At a time of great austerity and joblessness, anxiety and uncertainty, Northern Ireland has distinguished itself, once again, by finding a whole week to devote to identity politics.
Make that two weeks because we’re about to go another round. Next Tuesday’s census figures could reveal a foreseeable tipping point: the moment when the PUL (Protestant-Unionist-Loyalist) majority Northern Ireland was created to serve no longer represent its dominant block – with all that that entails.
The reaction scripts have already been written, of course, and since we have built-in disincentives for thinking anew or in a spirit of cooperation, (just ask the level-headed Basil McCrea), we’re in for a depressing week ahead.
The whispered Nationalist reaction to Tuesday’s data will essentially be, “Who needs to focus on making a persuasive and coherent case, we’re en route to winning the birth race.” Inspiring stuff.
The leading unionist parties meanwhile will continue playing their new found game of Peak-a-Boo politics. Like the kids who cover their eyes in a futile attempt to make difficult realities just go away, Unionists faced with Nationalist majorities in Northern Ireland’s only two real cities’ elected councils, are seeking comfort by holding up unionist newspaper polls to the same end.
While it may be comforting to think that Catholics only vote overwhelmingly for Nationalists because unionists hadn’t before invited them to fly the Union flag and vote DUP and UUP, this willful ignorance is as depressing as Nationalists’ plans for a united Ireland amounting to little more than intermittently checking the demographic stopwatch.
In contrast to Belfast’s endless identity politics, the rest of the world is grappling with serious business.
Politicians in Dublin, for example, remain on an economic war footing. It’s similar in London where they have the added headaches of growing Nationalist movements to the north in Scotland and to the West in Ireland (north and south), growing anti-Europe feeling across England, and increasing anti-British sentiment in Brussels; indeed the very existence of the UK as a global power operating within the EU has never been less secure. In Washington, they’re gearing up to strike a bi-partisan budget deal that could soon see the US economy leave the rest of the world gasping to keep up.
So what makes Belfast so different? How can its political class and those who cover it in the local media spend so much time on issues of identity and symbolism rather than public policy and prosperity development?
The answer is obvious. Belfast’s politicians waste time because they have no real responsibility or power to tackle anything more substantive.
Explanations for Northern Ireland’s solipsistic, narcissistic and impotent political culture typically focus on its history, its “ingrained tribalism”, its conflict legacy, and so on. And on. Sure, these are not irrelevant factors but neither are any of these unique to Northern Ireland.
What is absolutely unique to Northern Ireland is its ability to live in first world prosperity, with first world facilities and lifestyle expectations (other than its dentistry), without anything remotely resembling a real world, never mind first world, political culture.
The entire project is subsidized not simply with huge cash injections from London but with endless enabling supplied by politicians in London, Dublin and Washington. These enablers see the place as something like a kindergarten project best kept stable by pumping in endless money transfers, well paid non-jobs and patronizing head-patting.
So here’s an idea. Hand Stormont tax rising responsibility and greatly increased responsibilities for domestic policy making. Call it Northern Ireland’s Devo Max option.
I know, I know. One cannot have tremendous confidence in the prospect of our current class in Stormont availing of real political powers – but that’s the point: A huge chunk of Northern Ireland’s electorate would have no confidence in further empowering many of current crowd whose only qualification is loyalty to the old scrip. Alternative candidates with serious politics would be sought and found. The conversation would change and very quickly.
Changing the political culture in Northern Ireland is possible but only with serious enhancements in the capacity of local politics to radically improve or harm local lives.
The political playacting won’t cease until the curtain falls on the theatre of democracy we have now.
Strategic Communications Consultant, located in Washington, D.C.