After Haass: Risk of growing local disputes into toxic regional problems

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Richard Haass cartoon, Brian John Spencer

I’ve got my iPhone beside me as I write. I’m writing on my laptop. But if I break off and have a spare moment later I can pick up this article on the iPhone and continue working.

I use the little thing for calls, texting, taking photos, taking video, editing video, video conferencing, scanning articles, as an internet connection for my laptop, GPS navigation, and – of course – surfing the internet. I can use my fingerprint to unlock it, my voice to command it.

Sometimes it’s hard to imagine life without it.

And yet, the iPhone didn’t exist whenever devolution was restored seven years ago. So much has changed since then. The world is truly a different place. Although sometimes in Northern Ireland it doesn’t feel like that.

The sad reality is that in the time it took Apple to revolutionise the way we live and pile up more cash than the American Government, Stormont’s most memorable achievement is a 5p tax on plastic bags.

The problem with our politicians is that they’re all process and no product. They’re addicted to process – like heroin junkies on a course of maintenance therapy. They say the economy is their number one priority, but their inaction tells a different story.

In an era of scarce public money, political inaction sees millions squandered on policing trouble and servicing division. In an era of intense and ever-growing global competition, political inaction thwarts the private sector’s efforts to create jobs and wealth.

With youth unemployment at record levels and business start-ups at record lows, the young and the mobile will simply leave Northern Ireland for a better future elsewhere.

That’s why the Haass talks were ill-conceived and fatally flawed from the start. The Americans should not have got involved. The British and Irish should not have allowed it to happen. It was a big mistake.

By labelling “the past”, “parades” and “flags” as issues of equal importance and bringing them together into a single talking-shop, the process conflated and confused a number of distinct and very separate themes. It also risked growing local disputes into toxic regional problems.

That’s not to say there are not lessons to be learned from our American cousins.

When I first visited New York as a student in 1990, it was a dangerous place. 2,245 of its citizens were murdered that year.

I witnessed the aftermath of a stabbing as I arrived at Port Authority bus station and a shooting a few days later as I was leaving in a minibus to the airport – bullets ricocheting off a wall in front and then a man clambering from a car clutching his stomach, blood oozing between his fingers.

New York today is a different place. Last year the number murdered was a record low of just 333 – that’s an 85% reduction in the rate. So what happened?

In the mid 1990s a Mayor called Rudy Giuliani and a Police Commissioner called Bill Bratton put in place a new policy on crime called “Zero Tolerance”. Basically, they stopped letting things go. No matter how difficult for their officers or apparently minor the offence, they tackled the crime. They locked criminals up and they put more cops on the streets.

It’s a policy that has continued – at times controversially. It hasn’t been universally popular. But no-one questions that crime is down dramatically.

Northern Ireland has generally adopted a different policy. It doesn’t have a name, but let’s call it “Maximum Tolerance”. Illegality is often tolerated and accommodated lest confronting it causes more trouble. Inaction by politicians is forgiven with the usual trite explanation “it may not be perfect, but look at how far they’ve come…”

But the deadline for delivery is long past. The rest of the world isn’t waiting and doesn’t care. That’s the message Stormont needs to hear from London, Dublin and Washington. If it really is time to “fish or cut bait” then please stop chartering new boats.

First published last month in the NI Chamber of Commerce’s magazine Ambition.

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  • Delphin

    Little to disagree with there Jim. Steve Jobs was a marketing genius, he knew what people wanted, supplied the demand and made a fortune. Result people with Apple products are happy and content.
    Our politicians know what people want – tribal politics. They ferment division to maintain their positions of power and wealth. Result- the mess you describe.

  • http://www.wordpress.ianjamesparsley.com IJP

    Delphin

    Not quite.

    Steve Jobs asked people not what they wanted (nobody knew they wanted an iPad), but who they were and how things made them feel.

    Likewise, people may think they want a sectarian ding-dong just to be safe – but actually it’s no good to them. If you ask the wrong question (as our politicians and media do), you get the wrong answer.

    We need instead to ask who we are and how we really feel, and go from there.

