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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  • T.E.Lawrence

    Tend to agree with you Mick, I can’t see no strategic end game from any side, can only see more voters switching off from politics, we are getting dangerously close to below 50% Election Turn-Outs

  • Sharpie

    The Tragedy of the Commons is a good place to start the analysis of what is happening. Lots of group dynamics demonstrate how people tend to act out of short term selfish interest even when they are are aware of the long term detriment to the whole. Prisoners dilemma also highlights this.

    The missing ingredient in Northern Ireland politics is self awareness – it seems that few people reflect on their own responsibility for the position we are in and how they are contributing to it.

    Even this blog, great and all that it is demonstrates how entrenchment happens. People are not in listening mode – but announce and defend.

    There cannot be enough talking shops, dialogues, and conversations that allow people to understand that ceding ground on a point of view does not invalidate everything they hold dear. Its obvious that at some times the impassable enemy has a better insight to something and it might be gracious to actually admit that from time to time and take the new insight on board as a learning. But to do that you have to be in learning mode and too rarely we or our political leaders are there.

    Sensible grown-up conversations with no rules or deadlines are essential. A Bohm dialogue could go on for months or even years before a group finds the ability to say something that is not taken as a slight or out of context by someone else in the group.

    Politics in the assembly and the media is didactic – we need dialogic.

  • eiregain

    This is the (not so hidden) secret strategy behind Robinsons tactics.

    He knows he can disillusion the younger generation (the more liberal, social and democratic generation)

    This means the election no longer becomes a population race or a battle of ideology but a turnout campaign.

    Hate and Fear turnout better than Equality and Change.

    Sad to see Mick once again loosely talk about compromise and resolution but add some of his partisan opinions on Robinson and SF to the mix, he will never learn the nuances of objectivity.

    You always make some good points Mick but you also always allow your partisan opinions change how your piece reads.

    We CAN have a grown up reasoned debate about the future…

    if we all grow up first!

  • Practically_Family

    We might need them… But do we want them?

  • Practically_Family

    “He knows he can disillusion the younger generation (the more liberal, social and democratic generation)”

    Is there any real evidence that the younger generation are more liberal, social & democratic?

    Frankly I’ve seen little to suggest it in real terms.

  • Morpheus

    I think you give PR too much credit eiregain. Has anything over the past few years given the impression that it’s part of any sort of strategy or plan? I think not. It appears that he bumbles from one thing to another…Maze, McConnell, shops, Lemmings, Conscience Clause, ‘resignations’ blah blah blah

    If he was capable of long-term strategic thinking then he would be doing something to address the fact that there is 0% support for political unionism from the Catholics community.

    I agree when you say “We CAN have a grown up reasoned debate about the future…”

    We need to

  • Sharpie

    Changing the rules is the long term strategy. The rules of engagement are set by the way things have been done previously. There is no owner of the rules, we just obey them by accepting them at face value.

    Getting people to see that there are no rules that cannot be changed is the short term strategy that promises possibility of new results. There are more people commenting on how what we have today doesn’t work and how crap (insert political name here) is operating than those working inside the system.

    What if one changed the nature of the debate to focus on possibilities rather than analysing failures of what we know doesn’t, and can’t, work?

  • barnshee

    “If he was capable of long-term strategic thinking then he would be doing something to address the fact that there is 0% support for political unionism from the Catholics community.”

    Robinson rests on the “not loyal to crown but loyal to the half crown (12.5p in modern parlance)” theory/dogma which has been parroted for decades (And SEEMS to shine through the various UI polls.)

    This enables him to preach to his own flock in confidence and assumes the British welfare state “buys” enough compliance or disinterest from other “flocks” to maintain the status quo.

    SF and DUP are like two dogs fighting over a bone who have failed to notice that the bone is getting smaller as a direct result of the fight.

    “address the fact that there is 0% support for political unionism from the Catholics community.”

    And there is support for political nationalism in the protestant community?

    “Polarisation” —-its the only game in town.

  • Barneyt

    Demographic change is perhaps too far away for unionism to be worried about being voted into a united Ireland. SF seem happy to play a very long game, so by definition, we have a stalemate. Only risk is that wider republicanism may not play ball and grow impatience with SF.

    Perhaps there is something in SFs call for a border poll. It will at least determine how long SFs long game has to be. It might even force hands in either direction i.e. demographic induced absorption is closer than unionism believes or SFs hopes are fruitless this side of 2066.

