Forces of inertia

In his column in the Irish News today, the always stimulating Brian Feeney raises one of the major issues emerging out of the population study I referred to frivilously on Tuesday. He in effect poses a 64,000 euro question: should government ( whatever that is these days ) abandon the fiction of one community and break it down into a range of different social and sectarian profiles?

“What is needed from the devolved administration at Stormont is a set of policies to take account of the different population profiles in the Catholic and Protestant communities, to answer their different needs and stop following the outdated NIO mindset of trying to pretend that everything here would be OK if everyone started behaving as if they lived in England”.

I want to be careful here…. ….. because Feeney is not advocating playing the familiar sectarian numbers game, (although it’s easy to distort his point but please don’t), and conclude that is spite of huge Protestant disparities, Catholics would still be the bigger net gainers. So what?

Feeney argues that as ethnic social profiling is employed in English cities, why not the equivalent in NI?

As usual , he makes great play of blaming the British government, but under our local politicians does he seriously believe it would be any better? Without trashing his idea in the least, the problem lies in the political settlement which is creaking so badly at the moment – where instead of the shared future. political behaviour in the new Executive so far seems to work for a shared out future, a carved up one, where inertia rules.. The risk in Feeney’s otherwise perfectly reasonable proposal is that social data would be treated mainly as sectarian data and so reinforce the dreadful old zero sum numbers game.

Those prominent devisers of the Shared Future idea, Robin Wilson and Rick Wilford of Queens’ University commented wryly on how the politicians just don’t get it, in their devolution monitoring report for the Constitution Unit last May: (read the report in full)

“In January, five north Belfast Protestant clergy wrote to the unionist-oriented News Letter, complaining of the failure of the executive to tackle sectarianism. They wrote: ‘We have poor inter-community relationships, effective apartheid in housing across our villages, towns and cities; community division (exemplified in, but not confined to the physical structures of peace walls); slow pace of reconciliation; sectarianism and fractured educational provision. Our real angst is that a suggested programme for government almost totally fails to acknowledge these profoundly difficult issues exist.’ The response from the DUP junior minister in OFMDFM, Mr Donaldson, was that power-sharing was the ‘shared future’31—an interpretation which seemed to confuse politics as means with the ends it aimed to realise.

The draft programme for government had significantly replaced the language of ‘a shared future’ with ‘a better future’, inline with its prioritisation of the economy—a much more convivial focus for members of the political class than the challenge of tackling the communal divisions in which they were so deeply implicated. The revised PfG32 published by Messrs Paisley and McGuinness, introduced the clumsy circumlocution of ‘a shared and better future”.

From a progressive stance, Wilford and Wilson, as well as being among the closest and most expert observers, have long been the most devastating critics around of the present power sharing system.

.”The Agreement has tended to place these competing constitutional claims side by side, offering unionists the majoritarian ‘consent principle’ and nationalists the egalitarian ‘parity of esteem’. This has allowed the conflict to be pursued—albeit for the most part less violently—if anything with more alacrity than before.

The way ahead is to transcend these counterposed positions by defining a new, sui generis constitution for Northern Ireland which would satisfy seamlessly concerns for accountability and equality. This would replace the ‘either/or’ antagonism of unionism and nationalism by a ‘both-and’ alternative”

This is visionary stuff – far from what we’ve got or are likely to have. What Wilson and Wilford discount is that often in politics when there’s a will there’s a way, however flawed the system. That may seem like Micawberism. But the natural momentum of government, the policy examples that come from the still-definitive Westminster and above all public pressure from inside the tribes, may nudge the politicians into abandoning – painfully slowly and step-by-step – the bankrupt old numbers game. Who was it said that every day would be Groundhog day?

Feeney ‘s idea, rational in itself, is under the circumstances, almost as visionary as Wilson and Wilford’s Shared Future. Sadly, that’s the measure of how far we’ve got to go.

  • PeaceandJustice

    Brian Walker – “the always stimulating Brian Feeney”

    Sectarian, bigoted, repetitive, trying to out-green Sinn Fein PIRA .. yes. Always stimulating .. was that a joke?

  • L Dallas

    Good God, Brian Feeney stimulating?
    Sectarianism in a suit, he plays only to the lowest form of pond life within his own community.

    He stimulates, as in stirs up, only hatred and bigotry.

  • slug

    I agree that the present system of shoe-horning people into communities is nonsense. There are many people of no religion who are allocated to one which is rather silly, while the increasing number of ethnic minorities and outsiders makes the classification more difficult. Times are moving on.

    I also agree that the present executive, while right to focus on the economy, is doing too little for integration.

    Ruane is closing integrated schools, not opening them.

