Monday, 23 December 2013

A response to Brian John Spencer

In his blog post for Loyalists Against Democracy, Brian John Spencer accuses me (and others like me, but I warrant a mention by name) of indulging and nurturing those who commit promiscuous violence. Quite an allegation. He bases this accusation, seemingly, on my criticism of some of the language and output from the LAD collective and their supporters. Accusing them of snobbery, Brian argues, is me trying to halt criticism of Loyalists and flag protesters. 

Brian, who has never met me and clearly knows little about me, has got it completely wrong. Loathe as I am to adopt a hipster tone, I was criticising Loyalists, and Jamie Bryson in particular before it was so fashionable and before Brian had probably even heard of Jamie Bryson. I stood for election against Jamie's party (and did very badly) so I'm not really sure that Brian's accusations of 'keeping quiet, saying nothing' are fair. What Brian doesn't appear to understand is that my objection isn't that LAD; Brian; and others criticise Loyalism - it's the way they criticise that I object to.

When the Flag Protests began last year I didn't hold back with my criticism, but was careful to make sure it was valid and based on the issues. I had countless online arguments with Jamie on his Facebook page (I'm not sure Jamie and I have ever agreed on anything) but I still felt perfectly safe when observing the protests and Jamie - and other Loyalists - were friendly and courteous. It's possible to be diametrically opposed to someone and their beliefs without dehumanising them in the way that LAD often does. 

You can - rightly - take a Loyalist to task for claiming that their culture is under sustained attack, or for claiming that they are being treated like Jews in 1930's Germany. You can mock Jamie for his continued assertion that the PSNI are little more than agents of the IRA. You can highlight the disgusting hypocrisy and dishonesty of the DUP who had no problem with Designated Days until they sensed it offered them an electoral opportunity. What you can't do (at least, not if you want to claim you're not a snob) is attack the traits and behaviours of people that have no relevance to the issue. There's no shortage of references to Buckfast on the LAD Facebook page. I've yet to hear someone tell me why that particular drink is so relevant to the debate.

I have issues with LAD's parody of Loyalism as it does seem to be rooted in superiority - their parodies almost always focus on poor spelling and grammar and a lack of understanding of the realities of the situation - but I am more concerned with the way that their facebook fans join in the parody and, often, take it up a level. This isn't considered criticism - it's just out and out pisstaking and mockery. So, when I offer up my concern at such pisstaking, it's not - as Brian believes - my effort to shut down criticism, it's my effort to try and prompt real, thought out, and constructive criticism. More criticism, please, if you will.

Another aspect of Brian's post that concerns me is that Brian seems to believe that he is leading the charge of the moderates - those poor souls who have previously been so voiceless but now have found their voice and want to make it heard. Sorry to inform you, Brian, but there has been no shortage of opportunity for moderates to make their voices heard and their votes counted and they have consistently chosen not to. It's not out of fear: it's out of complacency. Since 1998 things have generally been going pretty well for the moderates and they've been quite complacent to live relatively peaceful, prosperous and unaffected lives. 

Now though, things are different and the things that the moderates thought were resolved by the 'under the rug' approach have come back to upset the peace. Once again, moderates are starting to make some noise and demand this 'nonsense' is resolved. Lovely. I'm sure now we'll see massive and revolutionary (for NI, anyway) changes to social housing and education policy which will get to the root cause of these issues. Or maybe not. The fact that John O'Dowd and Nelson McCausland, the two ministers responsible for education and housing aren't front and centre in this debate is telling. Where are the long term solutions? All I hear from Brian is 'wise up'. That would be nice, but I'm not sure it's really the basis for a policy. Brian needs to be careful that his march of the 'aggressive progressives' doesn't end up as just a group of people who don't really like another group of people. I don't hold out much hope though.

A commenter to Brian's last post made some excellent points about the use of language and it's use to either unite or divide people. I believe that we will make progress - real progress, not the kind Dr Haass is overseeing - when we unite our people to some common goals. I can't imagine anything less likely than wanting to unite with people who call me scum.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

DUP & UUP need to embrace the left wing, just not the nationalist left wing.

I've always been loathe to assign lazy designations to people's political ideologies. Whilst you can with some effort, define what left wing, right wing, libertarian, communism, socialism etc all amount to, it's actually very hard to transpose those definitions on to individuals and even harder to do it enmasse. We all have so many varied opinions that we rarely fit into those neat little boxes. However, it's not unreasonable to use such broad strokes when breaking down the political make up of a nation (what other way could you do it?) and when you apply it, it's fair to say that most countries have a political division along left wing/right wing lines.