    If there is an acceptance that a united Ireland will occur (not saying this will happen by the way) then, as I’ve said in other posts, unionism could cut their own united Ireland furrow and influence the flavour. They have a receptive audience across the border….even for a Fine Gael type Ireland….United Ireland under the Commonwealth. I can’t see how you have have a peaceful shorter term settlement without one of the two occurring:

    1. Some aspect of Britishness and Royalty being incorporated into and all-Ireland settlement
    2. Mass unionist exodus from NI or overnight conversion to republicanism on a grand scale.

    Based on this logic, solution 1 is more likely and it should be talked about…as painful as it may seem.

    The unthinkable needs to be thought and uttered, at least to see how quickly and violently we twitch into spasm. We might find the abhorrent more palatable when voiced instead of negatively considered in passing.

    Mick if you ask us to come up with a single half-sensible solution, a solution that could be implemented in the next 10 years and is designed to work, you will see entrenchment and many will be focused in their belief and personal wants, rather than something that represents a compromise.

    Asking for a United Ireland under British control with the Queen as head of state is as productive as demanding a 32 county republican socialist all-Ireland. However, most answers I would suggest will fall into these two very distant desires.

  • Tacapall

    Fact – Being Irish or British and living in Corporate UK or a united Ireland enables each nationality to claim benefit in either country we are after all members of that other union the European Union. Its so old fashioned loyalist of you to still believe sterling belongs to Mrs Windsor the British government or the British people. The reality is private investors own what you would call the half crown, your hero the Dutch dwarf signed over all the country’s financial rights to his investors and financial backers in 1690s. That unique agreement not only give foreign bankers and investors ownership of Britains money supply it also give them a little tax haven in London where the Royal family are subservient to a group of bankers.

  • Morpheus

    Polarization? And what happens when the number going to one pole is increasing and the number going to the other pole is decreasing?

  • barnshee

    “Fact – Being Irish or British and living in Corporate UK or a united Ireland enables each nationality to claim benefit in either country we are after all members of that other union the European Union. Its so old fashioned loyalist of you to still believe sterling belongs to Mrs Windsor the British government or the British people. The reality is private investors own what you would call the half crown, your hero the Dutch dwarf signed over all the country’s financial rights to his investors and financial backers in 1690s. That unique agreement not only give foreign bankers and investors ownership of Britains money supply it also give them a little tax haven in London where the Royal family are subservient to a group of bankers.”

    I have considerable academic and professional qualifications – non of which has allowed me to decipher you comment and associate it with my comment.

    This may help

    INVESTORS own assets they can live anywhere
    MONEY is medium of exchange
    STERLING is the currency of the UK it- like all other currencies is subject to economic forces
    UK (PLC) like other states borrows money and suffer the consequences of such indebtedness
    THE BANK OF ENGLAND dictates money supply (quantitative easing)

    GOVERNMENTS exert influence via Interest Rates

    I could go -but it is best summarised by
    WTF has you comment got to do with the post and my comment?

  • Practically_Family

    By contrast I would have said option 2 a great deal more likely, at least the exodus portion.

    I think you’d have to think about what size of a pro-union demographic we’ll be talking about by the time a pro reunification majority exists here. It ain’t gonna be very big.

  • Barneyt

    interesting. The whole point I am making is that we should look at all options instead of farting around with clearly unworkable solutions, or even solutions that reduce the mix (as an exodus would).

    Personally if we adopt option 1, we will arrive at a new version of Irishness in time, and I would hope a united Ireland can be owned by all. I’m just a wee dreamer though…and an optimistic one at that 🙂

  • Tacapall

    You seem to be under the illusion all nationalists and republicans are loyal to the half crown or what you believe is British money therefore we will continue to desire the status quo while supporting at the polls pro united Ireland parties like Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Is that not a contradiction ?

    Yes people with money can live anywhere but we both know what was meant, people from other EU countries without money can live and claim benefits in other member states of which Ireland and the UK are members so regardless whether its a united Ireland or the status quo they will still get benefits.

    Sterling is the currency of the UK just like the dollar is the currency of the USA but like the dollar sterling is owned by private investors who charge the American and British people interest on every dollar and pound in circulation.

  • eiregain

    I was born in the 80s, my sisters the late 90s.
    I work with young people through sports and training.

    My attitudes are more liberal than my grandparents would have been, Certainly!
    those in their 20s and Millennials attitudes towards liberal issues are way more intense than mine, or my peers.
    I would consider myself center left. (sympathetic towards most liberal ideas, apathetic about some)

    A vast swathe of the younger people i know would be cold socialists, pro choice, pro gay marriage, pro immigration, green living atheists.
    To suggest you have seen little evidence of the younger generations more liberal attitudes says one of two things,

    you are not exposed to the same environment
    or
    you choose to ignore it.

  • barnshee

    “we will continue to desire the status quo while supporting at the polls pro united Ireland parties like Sinn Fein and the SDLP. Is that not a contradiction ?”

