Blind spots in cultural terminology

One long-standing problem in Northern Ireland is the fact that many things have multiple names, the choice of which can be both revealing and controversial. Derry/Londonderry is the most well-known example, and the name of Northern Ireland itself (or the avoidance of it) can also cause friction. However, such problems can be glossed over by simply ignoring the speaker’s choice of terminology, as it does not introduce ambiguity into the discussion. Less obvious are those things that do not have … Read more

Shibboleth and sibhialtacht

The Irish-language issue is back in the headlines again. Despite the best efforts of campaigners such as Linda Ervine, it is still the case that most ethnic-unionists define themselves at least in part by their rejection of the Irish language. Never mind that some of their ancestors must have spoken it, as evidenced in many cases by their own surnames. Unionists have abandoned the mother tongue of their ancestors in much the same way that German-descended Americans have abandoned theirs. … Read more

The limits of transactional politics

Contract law is a vast subject, but at root, it is the process of making and enforcing agreements between two parties that do not fully trust one another. Any mutual mistrust is compensated for by mutual trust in some other mechanism. This could be a dispute process set up by the contract, an authoritative third party such as the courts, or simply the ability to abrogate the contract and walk away. Contracts and agreements are transactional – each party accepts … Read more

One thing that unionists might want

In a previous article, I made the bold assertion that “Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants”. What I should have said was “Northern Nationalism has nothing that Unionism wants, and Nationalism in general has nothing that Unionism wants… yet”. While Northern Nationalism may still not have much to attract Unionism, after 30th March next year the Republic will have something that unionists may quickly find themselves jealous of. MEPs. While their colleagues in Stormont and Westminster get seemingly endless airtime, … Read more

Our son of a bitch

The headline of Doug Beattie’s article in the Belfast Telegraph yesterday illustrates how sloppy language and sloppy logic hinder rather than help the process of understanding. Leave aside the article itself for now; one sentence in the headline alone (“Republicans weren’t victims, they were victim-makers”) contains a prime example of both. Firstly, the sloppy language of “Republicans” fails to distinguish between the Provisional IRA and those people who never picked up a gun but would still regard themselves as Republican. … Read more

Making friends with the cat next door

One of the most disappointing things to come out of recent NI political history was Sinn Féin’s much-vaunted, but quickly forgotten, Unionist Outreach project. In theory, this had a lot of potential. In practice, it was like a toddler trying to make friends with a cat. To make friends with a cat, you have to make no mistakes. It doesn’t matter how many nice noises you make, or how nonthreatening you make yourself appear. One wrong move and the cat … Read more

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 … Read more

Reek Sunday claims its price again

The Irish Times reports that thirteen people, including a ten year old boy, had to be rescued from Croagh Patrick yesterday during the annual Reek Sunday pilgrimage. I climbed Croagh Patrick a couple of months back in aid of the Irish Motor Neurone Disease Association, and in memory of one of my wife’s ex-colleagues who passed away last year. While it is within the capabilities of a slightly out of shape adult (i.e. me), it is absolutely not a Sunday … Read more

There is no way for NI to remain in the EU after Brexit. Alternatives exist, but they all come at a price.

Last week, Kevin O’Rourke wrote in the Irish Times: It is logically coherent, if lunatic, to argue that Ireland should quit the EU and join the UK customs union. (Leaving the EU would on its own obviously not suffice to avoid a North-South border: our exit from the EU would have to be of the red, white, and blue variety.) It is also logically coherent to argue that Northern Ireland should remain within the EU, and I wish it would. … Read more

After Brexit: the options

As time went on, speculation reached fever pitch. The internet was full of crazy theories about developments that would overturn everything we knew, seemingly convincing timelines of events that would soon unfold, and ingenious analyses proving that things were either nowhere near as bad as they seemed, or much worse than anyone imagined. I am of course talking about Game of Thrones. And in the end (no spoilers, I promise!) the vast majority of these excitable scribblings fell away, shown … Read more

Sorry Séamus, but there can be no such thing as retrospective democracy.

