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.


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  • Katyusha

    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.

    At best, the most valuable thing you could do for them, to bring them hope when they have no hope, to bring some sense of justice and order to their cruelly unfair and barbaric situation in a thoroughly unjust world, to bring them some sense of peace so that they may not bind themselves up in mental anguish as well as physical anguish.

    Yes, to bring people who are suffering material aid is vital, but it is also vital to provide them with reason to live on, to bring hope that their future may be different. It is a cruel thing to sustain a man only so that you may prolong his suffering. While Christianity is far from the only ideology that can bring hope and peace in times of despair and injustice, it is the hope and purpose that the missionary provides that is as important as the physical relief they bring. Or to quote Yevgeny Yevtushenko:

    But even if the rich feel burdened by the lack of an ideal, to those who suffer real deprivation an ideal is a first necessity of life. Where there is plenty of bread and a shortage of ideals, bread is no substitute for an ideal. But where bread is short, ideals are bread.

    We have basic questions to sort out before we worry about the minutiae of handling budgets and departments. The accountants and clerks in the civil service can do that. Our politicians are elected to ask the big questions as well, and represent our popular answers for them. I do not buy the argument that politicians should abandon their principled stands because there is accounting work to be done. Let the bookkeepers keep things ticking over. We elect our politicians for higher purposes, questions of strategy and ideology and vision, rather than simply keeping the ship afloat.

    The way to remove the late colonial mentality of London is to remove the belated colonial arrangements of rule from London. Easy. We are too far removed from merry England and the London metropolis to be viewed in anything other than a colonial light. To attempt to redeem ourselves in the eyes of the UK parliament is a lost cause. Westminster has little interest in the trifling affairs of the natives. Brokenshire does not have a clue about NI, and it is no surprise as he was not elected by nor is he accountable to anyone in NI. That one blow-in viceroy is as useless as the last is not a deficiency of Irish politics, it is a deficiency of the ruling party of the UK and their attitude to the “nations and regions”.

    I do concur that we have little experience of truly democratic politics in NI, and as such little invested in the official structures of government. Its the nature of the beast, a product of its environment, which encourages politics to break upon explicitly sectarian lines. If you start to ask the questions as to why we produced Unionist parties which had no ideology other than to be protestant and unionist, you quickly hit upon the way that NI was constituted in the first place as the root cause of the problem. C’est la vie.

  • Korhomme

    The version of Maudling’s Ulster comment I’d heard was:

    “For God’s sake bring me a large Scotch. What a bloody awful country.”

    Maudling’s political career was ended by his connection to ‘scandal’. He died in 1979 from alcoholic cirrhosis and renal (kidney) failure. Just how fit he therefore was as Home Secretary is open to question; another in a very long line of politicians whose abilities were much reduced by disease.

  • Brian Walker

    Katyusha, ( I wonder why you chose the name of Russian artillery rockets?)
    You say:
    “We have basic questions to sort out before we worry about the minutae of handling budgets and departments.”

    You make my point for me.

    What you regard as “basic questions” if you mean a change of nationality are likely to remain contentious to some or other degree and wont’ oblige by being sorted out “first” or according to any particular timetable.They are themselves a state of being. If you mean better more collaborative behaviour I entirely agree. But government is anything but about ” minutiae. ” Sentences which begin: ” the easiest way to remove the late colonial mentality etc etc>” are just points of affirmation, they don’t begin to engage with the problems. They don’t even offer debate. Can you really not see that? .

  • Brian Walker

    Accurate but not quite relevant! He never quite got over not being elected leader instead of Heath. Before becomIg home secretary he had already become embroiled in a financial scandal as president of a dubious off-shore outfit called the Real Estate Fund of America unearthed by Private Eye . He was forced to resign soon afterwards. Maudling was regarded as brilliant but lazy, better at handling more abstract issues like finance than thorny home office issues of which NI was then one, before DR .
    Thus the rhyme:
    “Reg has no edge.
    and Maudling is dawdling.”

    Now I’m even less relevant

  • Katyusha

    I don’t mean a change of nationality. I already have Irish nationality, and if you mean a change of nationhood that is not something which is going to be sorted out in the near future or through Stormont. I mean the bedrock of trust and compromise which powersharing is supposedly based on. If there is no trust, no compromise and no cooperation between the parties then there is no powersharing, regardless of whether Stormont is running or not.

    If the DUP and the British government are not willing to follow through on the commitments made in the St Andrew’s agreement, then its difficult to see what value the agreement has. That is a basic question that underpins the existence of the assembly. We can let things tick over until the parties involved decide to honour their past agreements or develop a new one going forwards.

    As regards Westminster’s colonial mentality, you are right, it is simply a statement of affirmation. I am disputing your claim that “It’s hardly surprising either that our embarrassing political state produces a late colonial mentality in London“. In reality, it doesn’t matter what the political state of Northern Ireland is, the colonial mentality will persist. It’s not an issue that will be resolved through internal debate or by anything that is within the gift of NI’s politicians to do. Engage with the problem? It’s a simple fact of life, there is nothing to engage with.

    Ireland still gets hit with the old colonial schtick about returning to the Commonwealth etc. almost a century after having declared independence and established an enormously successful state of its own. The imperial mentality still persists in certain segments of English society, and there’s no harm in it really, until one of them ends up in a position of power vis a vis NI, which, if it poses a problem, its not one that we have any capability to resolve. Or, you know, until they decide to leave the world’s largest trading block and promise to open up trade routes with Australia and New Zealand again instead.