  • Shore Road Resident

    I often enjoy Feeney’s pieces but this one is appalling and just plain wrong. NISRA records and publishes detailed age-related and income statistics down to a six-digit postcode resolution (i.e. half a street). This can all be easily cross-referenced with religious population breakdowns.
    “Ethnic social profiling” is regularly attempted in Northern Ireland and invariably produces the same result – the real divide for policy provision is class, not religion. The NIO has been caught out actually burying these reports to facilitate tribal-based provision (which, incidentally, is supposed to be illegal).
    Is that what Feeney wants? He really is reaching to be offended here; he sounds like a man who’s missing apartheid.

  • fair_deal

    “What is needed from the devolved administration at Stormont is a set of policies to take account of the different population profiles in the Catholic and Protestant communities, to answer their different needs and stop following the outdated NIO mindset”

    Broadly sensible comment with caveat that some needs are in common. IIRC it also contrast/contradicts with previous articles he has written but never mind.

    Take North belfast housing – RC need more but P housing stock is of poor quality. Different needs but both worthy of attention.

    Take the civil service – legacy issue of RC under-representation at top but developing issue of P under-representation at the bottom.

    However, we’ll all play the sad game that only issue is to be acknowledged etc etc instead of getting on with dealing with both and those in common. Too often choosing having the issue rather than addressing it or futuring that somehow it aids/assists ultimate political goals.

    I suppose Section 75 EQIA’s should be encouraging such a process but they haven’t but then the Equality Commission isn’t in much of a place to talk.

    As for the Shared Future stuff, while the necessity to address it had to be defended the actual policy and action plan was/is not worth defending.

  • Shore Road Resident

    No surprise to see the DUP agree with this…

  • fair_deal

    SRR

    1. I am not a DUP spokesperson
    2. “that some needs are in common” was there to show this line should not be blindly adopted
    3. “However, we’ll all play the sad game that only issue is to be acknowledged etc etc instead of getting on with dealing with both and those in common. Too often choosing having the issue rather than addressing it or futuring that somehow it aids/assists ultimate political goals.” One of those this comment of criticism is directed at is the DUP.

  • Brian Boru Feeney

    “Feeney argues…..”

    Feeney should stop arguing and get a normal job, instead of stirring up division in our society.

  • Jean Baudrillard

    Ethnic social profiling would be daft for NI.

    Whatever some parties might want to believe, the facts are that the ‘two communities’ are pretty much alike and the differences that do exist are due to historical factors that become less important with every passing day.

    However, the differences between socio-economic groupings (be they Protestant or Catholic) are much more significant, persistent, and, for the most part, require the same type of intervention.

    Poorer communities in Northern Ireland tend to have more kids. The younger profile in the Catholic community is not an inherently Catholic thing – but simnply because Catholics are more likely to be less well-off.

    However, to have ethnic intervention to tackle this would be to miss the point entirely. Instead you have policies and interventions that tackle poverty.

  • Glencoppagagh

    “Poorer communities in Northern Ireland tend to have more kids. The younger profile in the Catholic community is not an inherently Catholic thing – but simnply because Catholics are more likely to be less well-off.”

    Maybe a good “intervention” would be to discourage the less well-off from procreation. The benefits system as it stands tends to encourage it whereas the tax system has no incentives for the better-off.

  • fair_deal

    JB

    What prevents one, other or both when they are relevant to a particualr problem?

  • LURIG

    Feeney is one of the best political commentators in these islands. He had a solid voter base in North Belfast and why the SDLP allowed him (and Martin Morgan) to walk away is anyone’s guess. Many Nationalists in North Belfast have had no real voice since both these two left the scene. Feeney really has his finger on the pulse of the Catholic community and knows how it thinks. Having spent years in the bigoted Bearpit of Belfast City Council he also knows what drives much Unionist thinking and the machinations of the Civil Service; simple sectarianism. Vast swathes of land lie derelict in parts of North Belfast but Loyalists have decreed that these are to stay empty. In effect Uncle Andy, Big Mervyn and Red Hand Luke drive housing policy in this area. Keep writing your informative and enjoyable columns, Brian. The bigots don’t like you because you confront them with the truth.

  • L Dallas

    LURIG
    Thanks for that Brian – though I might remind you of the old saying about self praise being no recommendation.

  • Shore Road Resident

    There’s no way Lurig is Brian Feeney, and there’s also no way Lurig’s praise is any praise at all.

  • He had a solid voter base in North Belfast and why the SDLP allowed him (and Martin Morgan) to walk away is anyone’s guess.

    Can we start by destroying this myth… Brian Feeney did not have a solid voter base as evidenced by the fact that Marty Morgan actually managed to increase the SDLP vote in the teeth of a relentless SF squeeze on the SDLP almost everywhere else in NI. I’ve dealt with this point extensively before on Slugger and I don’t really have the time to do the sums again. Suffice to say that when people ask me why I joined Alliance rather than the SDLP, I point out that Brian Feeney was my local SDLP councillor at the time and most people in North Belfast get the point…

    Feeney’s article certainly puts forward a vision, and it’s a vision most effectively put into practice in recent decades by Hendrik Verwoerd and Iain Smith.