    I didn’t mind the concept of Haass so much as the fact he asked the wrong question. Flags, parades and the past are symptoms of the problem, not the cause. The cause is that we haven’t agreed who we are, and in too many areas gangsters have filled the void. Did you hear anyone say that?!

  • http://nalil.blogspot.com Nevin

    Jim, I had a quick skelly at your tweets for ‘product’ and I chanced upon an interesting article about Richard Florida:

    According to Florida, the great western countries lost their way during the Industrial Age. “We just got distracted. The heaviness, if you will, the weight of heavy production, whether here in Ireland or England, Wales and the US confused us. We began to think that bigger was better. What we forgot was that what made us great, and created the advances, was human creativity. Those entrepreneurs were actually creative people. It wasn’t the bulky stuff that mattered. It was the ideas.” …

    “I think that immigration or open migration is the key. I’m the grandchild of emigrants and my grandparents had zero education but their grandkids have a lot. I think what creates a vibrancy in a society is this inflow and outflow of people. I think that immigration and innovation go together.” ..

    “Every single human being is creative. That’s the real stuff of economic growth and the logic of economic development in our time means that those individuals, companies and places that can accelerate the harnessing of that creative energy, the places that can tap deepest into that mine of creativity and attract it from elsewhere, they gain competitive advantage.”

    So there we have it: some new ideas and some new genes. We know who we are but we can’t agree on where we want to go. If ‘talent loves tolerance’ then we need to revisit the 1998 Agreement as the latter’s tug-of-war constitutional arrangement leads to further intolerance and a factory of grievances.

  • David Crookes

    To concentrate on flags, parades, and the past is to ignore who we are, and to play useless games of who some of us used to be.

    How many Orangemen are there in NI? Are there 34,000?

    I don’t know, but there are 34,000 Poles in NI. Those Poles, most of whom look like staying, are in qualitative and quantitative terms as important as our putative 34,000 Orangemen.

    It is unthinkable that London and Dublin will allow a less-than-two-million-strong statelet to revisit the 1998 agreement so as to please the deluded votaries of flegs and lambegs. What we need are politicians who will lead their voters away from delusion.

    If PR even now tells the incorrigibly boneheaded fleggers and Orangemen to get lost, he may lose the next election, and hand the FM’s job to SF. Then he will be able to round on the boneheads, and work to create an Orange-free political grouping. But at present everyone on the unionist side of the fence is running scared of the boneheads.

  • Delphin

    IJP, Jobs being a marketing genius, knew what people wanted before they did!
    On your main point I would agree, there is a woeful lack of vision and leadership in SF/DUP. FJH thinks a boycott of the next assembly election would bring them to their senses. It’s a nice idea, but I’m not so sure it would work.

  • Dec

    Don’t recall Jim saying this before the talks started. Hindsight makes experts of us all, I suppose.

  • Morpheus

    “That’s why the Haass talks were ill-conceived and fatally flawed from the start. The Americans should not have got involved. The British and Irish should not have allowed it to happen. It was a big mistake.”

    Completely disagree. The Haass talks were designed to begin work on three of the most controversial issues in Northern Ireland today. Had progress been made we could’ve set them aside and concentrated on the – and I detest this phrase – “bread and butter issues.”

    Instead here we are, not a ounce of progress – flag still down at City Hall, Camp Twaddell is still going etc. – and we don’t even know why because the OO, sorry I mean political unionism, haven’t even had the nads to say what exactly they opposed. Is it simply a case of ‘well themmuns endorced it so we don’t’? Who knows?

    There were:
    1386 Orange Parades in 2013 compared to 440 in 2003
    450 Black Parades in 2013 compared to 145 in 2003
    201 Apprentice Boys parades in 2013 compared to 82 in 2003
    584 Loyalist Band Parades in 2013 compared to 424 in 2003
    26 Flag Protests in 2013 compared to 0 in 2003
    40 other Unionist Parades in 2013 compared to 23 in 2003

    That’s 2687 applications (which in theory we could double to find the number of actual parades when we consider the number of parades home again as well) and equates to a 241% increase in just 10 years. With the scenes like we have witnessed this past few years I think it’s safe to put parades right up there as a priority. Same for flags – parts of NI are festooned with them.

