Loyalism needs to be less isolationist

What a difference three weeks makes. Three weeks ago, we experienced an aggressive, unpleasant bonfire and parading weekend where parades supporters injured public servants and forced people out of their homes, while parades opponents attacked community centres and openly threatened violence if they did not get their way. Yet this weekend, a thoroughly fun and inclusive feast of social liberalism known as “Pride” came to an end – and, far from coming under attack, public servants were even able to decorate one of their vehicles in the colours of the festival. From Belfast at its worst to Belfast at its best within a month.

That is not to say that everything about Loyalist parades is wrong (many, indeed most, are a musical and artistic delight, particularly in rural areas); and it is not to say that everything about Pride is right (it has become alarmingly party-political, for a start). However, a visitor to Belfast would not have missed to aggression in the air three weeks ago; yet they would have felt utterly welcome this past weekend.

All is far from lost for Loyalism, however, because on the day of the Pride Parade I caught just one tweet which offers real hope for the future – the author is apparently a member of the PUP:

Important that we dispel the myth that a non-Loyalist event is by default an anti-Loyalist one. We should end any remaining self-isolation“.

Yes, yes, and thrice yes! Give that man a leadership role in Loyalism, and Northern Ireland will become a far better place – not least for Loyalists.

“A change of mind is evidence you have one”

It has always struck me as peculiar that we tend to regard politicians who change their mind as somehow weak and unprincipled.

Yet changing your mind in the light of new evidence or experience is something all successful people do. As circumstances change, so should you. It makes basic evolutionary sense!

It was Bertrand Russell who said words to the effect that any intelligent person always leaves room for doubt – for a later change of mind, in other words, if evidence, experience or circumstance should change. Naomi Long perhaps simplified this point to “a change of mind is evidence you have one”.

Yesterday Trevor Lunn announced he had changed his mind on the issue of same-sex marriage. It took great courage to do that; in many ways it would have been easier not to (after all, his previous stance evidently did not affect his vote in May). A politician changing his mind, and doing so because it is right and not because it is necessarily popular, should be applauded. It is all too rare.

It will, of course, take one convert at a time to reach an Assembly majority. It should also be noted that those who were always in favour and who stuck by the party in order to act as persuaders, particularly in Lagan Valley, have been rewarded. Just as there is no future in being so hard-headed you’ll never change your mind, there is also no future in being so vehemently in favour of something you will not even enter into debate with those who see it differently in order to change minds. It may not be sexy, but persuasion and compromise work – hectoring doesn’t.

It would of course be a good thing if a few more politicians changed their mind; and also if, when they did so, they were as direct and open about it as Trevor Lunn was yesterday. It would be a good thing if a few Unionist politicians were open about the folly of their absolutist position of symbols and parades – for I do not believe they do not see it privately. It would be an even better thing if “Republicans” saw the nonsense of commemorating and acting as apologists for campaigns of violence which secured the direct opposite of their stated objective – for it is obvious that it what happened, whether 10 years ago or 100.

Think about a Northern Ireland in which a few politicians across the board simply turned around and said “You know, I’ve thought about it, I’ve spoken to a wider range of people, and I’ve noted the changed circumstances – so frankly, I’ve changed my mind”. Some would mock; but most would applaud, and our children would inherit a far, far better place.

A “Northern Ireland” team for everything?

Here is an interesting petition advocating a Northern Ireland team for all sports played internationally.

It seems a simple and sensible enough case, and to be clear it is one with which I am instinctively very comfortable. In most sports, countries have their own team; and sharing in the trials and tribulations of a shared Northern Ireland team would help build a Northern Irish identity (and a potentially shared and inclusive one at that).

However, a bit like the case for a Northern Ireland flag, I do not think it is as simple as that.

The census tells us that “Northern Irish(ness)” is a concept with which those of a broadly Nationalist background are increasingly comfortable. However, this may well be for quite different reasons from the “Northern Irishness” as expressed by those of a more Unionist persuasion. This distinction remains relevant; for it may be that it is precisely the ability to lead an “all-Ireland” life culturally (including in most sports) while not having to bother with the complexities of merging distinct economies and losing the NHS which makes those of a Nationalist background more content than ever with the designation “Northern Irish”. Ironically, therefore, it may be that by cutting off an all-Ireland aspect of their lives previously taken for granted (in sports such as rugby, hockey or cricket) that in fact the burgeoning and shared “Northern Irish” identity would be restricted and damaged.

