Onwards and inwards

One theme that comes up disappointingly often in politics, and Northern Irish politics in particular, is the strategic retreat into metapolitics. If you fear that you’re losing the argument, change the subject so that the argument is now about how well or badly the argument has been conducted. This is particularly powerful if the original argument had itself been about who had been badly treated in an even earlier argument. If done carefully, one can effectively prevent any conclusion from being reached in finite time.

It’s not difficult to see how this tactic became popular in the halls of Stormont.

The simplest such metapolitical argument is to note how uncivil the debate has become, and use that to argue for the suspension of debate. But more sophisticated variations on the theme can be constructed, and NI political parties have become very good at it.

This comes to mind today because of the latest series of statements on the Irish language by Robin Swann. Concubhar has already dissected some of it, but the metapolitics that jumped out at me in particular was this:

We are concerned that in a society which is already beset with divisions, the current debate surrounding an Irish language act is serving to further divide society.

Instead of focussing on that which should unite society – the need to tackle waiting-lists, the crisis in school budgets, and the need to create new and better jobs – Northern Ireland is being all but held to ransom by Sinn Fein demands about a language that was politicised by them and used and abused by them for their own selfish reasons.

No observer of NI politics can deny that the Irish language is divisive and has been politicised. But accusing your party political opponents of being solely responsible for politicising an issue is itself an attempt to politicise the politicisation of the issue. The more energy is spent arguing about who is to blame for the argument (about who is to blame for the argument (about who is to blame…)), the less likely it is that anything will get decided on its own merits.

The irony that this post is a metapolitical commentary on metapolitics has not escaped me. And so we continue, onwards and inwards.

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  • Oggins

    Andrew, this website is the Mecca of Metropolitical arguements in relation to us fabulous subscribers and commenters!!

    We are all guilty of it!!

  • The Irish language has not so much been politicised, as whataboutacised.

  • Tarlas

    Your post reminded me of a study by Jay Van Bavel;
    It found that on Twitter, the left and right are generally isolated from each other, with retweets rarely leaving each group’s bubble.

    https://uploads.disquscdn.com/images/d7a22d94c6ef3892ac9c0c7a01b3f9360cc4f73aef90188cf19d4646eb1c0354.jpg

    15 minute presentation titled: The dangers of the partisan brain. Jay Van Bavel

  • aquifer

    The DUP did not deliver the Irish language goods promised at St Andrews.

    But no need to worry, they have the Orange UUP to watch their back.

    The only party still fit to maintain a working Union is Alliance.

  • Sean Danaher

    I was looking at the origin of the word “whataboutery” assuming it was particularly Northern Irish but apparently it was a technique developed in the Soviet Union, but NI does get a (dis)honourable mention https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whataboutism

  • runnymede

    ‘We are concerned that in a society which is already beset with divisions, the current debate surrounding an Irish language act is serving to further divide society.’

    Well that’s what it’s for, so what?

  • Ben De Hellenbacque

    And it’s revealing that so few of the usual rogues’ gallery comment on this post. A challenge too far?