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.

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  • …might consider switching to the DUP…

    I think that is extreme wishful thinking. It will never happen for that particular party. Have you switched there from the TUV?

  • Cric

    If we are talking actual tangible benefits, rather than mere perceptions or straw victories, then I’d argue the DUP’s Maze veto turned a potentially Positive Sum game (employment and regeneration benefits everyone) to a Negative Sum game (failed project, money lost, no new jobs or regeneration).

    I don’t think a lot of our politicians even understand the concept of positive sum games when it comes to our deep rooted tribalism.

  • Mick Fealty

    Actually Joe, I think you are missing something in the detail. Look at BangorDub’s chart here:

    The DUP’s performance par excellence was in 2005, when they performed way above anything before or since (they took four out of five UUP seats at Westminster). That was a respectable distance about where they are now.

    The DUP are good. Their problem is that no one in the media likes them. This summer has seen good journos repeating press office lines at the DUP’s expense based on little more than the common perception that they are the Millwall of NI politics: ie, that everyone hates them and they don’t care.

  • odd_number

    What evidence do you have that Raymond McCreesh held sectarian views?

  • Mick,

    I don’t think I am missing anything. I believe that it’s the younger folk who can’t be arsed to go to the polling station. Older folk will remember that the DUP used to be the “Protestant Unionist Party”, nor will they forget “The Protestant Telegraph” plus, of course, that Robinson rose to prominence through what could be described as extremist speeches. “Catholics” will not vote DUP.

  • ayeYerMa
  • ayeYerMa

    Excellent article Turgon.

    I think it’s important to have regular articles reminding both such eternal compromisers and media types of the logical fallacy of the false middle that they have and endless tendency to veer towards:

    (feel dirty after linking to Wikipedia, another source of vast error)

  • redstar2011

    Hard to take these ” catholics flocking to Dup” type reports seriously.

    Its up there with these worthless polls ( god preserve us the tele is dropping another one on us this week) which allege Nats are really Unionists etc- then comes polling day and invariably about 90% of each community votes long traditional lines.

    Still keeps pollsters/ bloggers busy

  • “This summer has seen good journos repeating press office lines ..”

    Rebecca Blood takes a different view:

    When a magazine reporter repurposes a press release without checking facts or talking to additional sources, that is not [journalism].

    I like her concluding observations:

    When bloggers link to conflicting or contextualizing material, smart reporters will further research and verify promising leads, and credit the bloggers who uncovered them.

    Participatory media and journalism are different, but online they exist in a shared media space. There are tremendous synergies possible between the two. .. I want to find ways to leverage the strengths of both worlds to the mutual benefit of both.

  • Rory Carr

    All this “zero-sum” and “differential gain” calculation only diverts minds from the real problem which is that of progress or reactionary stultification.

    By and large those parties who can be shown to be in favour of progress are: Sinn Féin, SDLP, and Alliance (and the Independent Unionist, Sylvia Harmon). Those who can be shown to oppose progress are: DUP, TUV, UUP, and the the Loyalist and dissident Republican groupings.

    The real kicker is in this nonsense about “percieved
    disadvantage”. What possible actual disadvantage can accrue to the unionist population if the Maze scheme were to have gone ahead as planned and as agreed ? None we may well think and further agree that only advantage was to be harvested by all sides. However, to the profit other than political reaction, the scheme is unilaterally cancelled by the major party of reaction.

    This stultification can also be blamed for the stalemate at Stormont and he public’s alck of enchantment with progress in the Assembly which is hampered in the main by the largest party there, the DUP. Until and when, if ever, the reactionary DUP is replaced by a party of unionism able and willing to seriously work with the representatives of nationalism in implementing the full spirit of the Belfast Agreement then we are going nowhere fast but are steaming forward, slowly but inexorably, towards the implementation of joint authority. See how you like them apples.

    p.s. Aye Yer Ma’s model of Danny O’Connor as exemplifying the rush of Catholics willing to vote DUP is heartening. O’Connor is a most conflicted man. He is a self-proclaimed supporter of a United Ireland who served in the UDR only to have his life seriously threatened by attack from Loyalist elements for being a Catholic. We cannot be sure what Mr O’Connor’s political position will be tomorrow or indeed, later today. We do however wish him well.

