Football refereeing versus hockey umpiring

Fed up with merely cheering on her daughter from the sidelines, my wife returned to playing hockey herself this season. On the eve of an away cup match in Tyrone in the autumn, she notified me that her team lacked an umpire and asked (ahem, told) me to cover it.

This caused me a problem. Football was my sport, having reached the giddy heights of the Down Amateur League as a referee. Hockey was my father’s sport but, as the rules have changed dramatically since his day, this only caused a further disadvantage – it wasn’t that I didn’t know the rules, but rather that I did know the wrong rules…

Anyway, a combination of flattery and desperation saw me invited back and I have been umpiring at various club levels more or less every weekend since (the league season was due to end for the team to which I am specifically assigned last weekend but has happily been extended).

Since hockey is presented as football with sticks, what are the key similarities and differences in officiating each? Can they even learn from each other more?

Similarities

I do not really like the representation of hockey as “football with sticks”, in fact, but plainly there are similarities – two teams of eleven (including, at least normally, a goalkeeper) try to score goals. That offences are penalised by frees, the game starts from the middle with all players except the taker in their own half, and the whole of the ball has to be over the whole of the line to be off the field (or indeed in the goal) also makes game play quite familiar for anyone moving from one to the other.

Some officiating skills are, inevitably, quite similar too. In areas such as presentation of decisions, game management (gauging “temperature” and such like) and even the pre-match chat to both teams the basic skills are the same.

Differences

Hockey is (or at least should be) a game of stick skill, with fluent play and filling appropriate space more important than rigid positioning. Therefore the first obvious difference for the official, as I have found to my cost on many occasions, is that in hockey the umpire must try to stay (literally) ahead of the game.

This task is made slightly easier by the most obvious difference of all (from an officiating point of view), namely that hockey has two umpires on the field. This was, in fact, originally the case with football too, with each club providing one umpire each and then one off-field official to whom they could “refer” if in doubt – hence the term “referee”. By the mid-1890s, football had brought the referee on to the field and taken the umpires off it to run the lines. Hockey retains the older system, which is a significant advantage in terms of management at amateur level as each club still takes responsibility for providing one umpire; and it is a significant advantage for the official whose fitness may not be quite at the level of a professional athlete, as at least they only have to stay ahead of the game in one half of the field!

Having a fellow umpire does add another aspect of the game to manage, but if done well can be a huge advantage over the loneliness of the football referee. Even though umpires have responsibility in the rules for one half of the field, in practice this can be split diagonally and it is possible to operate as a team for incidents even when they are much closer to one umpire (occasionally it may still be the case that the further away umpire has a clearer line of view). Mastering this, of course, takes more than the few months I have had!

There are a number of other differences. Penalties for the attacking team in the attacking quarter are a lot more complex – both in terms of award and procedure – in hockey than they are in football; offences in hockey seem often to occur on the ground (stick-to-stick, kicking/stopping with the foot, etc), whereas in football particularly in the British Isles they may be at or higher than eye level (holding, pushing at headers, etc); hockey umpires also have a much wider range of sanctions available to control the game (four levels and three cards all of which indicate different types of suspension in hockey, versus two levels and only permanent suspension in football; and in hockey the same card may even be shown to the same player more than once). Also, the basic signals used by officials are similar but hockey has rather more and is stricter about their use.

A marked difference is match timing: in hockey, the whistle must be blown to end the half/match absolutely on time (although in certain circumstances, despite the whistle, play continues until a set piece is complete); in football the referee has a lot more discretion and it is possible and indeed advisable to wait until an attacking movement is complete before blowing for time; in fact, the football referee rarely stops the (main) watch at all, instead merely calculating (typically in groups of half minutes) how much time is added on by checking the watch at the beginning and end of any stoppage. With its two-umpire system hockey instead has a specific system for signalling time stoppages and they are thus (in theory at least) calculated to the second, albeit with the assistance of extra technical officials at higher levels.

