Does our future belong to strategic optimists or endlessly tactical ‘passive aggressionism’?

I was talking to a friend the other day about the latest online craze Candy Crush. His advice was pretty direct: never get involved with any game in which there is no finite end.

The trick to Candy Crush, apparently, is that it lures you in at the low skill/easy entry end with a series of compelling short term tactical plays. At the same time the developers keep adding more and more layers at the farther, inaccessible side. This means that no matter how long you play you cannot ever get to a satisfactory end.

As with online games, so with some dodgy offline political games.

In this, the DUP and Sinn Fein are well matched. Peter Robinson may have many [many] deficits as DUP leader, but poor negotiation skills are not one of them. He also a master of tactics rather than strategy (much of which was too easily buried by the triggering of the flag protest).


Sinn Fein in particular love spending time in negotiations, not to mention external lobbying of interest groups outside the decision making process. It enables the stretching of timelines and an illusion they are not responsible for their own decisions (or rather indecisions) in government.

So everything becomes tactical, whilst the much promised strategic end-game (Irish unification) stretches further and further onto the political horizon. All that’s needed to keep the flame lit whilst further levels are added creating the illusion of progress, even though the end point keeps shifting.

This stretchable game modelling allows scope for all manner of mistakes and radical policy switches. Meantime the levels keep building in hopes their constitutionalist opponents will be ground down by the sheer self determination of the revolutionary idea.

Post the Belfast Agreement Northern Ireland has become a playground for the politically unserious. The only serious check on the executive, the committee system has, with few exceptions, struggled to land many blows on the departments they are supposed to scrutinise.

The BBC’s decision to axe their afternoon coverage of the Assembly (with accompanying comment and discussion) hasn’t helped focus on matters of value up on Stormont hill.

Any failure of the now radically transmuted talks at Stormont will lead to a default on budget and radical depreciation of the budget across the board from April 1st. [Default it should be noted was once SF’s prefered solution to the southern debt crisis.]

However it won’t lead to a 2002 collapse of the institutions, but rather a resort to the original election timetable that both Sinn Fein and the DUP agreed to change in order not to have to fight too many elections on the same day.

Tactical manoeuvring par excellence. As timetables stretch, election terms stretch (and contract): the electorate peels away as it sees less and less public value in Stormont’s pettifogging reductionist games.

There is nothing wrong with focusing on the future. Actually we don’t do enough of it, as testified by the needless debacle over Casement Park. Nor can it be gainsaid that things must change.

Futurologist Kevin Kelly advises that in business the future belongs to strategic optimists in a world where most folk tend towards pessimism. Passive aggression (whether from Unionists or Nationalists) is not genuine constitutional optimism. Nor is it any way to rise above the fatalism of past conflict.

It’s worth returning to that famous 1968 Science magazine essay  on the tragedy of the commons. In part it demonstrated that  obsession with technocratic solutions  encourages competing populations to act independently and rationally; prematurely depleting scarce resources and seeding the grounds for escalated conflict.

Simply saying no is not an option. Nor is saying yes to daft, ungrounded or illfiting solutions to Northern Ireland’s twin evils of poor economic growth and social exclusion. That will require at some point, to stop fiddling with the platform we’ve got and start judging it on its outcomes.

Footnote: At sometime in 2015, I’d like Slugger to be in a position to host a deeper conversation about our future, what it demands and what kind of outcomes are desirable. As Kelly notes, thinking about the coming year just isn’t enough. Thinking about the next ten to twenty years is what creates real impact.

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