July is holiday time so this will be a short, sharp column and – for a welcome change – it won’t be about cross-border cooperation. I want to reply to the bloggers who respond to my ‘Note from the Next Door Neighbours’ when it appears on the excellent and (rightly) award-winning Slugger O’Toole website of Irish and British politics.
I have to say I find the relentless flow of negativity from (most of) these people, and their obsession with the minutiae of the ‘national question’ in Ireland, both dispiriting and breathtakingly boring. I suppose I should be grateful that they’re only blogging rather than shooting at each other. But I really wish they would move on and start dealing with the political and economic issues that matter to the great majority of people.
Take my May ‘Note’. This started with the Queen’s visit to Ireland, but was really about ‘impact assessment’: the useful mechanism by which policy makers can begin to ascertain whether or not a cross-border approach to tackling a particular problem in the two parts of Ireland can bring ‘added value’ beyond what might be achieved in a single jurisdiction. Most of the Slugger O’Toole respondents weren’t remotely interested in a useful thing like whether it makes practical sense to cooperate across the Irish border. What they wanted to do was to have an old-fashioned sectarian slanging match – sparked off by my throwaway line on Ulster Unionist leader Tom Elliott calling Sinn Fein supporters ‘scum’ – about whether the UUP or Sinn Fein were the more bigoted party.
It got to the point where the founder-moderator of Slugger O’Toole, Mick Fealty, had to intervene to plead for some rationality: ‘Dear God, people. [What about] impact assessment? Take your squalid faction fighting to where it is appropriate.’
Then there is the business of pseudonyms. I find it very hard to take somebody called ‘Socaire’ or ‘Turgon’ seriously. Why can’t these anonymous bloggers have the small courage of their convictions and put their names to their opinions? I remember when I was a journalist covering Latin American dictatorships in the 1970s, I developed a lifelong antipathy to policemen wearing mirror sunglasses, men whose eyes were never revealed to the public whom they spent so much time terrorising.
I feel something similar about anonymous bloggers: it’s like talking to a man in a mask. I will not waste my time engaging with a spineless contrarian who hides his opinions behind a pen-name. Is there something peculiarly Northern Irish here – something dating from the faceless haystack burners and cattle killers who called themselves ‘Defenders’ or ‘Peep o Day Boys’ back in the 18th century? It might just about have been understandable at the height of the Northern ‘troubles’, but not in these largely peaceful times.
And on the relatively rare occasion when the blogger has a good case to argue, the anonymity of his presentation totally undermines his credibility. I remember a long and detailed critique of a column I did in January which was itself extremely critical of the Republic’s health service. A very senior Irish Department of Health official and I (despite being on different sides of the fence on this one!) agreed that although the blogger (‘Mack’) had some interesting things to say – slightly undermined by his inability to remember the names of the people he was citing! – we couldn’t take his overall argument too seriously because we simply didn’t know who he was.
I’m going to finish with a quote from the distinguished Irish economist, John Bradley, which I strongly agree with (although maybe we are both showing our age here!). ‘The new electronic media – Twitter, Facebook, blogging – has fragmented conversations into tiny bits that are plucked out of cyberspace and make it difficult to think deeply about issues, read longer papers, or examine issues in the appropriate context. Most blog sites are a cacophony of harsh, personal points of view that sail past each other and then the participants lose interest and move on to the next burning issue of the day. The medium tends to dominate the message. Nobody listens any more. Every point of view is regarded as carrying equal weight. Research simply cannot be done this way. People need to read and think.’
PS. In the list of North-South educational ‘heroes’ in my June ‘Note’, I inexcusably omitted Marianne McGill, who has been running the Civic-Link programme of jointly engaging schools in both Irish jurisdictions in community action for the past 12 years. This pioneering Cooperation Ireland-run programme has been one of the highlights of North-South school and youth work in Ireland, and Cooperation Ireland itself is widely recognised as being among the trail-blazers of cross-border educational cooperation for nearly a quarter of a century.
Andy Pollak retired as founding director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies in July 2013 after 14 years. He is a former religious affairs correspondent, education correspondent, assistant news editor and Belfast reporter with the Irish Times.