Hockey also has, in my experience, a unique interpretation of “advantage”. The rules indicate that an offence may not be penalised unless it specifically disadvantages an opponent (it appears this has been done to make up for abandoning a previous rule on “forcing” offences); this is a more stringent requirement for applying the penalty than football’s “advantage” which allows play to continue only if penalising an offence would disadvantage the beneficiary. In other words, the application of “advantage” is not so much at the umpire’s discretion and is dictated in many circumstances by the rules, and does not so much depend on whether the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty versus playing on as whether it has been disadvantaged by the offence. This can quite often mean than play continues (or, at least, should continue) when an offence is committed even if the potential beneficiary would prefer the penalty to be applied. Exactly how this is interpreted is, of course, subject to debate.

One final quirk is that hockey umpires actually view the game from the other side of the field from football referees. Firstly, as noted above, it is important to stay ahead of the attacking team in hockey (as the other umpire can cover behind), to the extent of going off the field by the goal if necessary. Secondly, hockey umpires always stand and move to the right of the attacking team (hockey must be played right-handed so there is a tendency for attacking play to occur on the right). Football referees have come, however, to run a “left diagonal”; assistants now always run the line to the right of the attacking team, thus it makes sense for referees to position themselves to the left. This was not always so; in the past in some places (including the UK), what were then referred to as linesmen actually switched sides at half-time to protect the pitch and so referees ran alternate diagonals in each half; although the “left diagonal” became established in international competition post-War and was becoming the norm everywhere by the start of the Champions’ League era, it took until this century for the Premier League to insist on it.

Changes

Hockey is inclined to change its rules more often that football changes its laws (as distinct from interpretations of them).

It is possible to watch football from the beginning of colour television and notice very few differences – the laws around goalkeeper possession (there was once a requirement to bounce the ball when running with it and subsequently an outright restriction on significant movement with it in the hands, both of which were effectively abandoned alongside the introduction of the “back-pass” law in the early 1990s) and some restarts (notably the kick-off) have changed, and gradually more substitutes have been allowed, but very little else is noticeable. There have been some technical changes (the ability to score a goal or own goal from certain restarts); bookings and sendings-off are now more common; and at top level there is now a board to mark how much added time will be played as a minimum (and there is a lot more of this than there used to be). Alongside gradual liberalisation of the application of the offside law over the past three decades, that is all.

Hockey, on the other hand, has changed markedly. My father played in an era when it was still permissible to stop the ball with the hand (which is still legal in ice hockey); but then he also played on grass and the game has changed profoundly since the surface changed. Rules around playing the ball above shoulder height, certain forms of obstruction and, most notably perhaps, offside, have been abandoned; the procedures and requirements for penalty corners have changed markedly; technical rules have come (and sometimes also gone) to try to promote skill and adapt to changed techniques while restricting danger, with varying degrees of success. Temporary suspensions (“sin-bins”) were long allowed in hockey but have been expanded; rolling substitutes have become the norm. Frees may now be “auto-passed” (it is not necessary for the taker to pass the ball; they may simply continue to play it). The exact rules around the taking of attacking free hits particularly in the attacking quarter of the field (alongside the recent abolition of “long corners”) change frequently.

Structure

At amateur level, at least in Northern Ireland, the sports are also structured differently. Hockey umpires at club level are volunteers, but assigned to a club (with all the camaraderie that comes with that). Football referees are paid (well, at least, compensated) per game, but have to make do with the odd referees’ meeting for the social side. In Ireland, where there is a marked shortage of qualified hockey umpires coming through, some thought is now being given to compensation.

Compensation for football referees is not the norm everywhere either, however. A league I briefly refereed in in southern Germany in fact always had two matches played after each other and the nominal home club for each provided the referee for the other match – meaning that referees were assigned to teams but went without compensation; in others words, the system was much closer to hockey in Ireland than football. (Thus I personally would be wary of going the compensation route for hockey umpires, as it is not clear it is necessary if clubs take some responsibility for development; that said, interestingly, both refereeing and pitch standards were markedly lower in Baden-Wuerttemberg than in Northern Ireland!)

Lessons

Football has already decided to learn from hockey and other sports by introducing “sin bins” and rolling substitutes to the laws of the game; these are not yet permitted at the highest level, but that is surely a matter of time.

