This June we’ll have been twenty years a Slugging. Some brief reflections.

Slugger will be 20 years old in June. That’s not something I ever expected to write. What set Slugger apart from other blogs at the time (which were mostly American, with a few Brits and Irish) was that I’d set it up as a research tool not a bully pulpit.

I wanted somewhere I could pin other people’s stories, research and valuable analysis ahead of a project I hoped to get funding for looking to inject some intellectual capital into an under confident unionism in a way that was open handed and generous.

The result came the following year in the form of A Long Peace which I researched and co-wrote with Trevor Ringland (the only bona fide unionist on the team) and my good friend David Steven with whom I’d worked at River Path Associates.

Coming from a Catholic/Nationalist cultural background albeit raised in a Protestant/Unionist majority town I also felt it important that if I was going to start making ‘an intervention’ in Northern Ireland, I should start where I knew the least.

There was few of my personal views in Slugger’s output. There is such a thing cognitive bias and what I chose to be of value reflected mine. But I was more interested in un-muddling the present in order to better see the choices facing us in the future.

A year later and the conversation had begun in earnest. I had to go on our customary trip to Donegal, I turned to others to help me out and keep the conversation going in my absence. That was when I turned my back and just let them get on with it.

Giving up the need to control other is key in the Slugger mix. It is not a matter of dominance or giving privileges to nationalist or unionist, left or right. In this three dimensional abundant space, we need each other’s help/advice more than ever before.

What Slugger has become (at its best) is a form of shared inquiry in which the enforced rules of civility facilitate a form of shared or participative inquiry. And it does it (mostly) with a lightness in the pursuit of actionable insight

What’s accumulated in the meantime still surprises me (and I wrote a fair chunk of it). When I first met Noel Thompson it was in the BBC offices of Hearts and Minds, as he was checking the Slugger archives some granular detail from the recent past.

He’s using, I thought, in the way I originally intended to use it myself. As I have noted here before, in 1945, Vannevar Bush wrote:

“…new forms of encyclopedias will appear, ready made with a mesh of associative trails running through them, ready to be dropped into the memex and there amplified.”

The trails within the Slugger archives aware why I was never followed the trend and abandon the blogs to immerse themselves in building a huge Twitter following or hand their inheritance to that great digital hall of shared misery Facebook.

For a time had some generous funding from Northern Ireland Film and Channel Four as well as individual project funding along the way. But for most of the last 20 years, we’ve been independent and therefore difficult to control or press off the road.

In a space where the two main parties are notoriously averse to public criticism it has been incredibly useful to us for them not to have an external off switch for Slugger. And in return we have tried to be informed and responsible in our public criticisms.

Slugger O’Toole is no Guido Fawkes. But if it is not our role to deliberately set fires nor is it to prematurely put them out. We are a space in which journalists, politicians, experts and academics can see a story unpacked to uncover hidden contexts.

What I am hoping to find time this year to write up some extended reflections on ‘twenty year a slugging’, which is part a story of accidental discovery, emergence of a non business business model (built almost exclusively on the generosity of strangers).

I also hope to tease out why I believe rules based engagement is crucial to re-creating much of the value we have sadly lost with the demise of the business model that once supported a huge diversity of local weekly newspapers. More of which anon.

For now I want to thank our team of bloggers past and present who have got us this far intact, to the forbearance  of those who have been the focus of our critical attention from time to time, to you our donors who have shared the burden of keep her lit.

Democracy for us in Northern Ireland is a relatively new thing. We need to continue to exercise patience and generosity in order to see it grow. I hope Slugger will continue to contribute to that process, however harsh the voices may sound.

“Individual organisms can evolve, not only by small mutational steps from other individual organisms but also by social groups becoming so cooperative that they qualify as higher-level organisms in their own right.”

Josiah Ober

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