    It is indeed -I wish they would run a UI poll ASAP to inform the apparent contradiction between Election results and UI surveys.

    I can`t understand why SF don`t organise one-

  • barnshee

    “And what happens when the number going to one pole is increasing and the number going to the other pole is decreasing?”

    One pole gets stronger– and since poles repel the repulsion increases

  • Practically_Family

    I’d have said anything to do with Royalty is right out the window. You could perhaps see something entirely new – “The Western European Islands Commonwealth & Trade Organisation”… Or something. More titular than binding.

    In all honesty though, I don’t see many compromises being forthcoming in that regard. The northern Unionist population is likely to be sub 500,000 with only a percentage of that figure being the “bury me wrapped in the flag” persuasion. I’m not saying that number could safely be ignored exactly… But close enough for government work.

  • Tacapall

    Indeed Barnshee why dont they, I ask myself that question its not as if they haven’t the readies to organise a Catalan style referendum. The flip side of that coin is why unionists are so afraid of having a border poll if they are so sure about what way the nationalist people would vote in any border poll.

  • barnshee

    I don`t think anyone other that the politicos are afraid of a poll It sure would clear the air

  • Practically_Family

    My job involves almost daily interaction with young people, in a educational/arts based environment.

    In my experience there is a “vast swathe” of proto fascism, common in the same age groups you cite. Far moreso than was the case when I was of similar age. They favour zero immigration, proscription of homosexuality and are fervently flag nationalist in their respective milieu. Many believe that global warming and green issues in general are a “leftie plot” to prevent them getting what “the elites” already have. “Look after our own” is a phrase heard rather more frequently than “Feed The World”.

    On a more parochial level, the imperative that people of my generation felt to demonstrate an acceptance of our “other” culture, to show you weren’t involved in violence, no longer holds sway. Kids are quite prepared to disparage their neighbours culture to a degree that would have been unacceptable among my peers.

    I also see the young people that you describe, but frankly they’re no more common than they were in my youth – About the time you were being born. In fact, in my estimation they’re rather thinner on the ground. My parents.. At least my mother, were yer genuine article hippies, I was a right wing buzz kill to them, it works for that generation too.

    So… No I don’t see that young people are necessarily more liberal, social or democratic than their elders, sorry.

  • Practically_Family

    You’ve kind of nailed it with the last sentence there. A generation down the line and nobody would know any different.

    How the Irish Government would feel I can’t say, I believe that for appearances sake, if not for history’s they’d like to be seen to accommodate protestants, unionists and even loyalists in an all island republic. I can also see them breathing a huge sigh of relief if they don’t have to accommodate too many!

    This is a heck of a tangent, but the conversation brought it to mind. I was discussing rugby earlier this year with a chum and Tommy Bowe came up in conversation and for whatever reason, what school he went to, Royal Armagh. So the guy I was having the conversation with asks why he’d have gone there when he was from Monaghan, and I replied something along the lines of it probably being the nearest quality school that wasn’t run by monks. To which my co-conversationalist pointed out that it couldn’t be a religious issue as Tommy belts out Amhrán na bhFiann before the matches. We both took a second to think about what we’d said and the light bulbs came on above the heads in stereo.

  • Zeno1

    “It is indeed -I wish they would run a UI poll ASAP to inform the apparent contradiction between Election results and UI surveys.

    What is the contradiction ?

  • What of deal, election and claim that outcome confirms it is what ‘the people’ want?

  • barnshee

    “What is the contradiction ?”

    The series of (alleged) polls
    http://www.lucidtalk.co.uk/
    which allegedly show a lowish preference for a UI in spite of strong performance of UI parties in elections.

    The only real way to resolve it is a formal referendum

  • Zeno1

    14.7% of the electorate vote SF.
    8% vote SDLP.
    That’s not really strong support, besides one poll showed that not all SF voters want a UI and I think it was only half of SDLP voters wanted it.

  • Zeno1

    There are risks in having a Referendum. If the Polls are right, and they invariably are, the Yes vote would fail. There is no doubt about that. But if it failed by a large margin of 70/30 or 75/25 then Sinn Fein could be in big trouble and so could the rest of us. There has to be a risk that the Republican hard-liners would take up the gun and bomb again. They would reason that the political route has failed. Loyalist paramilitaries would be revitalised and would no doubt retaliate by murdering innocent Catholics. Does any of this sound familiar?

  • Robin Keogh

    Whats very frustrating about Northern Politics is the fact that if we could suspend the constitutional question and if we could somehow erase the ethnicity factor from both a primordialist and constructivist viewpoint on the part of the electorate; citizens of the North would have at election time something that most western democracies have lost – a clear Right/ left choice in representation. Conservatives could flock to DUP/UUP/TUV etc while the lefties have the SDLP/ SF.

