Why misunderstanding demography, failing journalism and ‘lawless thinking’ is letting northern nationalism down

Three reports have come out the last week that ought to give us pause for consideration and thought. Brian and Andy have covered two and the third is published this morning. Taken together they provide a sharp correction to our general thinking.

First, I’d like to set the problem in a wider context: ie, the catastrophic collapse of mainstream journalism. In this I’m not trying to critique the performance of individual journalists many of whom have become friends of mine over the last 20 years.

It is the authority that comes from drawing upon insights close to the ground that’s been lost and journalism’s most useful service. It’s loss has made us the poorer in getting know who we are. Too often, what replaces it is political stenography.

The worst example (because this is a structural problem it is to be found right across the west) was how the US liberal press reported every lie emanating from the 45th President of the United States (“we should have stopped repeated the lies“).

What we are left with in those circumstances is a political example of Askerlof’s Market for Lemons scenario, which in 1970 looked the costs of dishonesty where there’s a profound asymmetry in the information available to buyers.

If everything looks like a “lemon”, US slang for a dud car, and there’s no reliable guidance then no advantage can be gained from paying more for a car that might actually perform better over the product’s lifecycle, because you simply don’t know.

Whilst no one can defend the media in all its modes (Waugh’s novel Scoop is the classic 1930s take down of decadence within the trade at its wealthiest and most influential), as you can see from Scott Galloway’s figures, the loss in revenue in the US has been debilitating.

The number of titles has dropped as have journalist’s salaries, meaning there ae fewer people to grind out more stories they don’t have the time or resource to follow up on. It even affects the BBC whose recent handling of the NatWest/Coutts story involved checking with just a single source.

Locally in Northern Ireland what qualifies as a story leans heavily on party lines rather than setting them within the context of larger realities that surround us. This has landed us in the world of populist, talented story tellers who’s lines rarely contain much content that’s actionable.

As Padraig O’Malley notes in Perils and Prospects of a United Ireland, “twenty four years after Sinn Fein committed itself to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, what it stands for other than a 32 county Irish republic, remains opaque”.

SF’s problem with selling what remains an abstraction is that this is a  vehicle that comes without a gear box. And the problem with selling a legitimate aspiration as though it were likely to happen soon is as Brian says in his review of the UCL report:

For all that politics is obsessed by the constitutional questions,  the authors were struck by the lack of substance in the cases for both Unity and even more so, the Union.

When I started out to try to understand unionism and probe (without being invested in it) what its future might or could be, I expected to find similar patterns of thought to those I knew and understood growing up within a minority nationalist culture.

What I found was that Unionist culture (using culture in its widest sense) is variegated, diverse, eclectic and in parts not a little eccentric. It contains multitudes of political opinions sheltering under on banner. And it’s not very interested in conformity.

Left in peace, it can even comprise people who would perhaps like to see a united Ireland but cannot see any practical way to realise it that would not cost them or their families even if those costs would in all likelihood prove to be marginal.

The latest report published by the University of Liverpool helps to quantify this seemingly growing indifference towards the need for constitutional change. Interestingly, women are more likely than men to answer don’t know on constitutional change.

Support for the Union fell into the following proportions: 81.3% of those declaring British only, 54.7% of Northern Irish only and 47.6% of British and Irish only. Political unionism may be rubbish at explaining its benefits, but it’s still popular.

Unsurprisingly unity is strongest among the 18-34 age group (42% would vote for unity; 38% would vote against), whilst opposition to Irish unity is strongest among the 60+ age category (64% would vote against). That may change over time.

But it’s likely to be a lot longer than the election after next (as per SF’s eternal promises) and which still gets reported by the media as though there was some reality in the same old, same old prediction. You can’t blame SF, if it works for them, it works.

In spite of the loss of 50,000 first preference votes for unionism, 32.9% of Catholics would either not vote for a united Ireland tomorrow, not vote or do not know how they would vote. On the other side 18.8% of Protestants feel that way about the Union.