    As for my handle, Katyusha is the Russian equivalent of the English name Katie, or Kate. It’s not just the name of a rocket launcher and a certain diminutive tank commander, but first and foremost the name of a girl, and in particular the titular subject of an old Russian wartime folk song. Enjoy.

    Apple and pear trees were blooming.
    O’er the river the fog merrily rolled.
    On the steep banks walked Katyusha,
    On the high bank she slowly strode.

    As she walked she sang a sweet song
    Of her silver eagle of the steppe,
    Of the one she loved she loved so dearly,
    And the one whose letters she had kept

  • mac tire

    “Katyusha, ( I wonder why you chose the name of Russian artillery rockets?)”

    *Shakes head*

    Brian, that is the equivalent to asking are you related to an AT-AT.

  • Korhomme

    I was reading about Maudling, refreshing my memory, for a project which I hope to present here soon.

    Your point about him being more suited to finance than the Home office is interesting; he was sacked by Margaret Thatcher because of his opposition to her ‘neo-liberal’ economics. His competencies were, in the Home Office, not matched to the needs of the job.

  • Brian Walker

    A blessed relief on the name thanks! But sad that you avoid our share of responsibility for London’s colonial attitudes. Its we who are overwhelmingly responsible in my opinion. Our politics are not grown up . They prefer to live in dreams rather than reality.

  • Brian Walker

    He was Chancellor 1962 4. And left behind a big deficit. Leaving No11 as Jim Callaghan his successor was looking at the books, he put his head round the door and said: ” Sorry old cock”.
    You can check this one for accuracy too!.

  • Korhomme

    I don’t usually go around checking up…In this case, I actually thought Maudling ordered ‘a large Scotch’, the point being more towards his alcohol intake and what it did to his judgement. And he is only a minor character in what I was researching. And yes, this is all very tangential to the point of your post!

  • Am Ghobsmacht

    Or a Texas Ranger…

  • Paul Culloty

    On a point of order, is (the) Ulsterbank the same company as Ulster Bank (RoI), which (to the best of my knowledge) never included the definite article in its name?

  • Korhomme

    Is Mr Brokenshire not just the most recent in the line of lightweight politicians, as if NI was a political backwater?

  • ted hagan

    And of course Bernadette Devlin’s greatest moment during her short Westminster career when she thumped Reginald Maudling for his Bloody Sunday remarks.
    “I’m sorry I didn’t get him by the throat,” she said afterwards.

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    So when a higher ideal is achieved e.g. a United Ireland, what higher ideal replaces this? There will have to be one presumably.

    Some parallels here:

    Nonetheless, how temporary or permanent do identity politics become, particularly after the essential root causes are addressed? Surely ‘normal’ politics are about ongoing attempted fixes at minimum (perceived) cost within a framework that is understood differently by different individuals making up the polity.

    As for identity politics in wee Norn Iron, can’t we manipulate our identities (protean like) to profit (minimise cost) from the circumstances we find ourselves in? If politicians can do this (as they evidently do) why can’t the rest of us?

  • Katyusha

    So when a higher ideal is achieved e.g. a United Ireland, what higher ideal replaces this? There will have to be one presumably.

    Of course there will be. A modern, liberal and prosperous republic of equals isn’t going to build or maintain itself. There will (hopefully) always be those with vision for the future and how the future can be different and better than today, and to achieve those visions they will have to put themselves before the electorate and win support for them.

    If the job of government is simply to rubber-stamp budgets and keep the general machinery of the state rolling along, then we don’t need a democracy. In fact, democracy is a pretty shoddy way t manage such a system. A non-elected staff of bureaucrats could fulfill this role much better. We elect parties to determine the direction we want the country to go in, not to keep the day-to-day apparatus of the state ticking over. Electoral politics is all about the vision thing.

    Some parallels here:

    Maybe, but given Ireland’s consistent and complete rejection of extreme right-wing politics… I sincerely doubt it. Want to check how many votes Identity Ireland got at the last election? I mean, you’re taking about a nation where people offered spare rooms in their houses to refugees. One of the things I am properly proud of Ireland for is its flat rejection of right-wing populism and racism when such ideology is gaining traction all over Europe. But then, we’re a nation of emigrants, after all.

    Nonetheless, how temporary or permanent do identity politics become, particularly after the essential root causes are addressed?

    Of course, they change over time. Identity is not permanent. Hasn’t the self-perception of the Irish people, north and south, changed over the past 50, 100, 200 years? Are the political parties we choose to represent us immutable, the same as they have always been?
    And when you get into identity politics, isn’t a left-right split also a type of identity politics? Don’t people identify themselves as socialist, or liberal, or conservative? Don’t people also vote for these parties out of both a sense identification with their community and background, and a vision for the future?

    If all “normal” politics is about is attempted cheap fixes and patch-ups of the state’s infrastructure, then what do we need political parties for? We could have a politburo do the job for us much more efficiently.

    As for identity politics in wee Norn Iron, can’t we manipulate our identities (protean like) to profit (minimise cost) from the circumstances we find ourselves in?

    Don’t we do this already?