There are also proposals for football to borrow hockey’s “auto-pass” at free kicks; that may be more complicated, as it is easier in hockey to assess whether the ball has been stopped before the free is taken than it would be in football. (Football also briefly experimented with “kick-ins” from the touchlines some years ago, effectively making the return to play from the side the same as the general return to play after an offence as in hockey, but this was swiftly abandoned.)

As with rugby, hockey also gives more responsibility to the captain of each team. Football would surely gain from something similar, making captains the primary or in many cases sole point of contact between a team and the officials may improve game management and respect considerably.

It is perhaps less obvious what hockey has to learn from football (since hockey folk have vastly more exposure to football than the other way around, it is probable that it is more inclined to learn from it). From the angle of the communications professional as much as the sports enthusiast, I would tentatively make one suggestion: hockey should have Laws, not just Rules. The Rules are, evidently, a patchwork of amendments and adaptations going back some considerable time, and it is not always obvious even to experienced officials how they link to each other, what their purpose is, and how they should be interpreted (particularly after amendments); indeed, in some cases, there are details missing which then appear elsewhere (even something as fundamental as the rule around the “Method of Scoring” does not take account for procedures at a penalty corner, which at best amend it and at worst contradict it). Carrying out a fundamental revision, as has recently occurred in football, in this case to lay out clear Laws of the Game (which would only rarely be amended) alongside regulations (which could be adapted more readily, even across different levels) would surely make the game easier for players and officials alike to manage, while also enabling more thorough consideration of concepts such as “dangerous play”, “contact” and “misconduct”.

Ease of officiating

Which one, after all this, is easier to officiate? There, I remain genuinely undecided. In some ways hockey is the more pleasant sport to officiate because officials remain associated with a club, and thus with the camaraderie that goes with that – football is a lonelier operation altogether! On the other hand, the Laws of Association Football are broadly simpler and easier to apply consistently. Perhaps the best bet is to try both…

 

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Direct free kicks and penalties…

A very good question was put to me on Twitter concerning why in football, if an offence would be a direct free-kick elsewhere on the field, it would not in practice necessarily be a penalty kick in the penalty area. There are a lot of aspects to that…

Firstly, the laws of the game are generally delightfully straightforward and logical (and ever more so). Essentially, there are two types of offence – technical (such as offside or handling a backpass) and more serious (such as tripping and handball); and thus two types of sanction – indirect and direct. Then the laws simply state that if an offence which would have been sanctioned with a direct free kick is carried out by a defender in the penalty area, it is a penalty kick. So far, so easy.

Secondly, however, no one seriously doubts that in practice an offence resulting in a penalty kick needs to be clearer than one elsewhere on the field. This is topical. This season alone there has been an instruction to referees to take pushing and holding more seriously; and there has been discussion among pundits (especially since many channels now provide an expert referee as well as former players) about the practical reality that it takes a little more for a penalty kick to be awarded than a direct free kick elsewhere.

So thirdly, how about a solution to this? Hockey, for example, does not insist on making a direct parallel between sanctions for offences outside and inside the circle; it specifies that only offences in particular circumstances inside the circle can result in a penalty stroke and only intentional offences in the defensive quarter outside the circle can result in a penalty corner. So why not, as one correspondent suggested, allow for wider use of indirect free-kicks to the attacking team in the penalty area – perhaps, for example, for minor shoves or tugs?

It may be difficult to write the laws to enable such a solution, but it could be worth a try.

If football is looking at dementia, rugby has serious work to do

Alan Shearer recently presented a documentary on dementia among former footballers, potentially linked to heading. This is best known because of the plight of former West Bromwich Albion and England forward Jeff Astle, whose death aged 69 in 2002 was directly associated with the effect of heading footballs.

Declaration: the Dementia Services Development Centre in the documentary is a former client of my company’s.

It is to football’s credit that it has some prominent figures taking this matter seriously. It would be easy to hope that the lighter balls of the modern age will have less effect, but significant priority is being given (by some at least) to finding out. Thankfully the game itself is changing tactically, with less priority given to long-distance heading and more towards attempting to control the ball and use it with the feet.

However football should, as Mr Shearer pointed out, put more money into research (and, I would also say, into support for former players seemingly affected). In practice, things rarely change without clear evidence.