  • foyle observer

    How boring is this ‘shrine’ thing becoming? Was never going to be a ‘shrine’.

    Unionists should choose alternative wording. Every single time it’s spun, i (and many others), cringe.

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Rory Carr

    “reactionary stultification”.

    You kill me Mr C, you really do.

    Pure gold.

  • Son of Strongbow

    ‘Progress’ is another of those words purloined by nationalists for their very own lexicon.

    Of course in Natspeak ‘progress’ does not necessarily mean the same thing as in English.

    So you have ‘progress’ defined as supporting the nationalist position, as in the case of the Maze shrine. This usage is further clarified by the use of the Natspeak ‘reactionary’, which here means in support of (any) unionist argument.

  • Why do some people here still keep insulting the museum professionals of Northern Ireland by talking about a shrine? The Maze centre was never going to be a statue of Mary crying tears, but a small-scale version of the Titanic exhibition.

    First sit some history examinations, to the same levels that the professional historians and archivists have reached.

  • Blue Hammer


    Maybe not Mary, but there is NO DOUBT that anything established at the Maze site will be contaminated by the foul stench of St Bobby and his murderous suicidal buddies.

    That’s a shrine to terror, no matter how you spin it.

  • foyle observer

    Blue Hammer,

    If Loyalist prisoners at Long Kesh had done anything remotely honourable whilst doing time there, you would not be calling for it to be torn down.

    Just because they took drugs by the bucket full and slept with their new found boyfriends and made no mark on the international stage (streets named after Bobby Sands) etc, does not mean you have to slate the Hunger Strikers at every opportunity.

  • Reader

    foyle observer: Just because they took drugs by the bucket full and slept with their new found boyfriends and made no mark on the international stage (streets named after Bobby Sands) etc, does not mean you have to slate the Hunger Strikers at every opportunity.
    While I’m not into aggressive slagging myself, your response to BH also seems to be unfair.
    Firstly, your remark seems to be somewhat homophobic – and are you *quite* sure there were no homosexual encounters on the republican blocks? The implication seems to be that you would class that as dishonourable.
    Secondly, Bobby Sands Street may have inspired some Iranians to their own form of suicidal exertions, but I’m not sure that’s the sort of cultural sharing that should be celebrated.
    Third, I wouldn’t expect honour from the sort of people who wound up in any of the paramilitary wings in the Maze – just different flavours of zealotry, stupidity and aggression. No surprises there then.
    As for your clear implication that BH would be willing to celebrate loyalist theatrics, I’ll leave that for him to address. I don’t think condemnation of Provos is evidence of support of loyalist terrorists.

  • Blue Hammer



    Foyle Observer

    Loyalist prisoners at MLK had clearly done something dishonourable before they got there. That’s why they were there. The only reason I would have for NOT tearing down the remaining sections of the former HMP Maze would be to repopulate it with all the scumbags who were released from it under the iniquitous GFA.

    It seems the main difference between you and I is the fact that I abhor ALL those whose actions got them into the Maze, yet you choose to venerate those who wiped their shit on the walls and committed suicide by wilful starvation.

    Paramilitaries are a cancer in our society and should be in gaol, not in government.

    NB: if street names are a judge if merit, I’m sure you’ll agree with me if the merit of the 19th century British Royal Family, after whom much of Belfast’s streets are named.

  • ForkHandles

    What was Bobby Sands phone number?

    Eight nothing, eight nothing, eight nothing !

  • FuturePhysicist

    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.

    If we were to look at why those gains took place, it is exactly the same reason why the DUP and Sinn Féin have gained seats … people went out and voted for them. A less British electorate voted for the parties that compromised on designated days, in Belfast.

