Identity politics is the enemy of good government. Can they be reconciled?

Banging on so much about culture and identity politics is like debating the Resurrection with a famine victim, at best a momentary distraction, at worst an insult. In politics and too much comment,  political rhetoric is easy  macho stuff.  It produces a quick high and the tunnel vision born of  long-term self-satisfaction, while the practical business of government is played out on a sectarian battlefield or put on automatic pilot to look after itself.  At the back of their minds, the warriors have implicit faith that Mother England (I use the old term from the Home Rule era deliberately), will step in and look after them, even though at her time of life, she’s starting to look at bit frail herself.

The depressing lesson of the past 20 years is that  the business of  government here  still hasn’t become a first order occupation. Nobody  outside the civil service was involved in it for 36 years.  For Protestants for the most part, what we call social mobility and fairness, human rights and social justice would have been greeted with incomprehension, or more likely, suspicion and a call to stand by  to repel boarders. Most Catholics when you think about it had a place in  government pretty much never, except  for a few officials in Dublin Castle.   With our politics  being mainly about contention or suppressed revolution, respect for the fledgling parliamentary institution is contingent and skin-deep.

It’s hardly surprising either that  our embarrassing political  state produces a late colonial mentality in London, of keeping the natives ticking over but for God’s sake  don’t get too involved. You can sense it from the here- today, gone- tomorrow James Brokenshire who is no doubt doing his best.

But to function well as a representative democrat,  you need your party membership. It provides the vital link between the politician and the people. A small example of Brokenshire’s limitations was his open complaint that the justice system was skewed against the Army. This might have made Conservative sense against the background of Iraq and Helmand.  He simply didn’t know any better that it would impede his effectiveness in dealing with the politics of Northern Ireland which if they aren’t  as brutal as Iraq’s any more, are barely more advanced. Brokenshire is our version of that  ridiculous American who wore desert boots with a suit and was the first ” shock and awe” governor of Iraq. Paul Bremer, remember him?

Without being directly accountable to the people he is in part governing, the unfortunate Brokenshire has no compass to guide him except some old referee’s rules and fast fading institutional memory.  So when he pops out to make those formal little statements to camera,  it’s no surprise  that the looks as if someone is about to throw him to the crocodiles.

How much has really changed since the notorious verdict of the late Home Secretary Reggie Maudling after just a couple of days’ exposure to our politics  in 1971 : “ Give me a whisky. God, what a bloody awful country!”

But government does really matter and can’t run itself  for long,  The alarm has already been sounded about the dire state of  Heath and Social care.   Last week Seamus McAleavey, the redoubtable chief executive of the Northern Ireland Council of Voluntary Associations sounded another alarm – £500 million worth of alarm – at the consequences of ongoing political crisis

This is over £500 million of public services in areas like mental health, health prevention, children, support to vulnerable people and end of life care for example.

On Monday he heaved a sigh of temporary relief.

This is a really important breakthrough for many, many organisations, their service users and their employees. I appreciate the work of David Sterling and his colleagues across all Departments for this key decision.

While this is a temporary fix, it is critical to sustaining organisations.  NICVA fully realises that this is no substitute to a Budget set by a functioning Northern Ireland Executive and we hope that Northern Irelands parties can find a way to resolve their differences and maintain the devolved institutions.  Most of all we need stability.

Will he get it? Do they actually care?

In Belfast Briefing in the Irish Times  Francess McDonnell  reports on further consequentials  such as the fate of a further £120 million from the UK budget which depend on a functioning Executive.

If  problems over government weren’t enough, we still have the banks to oppress us,  The Irish Times  reports the case  that makes the blood boil. Chris Donaldson  runs the well known Belfast furniture shop Donaldson and Lyttle. It disappeared for a while, thanks to ruthless practice by the Ulster Bank ( not “Ulsterbank.”  I put in the definite article “ the” in defiance of marketing fad).   Since then after lots of legal research and a spell  working in Dubai, Chris is back in business and he’s making a little demonstration out of his hard-won recovery

Technically, Donaldson has not broken any laws by scrawling “Not For Sale” across the building on Great Victoria Street. That’s because he now owns it once again. But his graffiti moment could make him a hero to firms still trying to get out from under bank loans and regain control of their businesses. In just three words, it sums up his success in “taking on the banks.”

“Ulsterbank” is part of the government – owned  still ailing RBS,  the initials which are a futile  marketing attempt to disguise the state-owned but separately managed Royal Bank of Scotland

RBS said it had let some small business customers down in the past but denied it deliberately caused them to fail.

The cache of documents, passed by a whistleblower to BuzzFeed News and BBC Newsnight, support controversial allegations in a report three years ago by the government’s then entrepreneur in residence Lawrence Tomlinson.

He accused the taxpayer-owned bank of deliberately putting viable businesses on a path to destruction while aiming to pick up their assets on the cheap.


Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London