Zero Sum and Differential Gain in Northern Ireland

It appears that the idea that ending the DUP’s support for the Maze shrine spelt the end of Robinson’s leadership has itself finally ended: with even the least well informed members of the commentariat who so recently predicted his demise now accepting that Robinson is staying put. This episode is, however, interesting in that it raises again the issues of the zero sum game that so often affects Northern Ireland’s politics.

For any uninitiated the zero sum game theory states that any gain on an issue for unionism is a defeat for nationalism / republicanism and vice versa. This functions for many though not all issues. A further and extremely important part of the zero sum gain is that the losses and gains are often more perceptual than substantive and the losing side may feel the loss much more keenly than the gaining side do (or admit to). Even some non zero sum issues may display what could be called differential gain characteristics whereby although no side loses from a gain one side gains much more than the other.

The Maze shrine is a classic example of a zero sum gain issue. The creation of the conflict resolution site whatever its initial intentions had come to be seen as a gain for republicanism at the expense of unionism. Assorted attempts were made to make or at least pretend that the conflict resolution site would be less of a republican shrine. These attempts might be seen to be making the gain for republican a little less and the loss for unionism slightly less: somewhat zero sum. However, the veto of the shrine by the DUP is seen as a straightforward gain for unionism and loss for republicanism: classic zero sum.

There is a popular concept within “letsgetalongerism” that the zero sum game is disadvantageous to promoting cross community politics and certainly to a leader trying to reach across the political divide. This like many received truths is at best a half truth. Clearly there are times when a politician defending their own side in zero sum game argument may alienate the other side. However, the extent of that alienation may well be overplayed. Just how many Catholic Unionist unicorns would be put off the DUP by Robinson opposing the reduction in the number of days the flag flies at Belfast City Hall is unclear but it probably did not help the DUP’s unicorn attractiveness (frequency of flag flying being a classic zero sum argument).

In the case of the shrine, however, it is far from clear that Robinson blocking it will greatly antagonise potential unicorns. The sort of Catholic community voters (or liberal garden centre Prod gnomes) who might consider switching to the DUP are most unlikely to be gravely annoyed by the end of the idea of a shrine to the assorted terrorists. Indeed such opposition to glorification of terrorism would be likely to play well with unicorns and gnomes alike.

If (for example) a unionist political leader can pick a zero sum issue where the other side’s position is seen as more extremely partisan, then a zero sum battle is likely to maintain or enhance the unionist leader’s position within their own community yet not damage it at all within the other community. An example of this is likely to be Robinson’s position on the shrine or for example assorted unionists’ position on Eames Bradley or maybe decommissioning. From a nationalist position an example of a potentially zero sum position where the leaders position was enhanced within their own community yet undamaged within the other must be Margaret Ritchie’s facing down of the loyalist terrorists over the Conflict Transformation Initiative.

What the above demonstrates is the unsurprising fact that neither community is entirely homogenous in its views. Many issues which are presented as zero sum games are actually more ginger issues for one portion of one side of the community: whilst they are stridently opposed by almost all the other community and regarded as unimportant and often a bit embarrassing by the majority of first community. In actual fact often the defeat of the section of the community’s issue is unimportant to or actually quietly welcomed by many in the community supposedly defeated. An example might be if the play park named after sectarian terrorist and likely mass murderer Raymond McCreesh was renamed.

The failure to understand the relative nature of the zero sum game and that it does not apply equally across all of both communities can lead to the ultra middle of the road letsgetalongerists completely misjudging an issue and decrying a political leader for blocking something. Exactly this misjudgement occurred by letsgetalongerists over Margaret Ritchie and the CTI and looks likely to be happening over Robinson and the Maze shrine. The fact that both these issues are regarding terrorists is instructive as it demonstrates the low levels of support that terrorism actually has amongst both communities and also letsgetalongerists failure to understand how strongly unionist (or nationalist) people can be yet at the same time totally opposed terrorists supposedly from their own side. It also demonstrates the moth to a flame type fascination some letsgetalongerists have for ex- yet minimally repentant terrorists. That being another reason for the contempt so many in both communities have for, not only terrorists, but also said letsgetalongerists.

Another aspect of zero sum game, which is rarely mentioned, is what one might call differential gain events.

Differential gain events are those which some (including letsgetalongerists) would regard as beneficial to the whole community but in reality (or perception) are much greater gains for one side of the community than the other.

An example of a perceptual differential gain was the visit by Her Majesty the Queen to Fermanagh. This involved a cross community service etc. and the opening of the new hospital. It will have been welcomed with much more excitement by the unionist than the nationalist / republican community. On the other hand a visit by the President of the RoI would be viewed in the opposite light.

This sort of thing can be extended to the likes of major events with significant investment results. Londonderry’s tenure as the UK City of Culture actually became much more the preserve of and gain to the nationalist / republican community than to unionists, complete with the almost complete dropping of the UK moniker.

Differential gain also applies in the area of investment and jobs: this is usually due to the geographical location of investment. Increases or decreases in jobs for Shorts or FG Wilson are of greater gain or loss to the unionist than nationalist community just as the loss of Quinn jobs was of greater relevance to the nationalist community. Sometimes these differential gains can degenerate into unseemly zero sum wrangles: a classic example being whether the Project Kelvin interconnector would have its tele-house in Coleraine (greater unionist differential win) or Londonderry (greater nationalist differential gain).

As noted above many letsgetalongerists are attracted to comment on classic zero sum game issues denouncing politicians perceived to be supporting their own side. In reality frequently what look like zero sum games for the whole of both communities are actually more ginger issues for one small (often more extreme) part of one community. On the other hand the differential gain issue exposes more subtly yet more negatively the corrosive effect of our divided society and the excess parochiality which blights many decisions in Northern Ireland keeping us back from achieving more as a community and society.

This author has not written a biography and will not be writing one.

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