American Football’s NFL set up a support fund for former players – even then, probably too late – and is now taking steps to amend the laws of the game to stop concussion. US Soccer has barred heading from under-11 matches to avoid concussion (it accepts that research concerning dementia remains inconclusive, although not least because there has not been enough of it).

In a recent inter-pro rugby match, a player was sent off for what the referee himself described as “a high tackle with force connecting with the head”. Astonishingly, some of the pundits regarded that sending-off as “harsh”. In fact, it should not even have been referred to the TMO; such a level of danger should result in automatic dismissals and lengthy suspensions because they are not part of the game (they are foul play) and they are undoubtedly dangerous. In fact, a “tackle” which is even at risk of going high and connecting anywhere near the head (and thus the brain) should result in questions being raised about whether the tackler should be playing again. This is not a “risk”; it is deliberate action causing danger.

Further, rugby needs to reconsider its coaching. Young men (in fact even boys) are taught in some contexts, particularly around the breakdown, to “lead with the head”. This defies belief. Although the object is not to connect with anything with the head, such contact is an inevitable consequence of “leading with the head” into a group of players. It should be obvious that there should be no question of any team sport teaching people to put their head into any danger.

This is before we even come to query the very laws of the game, which are still based around significant high-speed contact (with the risk always existing that this will go high) and high-risk contact at the breakdown after a tackle.

Football needs to do a lot more, at least to be sure about what the evidence says. However, if football needs to take some action to protect heads and thus limit concussion and dementia, rugby surely needs to take profound action up to and including thorough revision of its laws around tackles and breakdowns. There is a duty of care to players in all sports, and it needs to be taken far more seriously.

Rugby’s video reviews becoming too like an annoying SatNav

I would be interested to see a fundamental assessment of what priorities the authorities in various sports have when it comes to issues such as setting the laws of the game and enabling them to be applied effectively. Rugby, at least by European standards, was among the earlier major sports to adopt a video review system, usually referred to as “asking the TMO (Television Match Official)”. I am not opposed to video review, but rugby’s has become such a mess, it is making people like me lose interest in watching the sport.

Maybe, of course, it does not much matter if people like me are driven from the sport. I buy the odd shirt and attend the odd match but I probably contribute very little. Nevertheless, I would have thought at least one consideration would be improving the product for armchair fans – with the broadened exposure and indeed increased advertising which would come with that. So maybe it does matter. If it does, that the system is a mess from a spectator point of view comes to matter.

On New Year’s Day Ulster had a remarkable comeback against Munster, but its cause was definitely not helped at 0-17 by the referee and TMO colluding to find a reason to disallow a perfectly good try. Not only was this yet another example of the TMO getting things wrong (something which happens extraordinarily often), but in fact of a referee almost contriving a reason to disallow a score in the knowledge that the TMO may be convinced to back him up. The TMO was clearly influenced by the referee’s original implicit error, and therefore sought safety in numbers by going along with it – a normal response studied at length by psychologists, but one which served only to confirm a wrong decision. What is more, it took ages – had I not been making a drink at the time I would in fact have switched over to the Premier League football match also ongoing at that time before the decision was even made.

So, if people like me matter, this issue matters. It is removing from the entertainment value without any real evidence that it improves decision making. It is a bit like relying on a Satellite Navigation system which consistently takes you a more circuitous route than is actually required simply by looking at the map – yet if the unit is telling you to go that way, you are inclined just to go along with it (ultimately the same psychological effect).

That is not to say that TMOs, or indeed SatNavs, are always wrong. In fact, they are right more often than not (as they were subsequently in the Ulster match when a red card was confirmed). But if they take too long to reach a decision, and are then quite frequently wrong, we have to recognise that our reliance on them has become unhealthy and we need to think again about how they are used.

With football, the argument always was that such stoppages for video reviews would be unacceptable (notwithstanding my view that they are unacceptable in rugby). Eventually, however, Germany’s Bundesliga has arrived at a system which is much speedier. In a recent game at Wolfsburg, for example, a home goal scored from a header after a cross at a set piece was disallowed in the time it took for the players to run back to the centre circle for the restart without any apparent interruption at all – the referee made a specific request concerning offside quickly and had a response within seconds. (Even then, a majority of Bundesliga players taking a view in a New Year poll stated they would be happy to see video reviews abolished again – no doubt because they are simply viewed as too disruptive.)