    They didn’t vote for parties that have said that the freewill of those who committed violence had been hijacked by the politicians in the democratic majority of Belfast, they have voted for the politicians in the democratic majority, to have a democratic majority. In the same way our society have voted for the DUP and Sinn Féin to be in the democratic majority.

    Belfast got the politics it deserved, Northern Ireland got the politics it deserves … until people change it. We need to think down up not always up down, the up down approach to problem solving is the main problem.

  • Rory Carr

    I have flagged the trite remarks of Fork Handles regarding the late Bobby Sands as offensive.

  • ForkHandles

    only to terrorist supporters…

  • Rory Carr

    …and now he takes occasion to compound the offence.

  • paulG

    Blue Hammer,

    Ok, so the Loyalists got caught, but they didn’t turn in their Army handlers and RUC/UDR mates who gave them their targets.

    Maybe save some of those block for the fine upstanding citizens who were pulling the Loyalists strings.

    For all that, now that some ex-paramilitaries are in Stormont, sitting in the offices of the murderous Unionist regime, they can rub shoulders with the big boys of mass murder from Westminster and Washington.

    They would have had to shake much less bloody hands in their previous accomodation.

  • Blue Hammer

    Paul G

    Well done on promoting the new “Provo Truth of the Troubles TM”. Someone (for the sake of Godwin I won’t name) once said “if you’re going to lie, make it a big fucking lie”.

    I’d paraphrase that in your case to “if you’re going to exaggerate, exaggerate fucking wildly”. Yes some loyalists were infiltrated by SIS. Similarly some republicans. Neither ever gave up their handlers. Some in govt probably still have them.

    None of which is a reason for not razing HMP Maze to the ground and returning the contaminated, certainly not neutral, land to farming.

  • RegisterForThisSite

    “if you’re going to lie, make it a big fucking lie” That was Britain’s wartime ally Stalin responsible for about 20,000,000 deaths, including 3,000,000 Cusacks and White Russians rounded up by the British after WW2 and handed over as a thank-you (obviously not the many who decided to commit suicide instead) they themselves had been Britain’s ally before the war, but heyhoo things change,

    So, it’s not Godwins Law, and the IRA aren’t the only baddies.

    How about (given the topic) we build a 2nd peace centre near the site of Girdwood barracks, the Mess\Bar there was where the UVF and UDR mingled (with an estimated 25% joint membership). Perhaps two statues a UDR and a UVF volunteer holding an Ulster Resistance Beret between them, it could be stylized to resemble a poppy wreath, I think that would cover everything for unionism and the DUP

  • Blue Hammer


    I was actually referring to its use in Mein Kampf, and later by Goebbels, so Godwins Law would apply.

    I am well aware that the IRA were not the only baddies. I can’t see where you get the impression that that might be my view.

    Why have 2 centres? I have no desire to commemorate ANY illegality. Particularly that undertaken by those from my own community who disgraced themselves and their country by their actions.

    Unlike the nationalist community which chooses to venerate and even vote for sectarian killers to represent them, I refuse to give any credibility to NI’s various bands of killers.

  • paulG

    Blue Hammer,

    “Yes some loyalists were infiltrated by SIS”

    Ah yes, ‘some’ is a great little word, it covers a multitude anywhere from 1% to 99 %.

    In this case, the Finucane Inquiry found that 98 out of 102 Loyalist paramilitaries questioned were working for one or other branches of the security services, so that puts us very much at the upper end of the scale.

    It should be starting to become apparent to you, that ‘a fucking big lie’ has indeed been spun, but that it has been created and propagated by the arms of the state – army, police, politicians, media etc. all so that you can pretend that you live in an honourable, democratic, peace loving country.

    As each Inquiry exposes more truth, the chinks of light become a flood and soon those blinkers of yours won’t be enough.
    Maybe, as an exercise you could try imagining if the big lie was the other way around and see if it fits.

    Also bear in mind that the RUC effectively started the civil war by murdering 8 (all innocent Catholics including an 8 year old and a pensioner) of the first 10 victims of the troubles.

    I think you need to widen your selection of groups who fit into your ‘various bands of killers’ category.