    Firstly, let’s destroy his straw man, that ethnic profiling is not used in official statistics in Northern Ireland. This is bunk. It is possible with 15 minutes and a modicum of computer skill to provide breakdown of almost any social indicator crosstabulated against religion or community background to Output Area level. In fact, Brian could just spend an hour browsing through the archives of my blog and find out all sorts of interesting things…

    Secondly, Brian complains about the NIO treating us as if we were as British as Finchley (as if the NIO actually do that much these days)… and then asks for the same social policies applied in Finchley to be applied in Finaghy! Indeed, like Finaghy, Finchley has been the scene of fairly profound demographic change since Maggie Thatcher was Prime Minister, and it wouldn’t be a bad place to assess how well the sort of ethnic balkanisation that Feeney proposes would work in practice. Most observers agree that it hasn’t worked terribly well, that encouraging people to see themselves as members of their community rather than the community simply encourages mutual scuspicion, resentment, rumour and paranoia and eventually segregation or violence. Great call there, Brian.

    Finally, didn’t having one rule for them and one rule for us help get us into this mess in the first place? So, we’re going to solve the conflict by the sort of partisan treatment that exacerbated the conflict in the first place? Uh, run that by me again! Call me old fashioned, but I’d call equal rights the cornerstone of a civilised society, and most *republicans* would agree with me.

    But then, I forgot, Brian is an old fashioned sectarian nationalist so maybe different rights suit him fine. But if they do, he really ought to follow his train of thought to its logical conclusion and realise that its exactly his sort of mentality that legitimises acres of land lying waste just over the peaceline from areas with chronic housing shortages and overcrowding. Spraypainting the UDA’s sectarian ideology green, white and gold doesn’t make it a different ideology.

  • Briso

    F-D
    Take North belfast housing – RC need more but P housing stock is of poor quality. Different needs but both worthy of attention.

    Can an empty house be Protestant?

  • LURIG

    Thanks L Dallas I am chuffed, comparing me to the great man. Great minds thinking alike and all that but alas SRR is correct, I am not he. He’s giving me a few years and unless that’s a wig on my head the last time I looked in the mirror I had hair. Superb commenatator, has called nearly every crisis every time and predicted that the Asssembly, like most political agreements here, would fall on unionist intransigence and their inability to change. Until Unionism sheds itelf of this superior white Boer/Deep South Confederate mindset which looks down on Catholics, we are all whistling in the wind. Looks like it is panning out as he said, AGAIN.

  • fair_deal

    Briso

    Sighs as I said “the sad game that only issue is to be acknowledged etc etc” (BTW insert one after only)

  • L Dallas

    LURIG
    I apologise for confusing you with a sectarian bigot. How could I make that mistake?

    He actually has never called anything before it actually began to happen. Bigoted Bri’s predictions have always been a bit like those of someone watching a tree-feller at work. As the worker removes the chainsaw and runs for cover, and the tree begins to move ominously in a certain direction, Bri has been on hand to say, “I think that tree’s about to fall”.

  • Driftwood

    Is there any room for atheist housing in North Belfast? Or indeed anywhere else. Oh, and could we specify working class atheist and middle class atheist.

  • Shore Road Resident

    I wonder if Lurig agreed with Brian Feeney when he said “of course the Provos did it” after the Northern Bank robbery?

  • That POV has my sympathies Driftwood…..

  • Brian Walker

    Dllas
    “Bigoted Bri’s predictions have always been a bit like those of someone watching a tree-feller at work.”

    I don’t agree with the sentiment but it’s a great line. I’ll steal it and use it, after a judicious interval.

  • Driftwood

    Thanks Phil
    My brain cannot just simply accept that housing estates, geographical areas, or even postcodes are ” Roman Catholic, Protestant (various denominations), Agnostic- I know the NIO doesn’t recognise this- Unionist, Nationalist, Just don’t care, or Jedi Master”
    I will state categorically that I can be any of those things if bought. All of our politicians follow the money after all.
    This demarcation of geographical space to religion or constitutional outlook remains beyond my tiny brain. I suppose I’m lucky to live in a village where none of this nonsense applies.
    May your God go with you as an old fave comedian used to say.

  • aquifer

    Yes and those communities of Man U and Death Metal fans should also get their own schools, translation services etc.

    This ‘separate communities’ stuff is dangerous nonsense. In a fractured community the state is an essential tool to maintain civil and productive relationships between people.

    When John Hume (I think) said agreement threatens nobody he was wrong.

    There are ethnic cheerleaders working in our local media who should be out of a job.

  • NP

    How can anyone in this slightly more enlightend age respect anything Brian Feeny has to say ?
    His mind set is pure pre-GFA sectarian dinosaur.
    Even in his hay day he always was just a “paisley flip of the coin” rabble rouser…picking over big ians stagnant can of worms.

  • Billy

    [edited by moderator – play the ball not the man]

  • oneill

    Not a good news day for Brian and his sectarian brand of ethno-nationalism.