    Many authors have written about the way traditional party politics have become obsolete due to economic globalisation and the erosion of ideology specific policy ideas. In government, parties have little choice but to rule in line with international political and economic expectations. The UK and the US both have main parties that have pretty much converged in the middle domestically. Sinn Fein claim that they will break this habit once in power in the South, if they do it and how they do it remains to be seen, but in the North at least there is no impetus for any of the parties to sincerely work towards agreement, unless the threat of violence were to raise its ugly head.

    Most people accept that those days will never return so we are left in a state where we only have the threat of financial sanction from London to try light a fire under all actors. However, this cant work because regardless of who is to blame for the logjam and the subsequent consequences, when it comes to elections the tribes will vote along traditional lines anyway.

    If we are going to talk about a future we need to get real about the present. Stormont is failing and its failing in part because of the nature of Consociational arrangements and partly because we are forcing together parties that have diametrically opposing views on economics society and politics. Moreover, the public know that assembly elections will change nothing in terms of the make-up of their government representatives, election processes can be boring enough without this added predictive outcome.

    The efforts of London and Dublin over the last two years tell us quite clearly that both current regimes just want Belfast to Shut Up and get on with it, and if they cant get on with it then just shut up anyway. FG and labour in the South traditionally couldn’t give a monkeys about the North and the conservatives over in London only pretend to care if it serves their own selfish interests to do so.

    Simply put, the North will be allowed to drift until their is a significant crises that forces Dublin and London to get involved at a far deeper level. The constitutional issue and the persistence of separate ethnic identity politics has a paralysing effect on politics in the North, this has always been the case and there is no sign of it lifting.

  • mickfealty

    Isn’t this just another Candy Crush stratagem Barney? How SF or anyone else achieve a united Ireland is a matter for them, not the system. The concern of the Belfast agreement was in this regard to make it clear there were no constitutional barriers, the rest is essentially a political burden for those who wish to effect such change.

    (30% cut in NI’s contribution to Intertrade Ireland doesn’t help but is surely yet another victim of tactics over strategy?)

  • Morpheus

    I agree, inform the electorate what a UI entails in terms of the keys issues that will effect them then ask them to make an informed decision about whether it is for them and their families or not. Simples

  • Morpheus

    Rubbish. The first referendum is a ‘Gimme’ – even if it’s 10%, 30% or 40% it will show the starting point, where they are now and how far they need to go.

  • barnshee

    here here

  • barnshee

    “a clear Right/ left choice in representation. Conservatives could flock to DUP/UUP/TUV etc while the lefties have the SDLP/ SF.”

    I fear you misunderstand the situation in De Nort

    “if we could somehow erase the ethnicity factor from both a primordialist and constructivist viewpoint on the part of the electorate” The breakdown you suggest ” Conservatives could flock to DUP/UUP/TUV etc while the lefties have the SDLP/ SF is at best partially

    As you correctly identify the sectarian divide prevents the normal “left/right”divide in NI arising– In the unlikely event of “normalisation” I think you would be surprised by the loss of DUP/UUP/TUV support to the left

  • Biftergreenthumb

    “Whats very frustrating about Northern Politics is the fact that if we could suspend the constitutional question and if we could somehow erase the ethnicity factor from both a primordialist and constructivist viewpoint on the part of the electorate; citizens of the North would have at election time something that most western democracies have lost – a clear Right/ left choice in representation. Conservatives could flock to DUP/UUP/TUV etc while the lefties have the SDLP/ SF.”

    Sinn Fein are not a leftist party. The traditional left/right political spectrum runs from communist/socialists on the left, social liberals/neo-liberals in the centre, conservatives right of centre, nationalists on the right and then fascists on the far right. Most of the political parties in NI, including SF and the SDLP, apart from Greens and Alliance are nationalist (British or Irish) i.e. they are right wing.

    While Sinn Fein and SDLP have some leftist policies this is simply because their traditional core voters come from economically or socially disadvantaged backgrounds. Leftwing policies therefore benefit their voters. But ultimately Sinn Fein, the SDLP and their voters are primarily motivated by nationalistic concerns.

    To “suspend the constitutional question” and “erase the ethnicity” would be to completely alter the political landscape of NI. The Unionist and Republican parties would all loss their raison d’etre, cease to exist and brand new genuine socialist, liberal and neo-liberal parties would spring up.

  • mickfealty

    I think just getting some air into the public square would help Robin. There’s so much fear of one sort or another that no one is prepared to take risks. No risk, no change.