(That is to leave quite aside the fact that people in Northern Ireland are not compelled to support a “Northern Ireland” team just because one exists. It can, in fact, be just as divisive as anything else.)

There are practical issues with having no Northern Ireland team in some sports, that is for sure. World rankings, for example, assume that the “Great Britain” Olympic hockey team is made up of players from England, Scotland and Wales (which each otherwise has its own team), leaving Northern Irish players coming up through an all-Ireland set-up to jump through hoops if they wish to play for it (as many do; they are British and there is a serious medal chance as part of the British team, but none realistically as part of an Irish one); a specific Northern Ireland team would be practically useful there (with players at Olympic level then free to opt for “Great Britain and NI” or “Ireland”).

On the other hand, there are practical reasons in some sports that you would never even consider a separate Northern Ireland team. In cricket, for example, there is already a combined West Indies team and actually a combined England and Wales team; so why, particularly as it challenges for test status over the next few years, would anyone contemplate breaking up a perfectly adequate combined all-Ireland team?

Even beyond practicalities, some sports already serve the range of identities relatively well. People of “Northern Irish” identity will have little difficulty in rugby union supporting Ulster (in the Pro12), Ireland (in the Six Nations) and the British Isles (on tour). Even golfers can on occasions represent Northern Ireland (in individual tournaments), on other occasions Ireland (in the World Cup), on other occasions Great Britain and Ireland (in the Walker/Curtis Cup or Seve Trophy), and on others Europe (in the Ryder/Solheim Cup).

There is also a reality that sports where there is a Northern Ireland team – notably football, snooker and the Commonwealth Games – still need to do more in terms of symbols and anthems to make those teams genuinely inclusive. (That is not to deny great strides have been made; nor is that problem confined the Northern Ireland teams – all-Ireland teams have a similar problem.)

To be clear, I would personally like to see a Northern Ireland team in more sports. But then, I would also like to see an agreed flag. However, there are reasons of history, politics and even theology that we have divided identities in this place, and that many would genuinely disagree with me on that point. This cannot be overcome merely by a mixture of enforced change and wishful thinking.

Random notes on Spanish versus Italian

Spanish and Italian are so similar that the untrained linguist can, on occasions, struggle to tell them apart. This does make it relatively easy to attain reasonable competence in one having learned the other; although it can also make this difficult, because there are also fundamental differences which mean that the initial apparent similarity can be deceptive.

Naples - an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Naples – an Italian city once administered by the Spanish

Four Western European national languages (which between them have around 200 million mother-tongue speakers in Europe and even more than that in the Americas) are descended from Latin – Italian, French, Spanish and Portuguese. Of these, it is no surprise that Spanish and Portuguese have multiple common traits not shared with the others, although Portuguese is somewhat more challenging for a variety of reasons (discussed here).

Leaving aside Portuguese, geography would dictate that French should be the “middle” of the three, but this is not the case. In fact, the reality that travel was historically easier over water (i.e. around the Mediterranean) than land already makes French the isolate; and French is in any case an immediate exception because of its early contact with Germanic, discussed here.

Thus although Italian is closer to French than Spanish is, there is no dispute that Spanish and Italian have much more in common with each other, at least structurally and phonologically, than either has with French. So how can the Spanish speaker maximise their knowledge of Italian, and vice-versa?


Both Italian and Spanish are derived from Latin, and did not have the Germanic intervention that French had. Both specifically derive from “Vulgar Latin”, the spoken dialects of less educated people some centuries after Christ (notably, in the case of Spanish, Roman soldiers from all over the Empire who used Latin typically as a common second language). However, the differences between them arise in large part from the method of standardisation.

Essentially, modern Standard Spanish is a later standardisation than modern Standard Italian. In the case of Spanish, the basis is the language of the central Iberian Peninsula which moved southwards to encompass the entirety of Andalusia; “Golden Age Spanish” was the language of El Cid and of imperial Spain, but the spelling system was further adapted subsequently to take account of further phonological changes. Thus, Standard Written Spanish is designed fairly accurately to reflect the way the modern language is spoken.