Arguably, offside in football is clearer cut than crossing in rugby (the issue for Ulster in the case above), but for me the issue perhaps lies more in the question. First of all, while it is wise for a referee to have an original decision in mind, the TMO should not be led: the question should not be “Can you check for crossing?” (which leaves in place the leading assumption that there was crossing) but perhaps generally “Can you see any reason I should disallow the try”? Second, time is an issue: if no reason can quickly be found to overturn an assumption or disallow a score, it probably should not be overturned or disallowed. Third, it does raise a broader question – is it possible that, at least at the highest level, line judges in rugby should have an enhanced role, making the TMO a genuine last resort rather than a SatNav option we are inclined to overrely on?

As ever, I emphasise that rugby is not my game. But I do see a system which will need to be changed urgently if potential recruits to the game are not to be lost thanks to the sheer tedium of over-checking decisions only in too many cases to confirm errors.

Is fundamental change required for how football is refereed?

The Times’ Henry Winter is always excellent and some weeks ago he wrote a superb piece (frustratingly behind a pay wall) that if even Petr Cech is losing it with referees, there is probably a serious problem.

Recent weeks alone have seen utterly ludicrous penalties being awarded, yellow cards being issued for gross tackles which endanger safety and should result in long-term bans, and dives going unpunished. Mr Winter makes the interesting point that a hugely disproportionate number of controversial (actually, plain wrong) decisions have occurred late in games.

The main issue here is that the advent of professional refereeing has not seen any increase in refereeing standards. The footballing authorities seem, therefore, to be questioning what they can do to improve standards. I wonder, however, if there is not another question: is it conceivable to raise standards beyond their current level?

To put this another way, does football need to consider more profoundly how the game is officiated?

A modern football match at the highest level now typically has four or five officials – a referee, two assistants running the line, and one or two more technical officials managing the dug-out, substitutions and so on. Again, however, none of this has in fact improved the standards of refereeing. Are we not wasting these extra officials?

For example, originally football had two umpires (as hockey still has). American Football actually makes use of no fewer than seven on-field officials.

To give a recent but common example of how this works, I was umpiring a hockey match recently where a shot on the far side of the circle was deflected behind by a defender, so awarded a hit from the 23-metre line to the attacking team (the standard restart when a defender plays the ball behind unintentionally). It had not, in all truth, even occurred to me that the play behind had been anything other than legal. Yet the attacking team politely appealed for a penalty corner, on the basis it had in fact hit the defender’s foot – something which, as I politely explained back, I could not possibly have seen from my angle given it had occurred on the far side of the player concerned. However, I then had the option of glancing at the other umpire, who although further away had the better angle, who was able to signal back that in fact a penalty corner should be awarded and I was able to overturn my original decision. In fact the team scored from the penalty corner, so the decision was critical – but it required two umpires, not one. So is it reasonable that we expect one referee alone to get everything right in football?

For a period in some competitions two more officials were added on the goal-line to see if the ball had fully crossed it. With video technology, this has now been rendered pointless, but I wonder if they should not be reintroduced, but on the far side of the goal from the assistant referee. That would give four officials on the lines, covering between them almost the whole field, who could assist the referee with key decisions. Mic them all up, and you would have a system which may just work considerably more effectively than the current one.

Take, for example, the controversial awarding of a penalty to West Bromwich Albion against Arsenal just before the New Year (the one which so angered Petr Cech). In that case, the ball was on the left-hand side of the penalty area (the far side from the assistant referee) and the referee himself was chasing play a good fifteen yards back, with a completely hopeless angle. The attacking player in fact did not even appeal for a penalty, wanting instead a corner. The referee must have believed that he saw a hand go out to an unnatural position or with the intent to play the ball, and thus awarded a decisive penalty – even though that is simply not what happened. The point here is that an official positioned on the goal line would have been nearer the incident and could have told the referee that that was not what happened; indeed, he would likely have signalled for a corner, suggesting plainly the referee that there was no case for awarding a penalty.