In Northern Ireland, we're no exception. The trouble is, we also throw ourselves into a national identity division, too. So much so, that it almost overrides everything else. Is there anyone who would dispute that, with obvious exceptions, the political make up in Northern Ireland is that Unionist parties are mostly right wing and Nationalist parties are mostly left wing? I'm not trying to describe the SDLP or Sinn Fein as left wing but merely pointing out that they're definitely more left than right and the reverse applies with the DUP and UUP.

So here's the problem: who do left wing unionists vote for and who do right wing nationalists vote for? OK, it's not a new problem but it's one I feel that the DUP & UUP, in particular, haven't really spent enough time thinking about. Both of those parties need to recognise that despite their best efforts, they're not going to eradicate the left wing in Northern Ireland. That means that the large block of left wing voters will need someone to vote for. Right now, the best options (in terms of winning seats) happen to be two Nationalist parties.

What the DUP & the UUP should want to see is the emergence of a left wing party that is either pro union, pro status quo or, at the very least, completely uninterested in campaigning on the issue either way. The DUP made the mistake recently of thinking that Alliance were the enemy. Why? Alliance are never, ever going to be calling for a border poll. They're never going to push a UI agenda. If Alliance replaced both the UUP & the SDLP, the constitutional question would be dead and buried and Sinn Fein would be marginalised - democratically.

Now, I want to be clear that I'm not holding up Alliance as a left wing party - they're really, really not - but I'm trying to demonstrate the point that the two big unionist parties are missing the point: if they want to secure the union once and for all, they need a left wing opposition to their right wing politics that isn't Nationalist. It doesn't need to be unionist (in fact, it won't work if it is) but it does need to be big enough and serious enough to take away those SF & SDLP voters who vote for those parties in spite of the nationalist ideology and not because of it.

This is one of those rare instances where the same logic can't be reversed and applied to the other side. Sinn Fein's goal of a united Ireland will not be realised by having a right wing opposition that doesn't place identity politics first, because the status quo is no good to them.

If you're a DUP or UUP voter, you should ask yourself who you would rather have sat on the other side of the house. If I was in their shoes, I'd want a strong left wing party that, frankly, doesn't obsess with trying to change Northern Ireland's constitutional position. I'm not suggesting that the DUP go out and fund a left wing party to try and usurp the Nationalist parties (though all donations are gratefully considered) but their strategists should see any rise in non nationalist parties as a good thing, rather than try and destroy them.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

On the weakness running through Alliance policy.

Alliance has, today (well, specifically at midnight last night) launched their very own Cohesion, Sharing & Integration (CSI) plan entitled "for everyone". You can, and should, have a read of it on their website. It's a pretty good effort and there is some valuable content but for me, what stands out the most is their approach, in this document and in their overall policy, toward education.

Alliance have, to their credit, always acknowledged that the ultimate source of our extreme divisions is in the way we educate our children. It may be argued that the real source of division is the constitutional position of Northern Ireland and, to a degree, that's correct. Though where it develops from just a normal division of political positions and is turned into the extreme that we currently experience is in our education system.

Dress it up any which way you like, but the state currently funds and operates segregated education based on faith - Catholic children are segregated from Protestants and non Catholics. Only the most naive individual would deny the link between faith and national identity in Northern Ireland. Yes, some Catholics are unionists and some Protestants are nationalists but they're the exception and we need to deal with the norm.

I digress - this post isn't meant to be about whether segregated education is the issue; Alliance think it is, I agree, but have problems with Alliance's proposals to address it.

The target Alliance proposes is for a minimum of 20% of children to be in integrated education by 2020. Why only 20%, why not 100%? If Alliance think that integrated education is the solution why on earth are they content to settle on a policy that only marginally reduces division? Why can't Alliance state clearly the level at which they want our education system to be integrated? Is it 50%, 60%, 70%? If it's 100% why not come straight out with it and be honest - tell the electorate they want to see an end to all segregation based on religion. If it's less than 100%, tell the electorate what percentage of children they are happy to be educated in a segregated system?

I suspect the answer is simply down to electoral politics. People in Northern Ireland still, on the whole, support segregation and the Catholic school system is still very popular amongst nationalist communities. Any policy that aims to reduce the number of Catholic schools will most likely be attacked as anti-nationalist or anti-Catholic, whether it is or not. See the Irish News today for evidence of that.

And that's the weakness with Alliance's approach to education. They have framed it with the reaction of the electorate in mind. That's not leadership. A party that truly wanted to 'lead change' would be bold enough to be honest and clear with the electorate and then set about convincing them of the merit of their argument. This isn't a policy, it's a pathway to a policy that the Alliance party are not yet brave enough to embrace.