    It had to be an outsider who came in to help because heaven forbid our leaders should take the bull by the horns and actually lead.

    David has it on the money above – it’s ridiculous that in 2014 the First Minister of Northern Ireland has to pander to the select leaders of an organisation which makes up less than 2% of the population. If the OO want to stand for election and dictate policy in Northern Ireland then they should have the strength and integrity to put forward candidates on that basis and see if the people want them instead of piggybacking on the current political parties who are paralyzed to move in the direction that many of them know they need to go.

  • sitarman

    David Crookes, it’s true that the membership of the OO is at a long time low but the reversal of this is that membership of Loyalist bands is at an all time high. I have no idea what number that would equate to but obviously still a small minority of unionist population, let alone the entire population.

    “If PR even now tells the incorrigibly boneheaded fleggers and Orangemen to get lost, he may lose the next election…”

    But i think this comment shows that it is much more than 34,000 that have some level of concern about these things. While a lot of unionists don’t really care for the OO, they don’t totally dismiss them out of hand either. They still see it as part of their heritage.

    Most protestants don’t go along with this whole PUL victimisation/republican appeasement/cultural war claim anywhere near as much as the Belfast OO/Flaggers do but i believe they feel it to a certain nagging extent, whether real or imagined and i think the polls show this. If something is repeated often enough it starts to take hold. The DUP in particular need to stop repeating this because they are partly responsible for devising & administering the policies of the assembly. So if Protestants are in a worse place now then they take a large share of the blame for it!

  • GEF

    Before the GFA in 1998 the Westminster Government funded many new loyalist bands to supply musical instruments free of charge. The idea behind this was while loyalists were spending time 2 or 3 nights a week practising their music and parading at weekends they won’t be up to any misdemeanours. Now they are left with all these billy boy bands.

  • Republic of Connaught

    “But the deadline for delivery is long past. The rest of the world isn’t waiting and doesn’t care.”

    This about sums it up.

    The most noticeable thing about many in Northern Ireland is that they’re plain attention junkies. Why? Because Northern Ireland is under UK jurisdiction, but it’s not in Britain. It’s cut off from mainstream British life like Corsica with France. It has to seek attention like a child because otherwise it’s completely ignored by the British.

    Despite being in Ireland, it’s also not part of mainstream Irish life, because a majority in the six counties are basically foreigners within Ireland. They want as little to do with the rest of Ireland as possible, and in their profound ignorance they crow about it like it’s some kind of defiant victory to be unsociable and dislikeable on an island this small. Like miserable dwarves in their Ulster cave.

    It isn’t the politicians in NI who are the problem; it’s the people of NI that are the problem. They vote for them.

  • http://www.wordpress.ianjamesparsley.com IJP

    Delphin

    Jobs was a marketing genius, yes – and that’s my point. But there is a specific skill (it’s actually the professional area I’m in) to market analysis aimed at working out what someone wants before they know. I can’t go into detail (at least not for free!) but Disney is another example of a company which has done this.

    We need a similar genius here in the political sphere – someone who has broad appeal for a variety of reasons and can re-frame the debate away from the old “Vote for us’ns to stop them’ns”.

  • Morpheus

    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
    Henry Ford

  • Greenflag

    Good post JF and nail on head .

    ‘The problem with our politicians is that they’re all process and no product.’

    They (the present batch ) were created by the process for the process .

    ‘ They’re addicted to process – like heroin junkies on a course of maintenance therapy. ‘

    Crude comment but they owe their existence to what created them .

    ‘They say the economy is their number one priority, but their inaction tells a different story.’

    As always never mind what they say -watch what they do and from your post above their achievements have been less than stellar .

    Admittedly the 5 p plastic bag charge took a huge toll on their creativity but surely they can take a bow for keeping the lid on -well sort of -the annual tribal confrontations ?

    Its as good as it can get given the necessary limitations imposed by the GFA . For all the personal and political criticism directed at Adams and Paisley the simple political fact is that the majority of NI voters vote for their parties .Which in itself says that the much talked about ‘middle ‘ has become a muddle .