Séamus Mallon has a speech transcript in the Sindo today. In it he takes his usual stance on the counterproductive futility of armed republicanism. But one fundamental contradiction sticks out like a sore thumb. Early on he says: In that spirit let me say I applaud current efforts to make 1916 commemorations truly inclusive. In the event, the men and women of 1916 received a retrospective democratic endorsement which more recent violence including against this State has never obtained. But … Read more

A flaxen revolution

ENOUGH OF THE MISTY ABSTRACTIONS: Removing the Border from the competency of the Assembly was supposed to make normal politics possible. It did not. The constitutional question “went away”, but the parties merely found something else to fight over.

Russian special forces caught red handed on camera

Russia continues to deny that it has armed forces in Crimea, but it was only a matter of time before someone slipped up. Not only do the mysterious “self-defence forces” use Russian guns, uniforms and vehicles (complete with Russian military number plates) but at least one of them has forgotten to take all the identifying labels off his army uniform (Russian language original), leading to a social media profile naming his special forces unit. Of course Putin doesn’t expect us … Read more

“Lacking genuine political competition, public administration in newly pacified nations is often a mess.”

The Economist has an interesting article about civil conflicts. It doesn’t mention NI, but one paragraph in particular caught my eye: One reason for backsliding is that peace often fails to bring the prosperity that might give it lasting value to all sides. Power-sharing creates weak governments; nobody trusts anyone else enough to grant them real power. Poor administration hobbles business. Ethnic mafias become entrenched. Integration is postponed indefinitely. Lacking genuine political competition, with no possibility of decisive electoral victories, … Read more

How can I trust you if you don’t want my vote?

Politicians are often castigated for appearing to put reelection before principle, for lusting after votes rather than doing what’s best for the country. Sometimes this may be justified, but the lust for votes is not necessarily a bad thing. We should be more worried when politicians stop caring about our votes, because then we have no power over them. The only true power that the electorate has over its elected representatives is the power to hire and fire. ‘Kick the … Read more

The moment of quickening

Patsy McGarry has an interesting article in the Irish Times today on the surprisingly fluid nature of the Catholic Church’s stance on abortion: … some of the church’s greatest teachers and saints believed no homicide was involved if abortion took place before the foetus was infused with a soul, known as “ensoulment”. This was believed to occur at “quickening”, when the mother detected the child move for the first time in her womb. In 1591, Pope Gregory XIV determined it … Read more

A historic vote just took place in the USA. Oh, and Obama won too…

I’ve no idea how this flew under the radar, but the outside world (bar the BBC) has largely ignored the most historic American plebiscite since the 1950s. Obama’s re-election, important though it is in itself, might find itself eclipsed by what just took place in Puerto Rico – a clear popular vote in favour of statehood. If ratified by Congress (there is bipartisan support for the idea, although getting it though today’s cantankerous House may be tricky), PR will become … Read more

“Just following orders”: SF Ministers are subordinate to their own command structure

Tuesday night’s Spotlight on the killing of Mary Travers was indeed fascinating, not so much for the story of the ambush itself – although I had never seen the family members speak on camera before, and their continuing suffering was palpable – but for its insights into the inner workings of Sinn Féin. SF’s arrogant attitude towards journalists is well-known (how dare they ask impertinent questions!), but it was the juxtaposition of Carál Ní Chuilín’s bad-tempered interview and her relationship … Read more

The Assembly’s looming crisis of legitimacy

For me, the second most interesting result from the last General Election (after Long’s defeat of Robinson, of course) was the turnout figure. 57% is a far cry from the 70% turnout at the first Assembly election. Although a turnout of 57% would be considered respectable for, say, Scottish Parliament elections, hyper-political NI can’t be judged by the same yardstick. Apathy amongst the younger generation could explain a gradual decline towards the levels of political engagement seen elsewhere, but the … Read more

The Maori and the Pakeha: Why can’t it work for us?

I recently had the pleasure of visiting New Zealand, and was quietly impressed by the way in which the minority Maori culture has been embraced by the majority Pakeha (i.e. white) population. That is not to say that NZ is blissfully free of ethnic tension, but such tensions seem to revolve around affirmative action and guaranteed representation rather than a cultural gap. This is exemplified by the extensive Maori carvings that decorate Auckland airport – at one point just past immigration … Read more