In the case of Italian, there was effectively a “re-standardisation” to an earlier version, based around the Tuscan city of Florence (home of the medieval author Dante). This means that the Standard is somewhat more prescriptive – rather than reflecting how people speak, it asks people who speak a wide variety of ways to write a separate version for the sake of common understanding across the Italian Peninsula. The practical outcome is firstly that the “Standard” is in fact based on an older version of Italian (thus closer to Latin) than Spanish is; and, secondly, that spoken dialects of Italian are further removed from that “Standard” (although they are now swiftly converging towards it).

There has also been some linkage between the two languages over the centuries; most notably, Spanish administrators controlled much of southern Italy in the late Golden Age (although some of these would have spoken Catalan – that is one for another blog!)


Although Italian has more mother tongue speakers in Europe than Spanish (roughly 70 million to 50 million), Spanish is the more global language and is thus seen as the “bigger” of the two. This has practical modern consequences, in that Italians are more acquainted with Spanish than vice-versa. As just one of many cultural examples, it is common for Spanish-language songs to succeed in Italy (in fact both Number 1 and Number 2 in the Italian charts at time of writing are in Spanish); not only is the reverse impossible, but it is in fact the norm for Italian singers to record albums both in Italian and Spanish to maximise the market (the likes of Alessandro Safina, Eros Ramazotti and Laura Pausini all do this as a matter of course).

Therefore, the linguistic similarities (alongside historical links) allow a broad and wide-ranging cultural exchange – but this cultural exchange happens almost exclusively in Spanish.


The structural similarities between the languages are obvious. Fundamentally they are vocalic languages relying heavily on verbs. Both are:

  • “pro-drop” languages (the subject pronoun may be dropped – for example, amo in Italian, Spanish and Latin conveys the meaning on its own of ‘I love/adore’);
  • “masculine-feminine” languages (nouns may be one of two genders, masculine or feminine, and the markers are often -o and -a – thus Italian/Spanish amico/amigo ‘friend’ is masculine; amica/amiga is specifically a female friend);
  • “post-attributive” languages (most obviously, adjectives typically follow nouns although common ones may precede – un buon’amico/un buen amigo ‘a good friend’ but la terra verde/la tierra verde ‘the green land’);
  • typically “synthetic” languages (particularly with verbs – amava/amaba on its own carries the meaning of ‘I/he/she used to love’); and
  • SVO (but SOV with pronouns) – thus vedo la terra/veo la tierra ‘I see the land’ but la vedo/la veo ‘I see it’, although word order is relatively free in each (more so in Spanish).

There are other similarities too, although these can mask some differences. Both languages, even in modern form, make significant use of the subjunctive mood, but usage varies slightly – for example, Italian has credo che sia and non credo che sia for ‘I believe/don’t believe he/she is’ (both with subjunctive), whereas Spanish has creo que es and no creo que sea (thus subjunctive only with preceding negative).

Other areas are subtly different, particularly where Italian is similar to French. For example:

  • Modern Spoken Italian tends to use the perfect with avere ‘to have’ or essere ‘to be’ to refer to the past at all, whereas Spanish distinguishes between perfect and preterite – thus in Italian ho perduto means both ‘I have lost’ and ‘I lost'; but Spanish distinguishes between he perdito and perdí;
  • Furthermore, this distinction between avere and essere for the perfect is not retained in Spanish – thus sono venuto ‘I have come’ (literally: ‘am come’) but he venido ‘I have come'; Italian also displays preceding object agreement whereas Spanish does not, thus Italian la ho vista ‘I have seen it [feminine]’ but Spanish la he visto; or
  • Italian must refer back using extra pronouns to mark case, whereas Spanish does not – thus ci sono tre amici qui ‘there are three friends here’ but ci ne sono tre ‘there are three [of them] here’, but hay tres amigos aquí and hay tres [no further reference word required].

