In learning from what’s gone right for Northern Ireland, there’s a lot more than you think

I’m working on a new paper at the moment. It won’t be as long or detailed as the future of Unionism paper that kicked off Slugger in the first place, it should draw on its key lessons and some of the exciting material being published in just now.

The title of the 2003 piece was a deliberate inversion of the old guerrilla idea of the long war. The key question being what do we can do differently amongst sides which have come distrust each other deeply, in order to bed in a long peace.

More contemporary insights from a pandemic era of political literature which draw lessons from the lockdown on business as usual within US politics, which warn against the policy drifts that taken hold in the binary model of political discourse.

Flick through the political columns of local titles and they often obsess on these binaries to the exclusion of abounding social data which tells us that after one hundred years of Northern Ireland, it is clearly not going away.

The point of the paper is to try to avoid getting caught up in the party political quagmire of blame and counter blame, or calling for leadership in a time when there is no real consensus on what leadership actually looks like in the digital era.

Most of the shortcuts borne out of an easy trope like the one thrown at Gordon Brown (ie, that he was an analogue PM in a Digital world) rarely bare fruit. Cameron who replaced Brown is now having his careless health reforms ripped out by Johnson.

One of my favourite quotes from the original Unionist paper is not something we wrote but advice from Miyamoto Mushasi that ‘In strategy it is important to see distant things as if they close and to take a distanced view of far away things’.

But who can be far sighted in this always on, faster than light era of political communication? Who consumes the benefits they have today in such a way that does not impair their chances of greater benefits coming tomorrow?

How to tackle the moral algebra of the “tumultuous now” within the memory-less micro blogs of Twitter and Facebook, and become farsighted and wise to the needs to ordinary voters in the here and now? I don’t have any easy answers.

Through the nihilistic, bleed to death strategies which have become so popular in this age and in the process have crowded out less binary options that might better fit real need, we are encouraged to adopt the opposite of our opponents.

We see this in the fight/flight mechanisms currently at play particularly within the hard core Brexiteers circles in Northern Ireland who always seem crystal clear on what they don’t want, but poor at working on what can be changed for the better.

Nationalist and Unionist politicians will get better results by accepting that both contributed to us being where we are. The onus is on both to find the least damaging way through. Not a hundred miles from where the US Congress now finds itself.

Nationalism could start by owning the fact that Northern Ireland is not doing as badly as it often chooses to portray it. The Irish News this morning covers a PWC study which finds that:

…more people in Northern Ireland than any other part of the UK were also highly likely to recommend it as a good place to bring up a family (28 per cent).

And as Dr David Armstrong, PwC’s government and health industries NI lead, notes:

“People are now thinking more about the quality of life they want to lead which has led to an exodus from a number of big cities, particularly London.

“With many companies now planning remote working into their future plans – there’s a major window of opportunity for Northern Ireland to attract people seeking to relocate.”

That’s great. Belfast, which is already booming in Fintech and Cybersecurity, can integrate returning NI natives who take up that opportunity. But the real limitations come for people wanting to return to the south, west and north west.

The north coast where made for high quality home working. Road links to Coleraine for instance are well established and speedy. Derry, less so. But years of underinvestment means the water infrastructure claps limits on both.

But for a much better future, Northern Ireland as a whole needs to be able to water, power and the means of transmitting and receiving new ideas (aka, Broadband) from anywhere to anywhere in the world. Boring non binary work, but vital.

It is work that needs to be embedded within a new deal for Northern Ireland, that recognises that the need to push in the same direction of some of the changes that are not only already taking place but indeed are very well advanced.

None of this is possible if we keep following the idiotic binaries of the past. It means slowing down and unhooking from the tumultuous now, admitting that you don’t know yet what’s best, but you are always looking for clues.

Tying your politics (nationalist or unionist) to the new search for how to (ie, towns and villages, not just cities) rather than just where capital finds it easiest to alight on what’s already there.

Snooty, aloof and, ultimately, unconvincing arguments about failed status ignore both traditions power to shape Northern Ireland’s future in ways that better suit various longer term interests, and to take broader credit for gains in the shorter run.

That means cultivating a win win disposition which throws the laggards back to the voters to decide who is working in their interests, and who is just loudly dragging their feet. This is not just a NI issue, it’s everywhere. Let’s be more non binary?

Photo by geralt is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA