope) that many Catholics would support the present politics in a border poll.’

    They may abstain at best, but come out and openly support it, I don’t see that happening and I am certain Robbo knows this also.

    ‘I think the move to de-segregate schooling (read scrap Catholic Schools) is also an indirect heavy handed attempt to bring more Catholics inside the tent.’

    It is a heavy handed and unsophisticated trojan horse on his part, most see through it and I expect little to no movement on this while main stream unionism is unable to swallow equality of esteem and Irish cultural expressions being part of the everyday landscape in the North.

    ‘It’s a bit like a shy boy asking the girl to dance. You kind of hope she’ll come over by herself and not put you through all the growing pains of recognising your own vulnerabilities and co-dependence.’

    Ah, but which girl is the shy boy asking to dance? Not the Kafflik wall flower but the Protestant girl from the Malone Rd or her cousin from North Down sitting beside her who would never dream of having a dance with him before. He’s trying to show how he has walked under sack cloth and ash to atone for his previous ways.

    ‘I think many unionist politicians are sitting down at the moment, but glancing across the hall, trying to figure out what will work with a minimum of pain on their part.’

    I hope they are, but I honestly don’t see it in many of their outworkings, they seem to be trying to out blue (or is it orange?) each other if their manifestos are anything to go by.

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