Thus, by adding two further assistants on the goal-line and enhancing the powers of all the assistants (rather than just wasting them solely on technical issues such as dug-out management), we would have a game in which the correct decision would be arrived at far more often. The final arbiter would remain the referee, but he (or she) would no longer be making judgements solely based on what they have seen often from tens of yards away.

We need, at the very least, to re-frame the question. One human being can only observe so much. This is not so much about refereeing standards, as about refereeing systems.

Football’s New Year’s Resolution – sort kits out and stop exploiting people

Kits used by teams in the Premier League have long been beyond a joke. It can be genuinely quite difficult, on television, to tell a clear difference between them (for example, dark blue versus black), and often the tricky combination has been brought about for no good reason (for example when Arsenal change from red away from home against a team which does not wear red). The joke is now well beyond funny.

One of the worst offenders is in fact my own team, Arsenal. Arsenal this season have produced a mid-light blue kit and a black kit (with fetching pink trim) neither of which has any tradition and only one of which (if that) is even necessary. This is all about money grabbing – encouraging people (particularly parents under pressure) to fork out ludicrous expense for shirts which will be out of fashion in only a few months anyway. Far from going into grass roots sport, the money so gained (it is not earned) goes into making the likes of Stan Kroenke multi-billionaires rather than merely billionaires. It’s ludicrous and it’s nasty.

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Then it gets worse. Not content with having produced an unnecessary blue kit alongside an unnecessary black kit (Arsenal’s traditional away colour was white and then, post-War, gradually switched to yellow), it turned out on a trip to West Bromwich Albion neither of these, nor the home kit in usual style, would work. This is partly because the home side also has a ludicrous kit – which is traditional blue and white stripes on the front but in fact entirely blue on the back. However, it is mainly because Arsenal produced two kits not for utility but for money-grabbing. A single traditional yellow with blue away kit would have produced no problem anywhere this season, but actually now we have the contrived situation of three kits none of which sufficed for this fixture. Thus, on top of everything else, red shorts had to be added – a fourth separate set of shorts.

This nonsense could of course be easily resolved. A simple requirement for every team to produce one kit which is predominantly a dark colour and one which is predominantly a light colour would sort it. This is the solution used everywhere from the National Football League in the United States to the Ulster Hockey League Junior Division 8B in Ireland. If the Premier League has even the remotest interest in sport rather than money grabbing, it will introduce a similar requirement – two kits per team, one dark and one light, and that’s it. (While we’re at it, let’s go back to reserving black for the ref – it is no one’s traditional colour.)

I’ll not hold my breath.

Ministers needed or universal free healthcare will be thing of the past

Opinion piece by Paula Bradshaw MLA (Alliance Party, Belfast South):

The news that the Department of Health would make arrangements to implement the recommended pay award for workers in the Health Sector was welcome, but the wholly unnecessary delay in putting in place a budget for it was just the tip of the iceberg. Health pay, budgets and transformation cannot be managed without Ministers in place urgently – and any party which really cared about our collective health and well-being would recognise this. 

The notion that we have a universal healthcare service free at point of access is already a delusion. Increasingly, people with means are understandably opting out of a system with vast waiting lists and collapsing primary care services, and choosing instead to pay to go private. This means we already, in practice, have a two-tier service – both for staff and patients. The founding principles of the NHS no longer have any meaningful application when that is the case. What needs to be done?

Firstly, any organisation is only as good as the workers within it, and if workers are not paid properly and do not have reasonable conditions, they will understandably begin to opt out. We need to reassess pay levels for full-time staff upwards in the light of the rising cost of living, and we also need to implement caps to stop agencies profiteering on the back of staffing shortfalls. This, of course, requires legislation – including a Minister and an Assembly. 

Secondly, we need to bring far more money into the Health Service while it is being reformed to enable “dual running” – i.e. the operation of the Service as currently alongside the reformed Service. This means a fundamental review of where we are allocating devolved funds – not least those wasted on segregated services or mismanaged programmes – as well as consideration of sources of other income. This too, realistically, requires Ministers and an Assembly. 