The truth is that the secularisation process which has been gathering pace over the last 20 years has peeled those who once counted themselves as Protestant away from political unionism, which many now count as something of an embarrassment.

But it is even more complex than that:

  • A third (32.7%) and a fifth of SF voters stated that they voted ‘to show support for a return to Stormont’ this compared to a fifth (19.1%) who chose the option ‘to advance Irish unity’. The highest 2nd preference was ‘the party most likely to fight for public services’.
  • DUP voters compared to SF voters were more motivated by the constitutional issue (55.2%) which was significantly higher than the 16.8% who voted for the boycotting of Stormont.
  • 40.5% of Alliance supporters voted ‘to challenge constitutional and identity politics’ with a significant share voting (29.3%) to show support for the return of Stormont. Interestingly, across all 3 sets of voters voting due to being impressed by the party leader was the lowest ranked option.

This is interesting, given the “Lemon” scenario above. Over half of respondents considered the DUP, social media, the British government and journalists to be untrustworthy. Some 49% counted media commentators and Sinn Fein as untrustworthy.

The only groups to exceed 50% in trustworthiness were: trade unionists, community leaders and academics. As someone counted in at least one and possibly two of those categories, it is uncomfortably telling we are less trusted to tell the truth.

As argued here, there is no such thing as post truth (as the 45th President may well be in the process of finding out). Post truth is a scam, a rogue’s bargain or a futile abstraction whose only purpose is to fend off an uncomfortably comprising future.

Which brings me to the third report on the future of the railway system across the island. Notwithstanding Andy’s proper scepticism about whether it will ever be enacted, the first I heard of it was folk in the west of Ireland claiming it as a sell out.

But at least it is a plan predicated on action rather than metaphysics. Moreover it is only provisional, a conversation starter in contrast to the ‘lawless’ babble around a vague concept of unity that’s always on its way but which is never likely to arrive.

The concretised thinking behind Micheál Martin’s Shared Island Unit is an extended exercise in firstly discovering shared needs and then scoping out what scale of willing obligations that would be necessary to fulfil those needs across boundaries.

It stands out as one of the most imaginative responses to the many challenges laid down the Belfast Agreement and the onset of devolved power sharing from 1998 onwards. And it offers an alternative to the abstractions nationalism is currently hooked on.

Even so O’Malley quotes Irish historian Diarmaid Ferriter who how nationalist politicians north and south have failed to operate and utilise the provisions of the Belfast Agreement, to bring the lives of the north and the south closer together:

The bald reality is that this small island has not managed a coherence north south unity in relation to dealing with a devastating pandemic. That surely is an indication of the unity mountain to climb, as is the underuse or neglect of structures already provided or envisaged in 1998 in relation to dialogue and cooperation.

Put simply if you can’t (or are unwilling to) account for the current stalemate, how can you plan for a different future? The high point for growth in Catholics has passed. Proportionately there are fewer Catholics under one years old than those under 9.

Besides future growth will not be in Catholics or Protestants but from either designation. That suits those  are happy with the status quo. And the peace, the great gift of the Belfast Agreement, is only likely to deepen that secular non conformity in NI.

Nationalism’s populist dilemma is eloquently captured in a photo O’Malley uses in Perils and Prospects of a sign outside St Pauls Church on the Falls Road that reads, “God Bless Our NHS“. There is huge comfort in leaning on institutions you know.

To shift unity towards the Overton Window requires a lot of time, and considerable amount of heavy lifting to build new institutions from the ground up. That’s not a job for lazy populism.

“Because anarchic, ‘lawless’ thinking is no more than babble, it is defenceless in the face of the claims of superstition, of enthusiasm and of the ideas extolled by those who peddle religious and political dogmas.”

-Professor Onora O’Neill – Justice Across Boundaries: Whose Obligations?

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