A moment to back our institutions, not abandon them to the dull familiar nihilism of the past. 

A professor of mine went to go hear Derrida speak once. The entire talk was about cows; everyone was flummoxed but listened carefully, and took notes about…cows. There was a short break, and when Derrida came back, he was like, “I’m told it is pronounced ‘chaos.’”

-Phil Gentry, on Twitter

For the last year, with perhaps the exception of the US election and its later ramifications, politics has mostly been evident from its general absence. Even Brexit has benefited from the covid crisis, trade is slow, downsides barely observable.

It’s not surprising. Generally politics is about people, and the controversies around decisions to be made in the collective interest. When there are so few democratic decisions to be made, there’s very little politics.

So perhaps it is not surprising that as we move towards opening up, when we know most of the most vulnerable in Northern Ireland, it should all kick off. And even less surprising that the nexus of the trouble is young men, largely in loyalist areas.

A spokesman from the police federation on Radio Ulster this morning said the timing of the FM’s call for the Chief Constable to resign over his handling of the Storey affair (which the DPP decided not to send into court) as ‘unfortunate’.

It’s put her oddly offside and irrelevant to calming these events: something perhaps she should have learned from from her opponents’ futile attempts to get her to resign over RHI. More importantly as Newton Emerson notes in the Irish News:

The extent of the Alliance ‘surge’ is under-appreciated. Usually dated to the three elections in 2019 for councils, Brussels and Westminster, it actually began with the March 2017 assembly election.

In the Westminster contest three months later, unionists flocked back to the DUP, having been spooked by the loss of unionism’s majority and Sinn Féin almost becoming the largest party. The significance of 2019 is that this fright wore off.

Now, I don’t know the degree to which polling played a part in the DUP’s dropping of support for the Protocol, or the prospect of the damage to small businesses over the massive disruption of its inbound GB supply chain.

But putting yourself offside at a point when loyalists (the criminal elements of whom the Chief Constable has been having some modest success) are clearly orchestrating public violence, is a politically vulnerable position to find yourself in.

Newton again:

It suits republicans and nationalists to believe unionist parties stir up loyalist violence with cynical intent. The truth is that unionists alternate between ignoring loyalism and reacting to it. Even the ‘peaceful protest’ plan set out by loyalists for the coming months involves civil disobedience on parading and bonfires, which is bound to end in tears while unionists desperately equivocate.

Meanwhile, Alliance has defended the chief constable against unionist calls for him to resign and summoned the assembly to condemn loyalist violence without reservation. This is what the key swing voter wants to hear.

He notes that Sinn Féin is also losing votes to Alliance.  Although it’s not reflected as clearly in the polling, it did experience 7% drop in its performance in the 2019 Westminster elections, some of which is accounted by its collapse in Foyle

Perhaps one reason why unionists are becoming post unionist is that they are not worried by Michelle O’Neill, but perhaps they perceive any previous threat from SF to be fading? I cannot say for sure, since it’s not a territory we have data on.

The history of party politics in NI is that once a party loses the ability to win, it can go into a very long term stall. Sinn Féin looked to be heading that way in the summer of 2019 and then pulled out a spectacular win last February in the south.

The problem is that very few are telling the story straight (including the FM). On Newsline last night, SDLP’s Paul Doherty was one of the few to call this out with his own community, rather than lecturing others about what to do with theirs.

That’s not the popular thing to do, but it is the right thing. People in West Belfast have had forty years of genuine disordering chaos and a lot of promises of a better world around the corner which never materialises.

May be this is more cows than chaos moment. It all feels so limited and contrived, but this is also a moment to back our institutions weakened by years of mealy mouthed politics, not abandon them to the old familiar nihilism of the past.

To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. It nothing is true, then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis on which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights.

-Professor Tim Snyder

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