Thirdly, we need to implement the Bengoa proposals. This is an immense reform programme but it has the support of those working within the Service who recognise that it is the only way to restore a universal service free at point of access with expert, quality care available to the entire population on an equal basis. This will see more emphasis on the right pathway immediately upon entering the system, a greater focus on prevention and ongoing care in the home, and the development of world-class specialist provision. However, the programme requires significant legislative change – which again requires a Minister and an Assembly.

It is time for those who care about our healthcare to stand up and be counted. There is no excuse for not putting back into operation the devolved institutions of government to take responsibility for adequate pay, an enhanced budget and a vital reform programme.  

Merry Christmas

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Be good. Stay safe. Have fun.

Identity politics work – sadly

In the UK yesterday, many people from the “Remain” end of the spectrum expressed disbelief that UK passports will be blue from October 2019. Some, the current author included, noted that they were not blue in any case before they switched to their current burgundy; others suggested there were other priorities in national life; still more tried to pin a cost on the change (we will come to that…); and pollsters said people did not really care that much.

Meanwhile, in the US, the President was arguing for the term “Merry Christmas” in preference to “Happy Holidays”. There was a similarly disdainful reaction from Liberals; and pollsters again said people did not really care that much.

However, I suspect people do care. That is why the UK Prime Minister and US President are getting up to such antics around “identity politics”. As we know only too well in Northern Ireland, identity politics work.

A few years ago, at around this time of year, Sinn Fein decided to switch its stance on the Union Flag at City Hall, thus meaning that an Alliance amendment in line with its own policy would see it flown only on designated days. Very few people would have expressed much interest in the subject to pollsters, but Sinn Fein was deliberately pulling at emotions and identities; and the DUP responded. The result was economic chaos – and both parties improved their position at the subsequent elections. Having messed around for a year now while Health goes unreformed, Education becomes unsustainable and the economy fails to grow, the two parties should be being punished by the electorate for their callous unwillingness to get on with the job – yet both, in fact, are scoring record poll numbers. Identity politics work.

I was in the US last month and I did notice the preponderance of the word “holiday”, to an extent that it is now plainly ludicrous. A market outside the Smithsonian in Washington DC plays Christmas music, sells Christmas gifts, is based on German Weihnachtsmaerkte (“Christmas markets”), yet incredibly is referred to as a “Holiday Market”. This, to people of even slightly Conservative leanings, is surely an example of political uber-correctness, and a reaction is unsurprising. This notion that things which are obviously one thing cannot be referred to as that thing for fear of causing some kind of “offence” genuinely and often in fact legitimately annoys people, even though they overtly make little of it. So, when someone actually appeals to that covert annoyance, it is unsurprising that that appeal is successful. Identity politics work.

And so it was with the response to the blue passports. Firstly, there is the somewhat academic factual reaction (“Ah, but Croatia has its own colour and it is in the EU”); but for people like last week’s Question Time audience in Barnsley, that misses the point and just looks smug. Secondly, there is the (entirely legitimate) mockery of the notion that the colour is “iconic” for the simple reason that UK passports were never that shade of blue; but perhaps this too misses the point, which is presumably that at least they will not be burgundy like the Continentals. Thirdly, there is the notion that there are other priorities; but here we have the Remainers/Liberals engaging in fake news of their own. Although the new passport provision contract will indeed cost nearly £500m, the fact is it would cost that regardless of the colour – so the notion that not changing the colour would leave £500m over to tackle homelessness or to spend on the NHS is no more accurate than the infamous £350m claim on the Brexit bus.

In fact, we all get embroiled in identity politics – even those of us who claim to be above it get embroiled in it, even though we tell ourselves that we only do so to try to emphasise why we are above it. In fact, I do think it is worth making the point that having a big fuss over changing a passport colour does make the British themselves look rather insecure and their government look pathetic. If anything, however, even this is merely a representative symptom of the broader problem – that the British are fundamentally insecure and their government is pathetic. To be clear, I could not care what colour my passport is, which means it does not bother me to change it; what bothers me are the ludicrous fantasies of “bringing back”, “iconic colours” and “independence” when we should not be seeking to “bring back”, there is nothing “iconic” about the colour, and the fact the passports will be made abroad to standards set abroad rather demonstrates the absurdity of the notion of “independence” in an interdependent world.