Italian also has a markedly more complex set of preposition-article mergers. Where modern Spanish only has del (from de + el) and al (from a + el), and thus none at all for the feminine or plural (de la, a la; de los, a los; de las, a las), Italian has a vast range covering masculine, feminine, singular and plural – del, dello, della, dell’, dei, degli, delle; al, allo, alla, all’, ai, agli. alle; also nel, nello, nella, nell’, nei, negli, nelle and so on. It may be noted, however, that this is arguably not a structural difference, but an orthographical one (I do not intend to deal with orthography specifically in this piece) – the two languages have simply chosen to reflect these mergers in different ways.

The single most fundamental difference between Italian and Spanish (or any other Latinate language) is that Italian almost always requires words to end in a vowel – this is a tendency in Spanish, but is much less required. This has implications for verbs (thus ami/amano ‘you [singular]/they love’ versus Spanish amas/aman, Latin amas/amant), common word formation (dieci ‘ten’, Spanish diez) and, most markedly of all, the formation of the plural.

In Standard Italian (and all Italian dialects to the south of Florence), the plural is formed by changing the final vowel of the noun (or adjective): thus amico-amici ‘friend-friends'; terra-terre ‘land-lands'; campione-campioni ‘champion-champions’ (note also common borrowings which look common in one form but not the other, such as panino-panini, capuccino-capuccini, graffito-graffiti, pizza-pizze). On the other hand, Spanish does this in line with other Latinate languages and English – amigo-amigos, tierra-tierras, campeon-campeones. This applies equally to adjectives: canzoni italiane ‘Italian songs’, Spanish canciones italianes.


Italian and Spanish do sound similar to the untrained ear because they are structurally similar and quite vocalic (compare German or Dutch, which have considerably more consonants, particularly at the end of words). They also pronounce all the letters written – there is, for example, no silent final –e as there is in modern spoken French and Portuguese (and English).

However, as noted above, there are significant differences, primary among them Italian’s greater insistence on final vowels; perhaps as a consequence, its intonation is also markedly different (somewhat more up-and-down – whereas Spanish is quite flat, at least outside Argentina where there is considerable Italian influence).

Another easy marker is that Italian generally retains intervocalic voiceless consonants where Spanish voices them (as amicversus amigabove; also gelat‘ice cream’ versus helado, etc).

Another Spanish development is the range of diphthongs (i.e. double vowels) in stressed syllables which Italian either has not developed or has developed differently (as Italian terra versus Spanish tierra from Latin terra; or buono versus bueno above from Latin bonus).

Italian does not share the Spanish requirement before consonants for e- before s-: scola ‘school’ versus escuela; Spagna ‘Spain’ versus España. Italian also allows more clusters, particularly with initial s-: svegliare ‘to wake'; scudetto ‘championship’. Spanish allows some of these combinations with other initial letters, but even then not all; and does not use even those it does allow as often.

To the untrained ear, there is one obvious sound which exists in Italian and not in Spanish, and vice-versa. Italian has a strong [ts] sound in words such as ragazzo ‘mate’ or even pizza, for which there is not even a remotely close approximant in Spanish (though there was, in fact, until around 300 years ago). In return, modern Spanish has a [x] sound similar to Scottish ‘loch‘ which does not exist at all in Italian; it is variously spelled, but most commonly now -j- as in hijo ‘son’, jefe ‘boss’, or occasionally g– as noted below.

A marked difference tied to this is the treatment of the letters c– and g- before a high vowel (typically –e or –i). In Latin this was always pronounced [k] and [g], but it softened in Vulgar Latin and then went in various directions. In Italian, c– is now [tsh] as in English ‘chin'; in Spanish it is typically merged with [s], so as English ‘sin’, although Standard European Spanish has [th] as in English ‘thin’ – thus the first syllable of Italian cinque or Spanish cinco ‘five’ is pronounced ‘chin’ in Italy, ‘sin’ in Latin America (derived from parts of southern Spain), and ‘thin’ in most of Spain. In Italian, soft g– is now [dsh] more or less as in English ‘gel'; in Spanish, as noted above, this is a hard [x] – thus Italian gemello ‘twin’ has a first syllable as the English ‘gem’, but the first sound of the Spanish gemelo sounds similar to the last sound in ‘loch’. (I do not wish to focus on orthography in this article, but the marking of any retained hard c- and g- before a high vowel is an obvious marker in writing: Italian add the letter –h in each case; whereas Spanish switches c– to qu– and g– to gu-: the most obvious example is Italian che versus Spanish que).