    Haas talks were probably a mistake in hindsight . Most thought they would’nt succeed anyway . Given that the politicians are forever addicted to looking backwards and paid for nought where is the incentive to get them to turn to the light ?

    None that I can see .

  • David Crookes

    Agreed, sitarman, thanks for your posting. So a unionist leader must ask himself whether he will try to hold on to the substantial section of the PUL electorate that you identify, or reach out firstly to Orange-free and unworried-about-flags PUL voters, and secondly to members of the CNR electorate.

    Where does the bigger potential majority lie? I don’t know: but I know that many of the most vociferous fleggers are not warm-hearted supporters of the DUP.

    A real leader will do the right thing and be prepared to lose. Staying in power isn’t the main business of leadership, especially if you have to call in Mervyn Gibson by way of showing whose agenda matters to you.

    We need the sort of leader who can fill a big hall, make people listen to him, and take them where they don’t all want to go.

  • Greenflag

    @ Morpheus ,

    “If I had asked people what they wanted, they would have said faster horses.”
    Henry Ford

    Too true . And had he listened to his shareholders Ford autoworkers would never have been given the 5 dollars a day pay which enabled them to buy the product they were producing .

    Which point is alluded to in Nevin’s link above re Richard Florida

    “However, it (immigration ) is not what will solve crises in the long-term. Demand in the long run comes from building a class system of workers who can stimulate demand because their wages are high enough to buy the products we produce. It’s good for our cities, for our communities for our economies.”

    Rising income inequality in the developed West and it’s fellow traveller increased Debt is what”s dampening consumer demand and thus prolonging the recession .

  • Barnshee

    GF
    “Haas talks were probably a mistake in hindsight . Most thought they would’nt succeed anyway . Given that the politicians are forever addicted to looking backwards and paid for nought where is the incentive to get them to turn to the light ?”

    Good post

  • Mc Slaggart

    “The problem with our politicians is that they’re all process and no product. They’re addicted to process”

    This is only true of the Unionists parties as both the sdlp and sf accepted the outcome of the Haas talks.

    The talks themselves was a success as they clarified the ability of the different parties to make progress.

  • Greenflag

    @ McSlaggart

    ‘The talks themselves was a success as they clarified the ability of the different parties to make progress.’

    With respect McS I’d have thought clarification was hardly needed apart for the unfortunate befuddled Americans who had to endure the torture of several months of negotiating navel gazing amongst the participants:(

    Looking back to J Fitzpatrick’s post does anybody have any idea what he’s referring to re his reference to a Toxic Regional problem ? Does he mean just NI or is he suggesting the ‘toxins’ emanating from this latest dropped ball may migrate to the Republic or Britain or both ?

  • http://whereareyoufrancishutcheson.wordpress.com martyntodd

    Leaks from the party leaders’ weekly meetings on Haas show that they are going nowhere and will continue to go nowhere until after elections (i.e. two and a half years from now!!).

    Unless the local elections this year show that the electorate will no longer accept the two major parties looking after themselves at the expense of the greater good, then the better future for our children promised by the GFA will be postponed indefinitely
    https://whereareyoufrancishutcheson.wordpress.com

  • Johnnybegood

    Illegality is often tolerated and accommodated lest confronting it causes more trouble. Inaction by politicians is forgiven with the usual trite explanation “it may not be perfect, but look at how far they’ve come…”

    Thus the dark black heart of the matter is encapsulated and should it be framed within an analysis of the funding (and the votes) that this way of working has attracted? Is the Haas process turning into a resource negotiation? Do you need a thriving private sector when certain areas and issues attract such a high level of funding?

  • Zeno

    Anyone have a source for this?

    There were:
    1386 Orange Parades in 2013 compared to 440 in 2003
    450 Black Parades in 2013 compared to 145 in 2003
    201 Apprentice Boys parades in 2013 compared to 82 in 2003
    584 Loyalist Band Parades in 2013 compared to 424 in 2003
    26 Flag Protests in 2013 compared to 0 in 2003
    40 other Unionist Parades in 2013 compared to 23 in 2003

  • Morpheus