For all that, in fact what has happened is the Prime Minister has successfully diverted attention from the real story, which is that David Davis’ impact assessments have now been shown beyond doubt not to, er, assess impact. Since one Cabinet Minister has gone for lying, there is a cast iron case for a second going. But we are not talking about that. Identity politics can be a lovely diversion when you want to shield some other story – which is why they work. Sadly.

Is NI capable of public service reform?

In the midst of the Brexit entertainment, the RHI inquiry has been keeping Stormont occupied. Whatever the political fallout, it is evident already that it will demonstrate something beyond doubt – Northern Ireland’s Civil Service is in need of significant reform.

The media are highlighting the apparently obvious issue that the crux of the problem was that generalist civil servants could not fully comprehend a specialist issue (renewable energy). Perhaps the real issue, however, is that many surely noted the nonsense of offering subsidies greater than the actual value, but seemingly no one felt able to do anything about raising it.

I recently glanced at the application pack for a job in the NI Civil Service (which, by the way, is not a particularly significant employer here – many jobs which would be seen as “civil service” are in fact government jobs elsewhere, e.g. in a Health Trust). The advert specifically noted that the job was open to people from outwith the Civil Service. Yet, in practice, it wasn’t.

For, to have a reasonable chance at getting such a position, a candidate was required a strong knowledge of a vast table of competencies. Realistically, such competencies cannot be picked up off a page; in practice, those who could demonstrate those competencies from their past professional career would be at an advantage, meaning those who already knew them (i.e. those already in the Civil Service) would be at an advantage. This is in fact discrimination – it may be unintentional, but inevitably those setting the terms of the position will set them in a way biased towards themselves. This is widely recognised when it comes to tackling sexual discrimination or religious discrimination. Here was another example. An organisation really open to outsiders would not be forcing them into a straitjacket of internally recognised competencies before they even enter – quite on the contrary, it would be considering what additional skills and indeed ways of working they could bring into Service and emphasising those as priority.

When it comes to reform, this is very troubling. The Review of Public Administration was an example of such a shambles. The whole purpose was to save money and deliver what was known as “co-terminosity” – so that Council boundaries, police district boundaries, Health Trust boundaries and so on would align. Having taken so long that an additional local government election was required, the outcome astonishingly failed to meet either requirement. It would, literally, have been better not to do it at all.

Areas such as the Bengoa reforms are even more complex and many multiples of times more important. So the question has to be asked honestly: are we really up to it?

And then we have the vast complications of Brexit. Here, over 140 powers will be added to the devolved mix, even all other things being equal (and they may not be). Yet there will be a scant resource allocation coming with them. This threatens to cause paralysis in Whitehall, never mind Stormont. It will require vast reform – “doing more with less” as the slogan goes.

Add to this the prospect of marked additional powers to manage Northern Ireland’s specific solutions, changes to financing including corporation tax powers and reform of the education system. We have to ask serious questions about how any administration could possibly be prepared. However, this administration – one where new skills and thinking are actually discriminated against even when the need for them is recognised – will surely be particularly unprepared without reforming itself.

It is not only new skills and new thinking which will obviously be required once the RHI Inquiry is finished, but also the whole notion of the “generalist” civil servant. Rightly or wrongly, people will pose the question: can the same person drift expertly between managing the introduction of PIP one day to overseeing policy on the replacement of CAP the next? Is this a reasonable expectation of anyone?

Nevertheless, the broader issue seems why lower ranks seem disempowered (from, for example, raising queries when subsidy levels appear to exceed actual outlay). Northern Ireland’s administration needs experts with experience, coming most likely from outside the Service to work at least alongside generalists; and it needs people who will speak up, without fearing for their promotion prospects as a result. This is the level of the reform required.

One of the interesting aspects of an article from Queen’s University about additional powers for Northern Ireland post-Brexit was the implication that the public needs to be better informed and take more care. This perhaps is the crux of it. Bungles around RPA or RHI may sound like an alphabet soup, but they are not inconsequential. We need a public sector which is better at reform (including of itself), and a public which is better at caring about it.

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