Modern Italian generally does not allow –l after an initial plosive, replacing it typically with the vowel –i – thus ciaro versus Spanish claro ‘clear’ (though see also below re chi-); piazza versus plaza ‘square'; bianco versus blanco ‘white’.

The letters b and v have merged, effectively, in modern Spanish, and the modern written standard selects them seemingly at random. Italian retains the clear distinction from Latin. Spanish also does not like initial f-, which is silent (though written h-) particularly in common words – thus Italian ferro versus Spanish hierro ‘iron'; also in fact fare versus hacer ‘to do’. Italian does not write initial silent h-: thus avere versus haber ‘to have’ (note also b/v merger); Olanda versus Holanda ‘Holland’.

As the gemello/gemelo example also indicates above, Italian retains double consonants, pronounced as such. Spanish does this only for the rolled –r– in words such as perro ‘dog’.

Spanish does have ll– but considers it distinct letter; the same sound is written gl– in Italian, although in fact it often equates to ch(i)– or pi– deriving from Latin cl-/pl– – thus, Latin clamare ‘to call’ gives Italian chiamare but Spanish llamar; Latin clavis ‘key’ gives Italian chiave but Spanish llave; Latin pluire ‘to rain’ gives Italian piovere but Spanish llover. This general palatisation is apparent in the –tt– versus –ch– combination too – e.g. Latin noctem ‘night’ gives Italian notte versus Spanish noche; octo ‘eight’ gives otto versus ocho.

There are of course many more parallels like these – they can easily be picked up.


As can be seen thoroughout this article already, a lot of vocabulary is similar, and differences are predictable or at least reasonably guessable: terra versus tierra ‘land'; amico versus amigo ‘friend'; perdere versus perder ‘to lose'; canzone versus cancion ‘song'; bianco versus blanco ‘white'; ferro versus hierro ‘iron'; piovere versus llover ‘to rain’.

Many words are, of course, identical: La luna grande solo ama la cosa con la costa verde ‘The big moon only likes the thing with the green coast’ is an entire sentence which is theoretically identical in Italian and Spanish.

This is misleading, of course. Nothing is that easy!

Firstly, there are simple words which are just completely different. My list of core vocabulary demonstrates some. Other key words which are not remotely similar include Italian ripostare versus Spanish contestar ‘to answer'; volere versus querer ‘to want'; imparare versus aprender ‘learn'; scegliere versus elegir ‘to choose'; posto versus lugar ‘place'; fino a versus hasta ‘until'; vietato versus prohibido ‘forbidden'; tavolo versus mesa ‘table'; or camara versus habitación ‘room’.

Secondly, there are many examples of where the same or a similar word exists in each language but is not used identically or even similarly. Italian avere ‘have’ covers both Spanish haber and tener; then Spanish de ‘of, from’ covers both Italian di and da. Italian comprendere covers ‘infer’ and even ‘include’ but not directly ‘understand’ (for which it has capire); Spanish comprender covers more ‘understand’ but not so much ‘infer’ (for which it has entender). There are countless examples of this – indeed it is the norm, in practice.

Thirdly, there are words which, while available in both, are simply more commonly used in one language than the other. For example, devere ‘to have to’ is widely used in Italian, but its Spanish equivalent deber is less so (Spanish often prefers a construction such as tener que). The adjective necessario ‘necessary is used in Italian alongside necesario in Spanish, but the verb necesitar is exclusive (at least in regular modern usage) to Spanish.

As a general note, because the Italian standard is based on an older version of the language, much of its vocabulary is longer and/or closer to the original Latin. Thus Italian settimana ‘week’ becomes much shorter Spanish semana; or Italian numbers such as undici ‘eleven [literally one-ten] and dodici ‘twelve [literally two-ten]’ become the more clinical Spanish once, doce. (Interestingly, with numbers between 11-20, Spanish switches order one later than Italian – for 15-17 Italian has quindici [five-ten], sedici [six-ten] and then diciasette [ten-seven], which is in line with Latin; Spanish has quince [originally five-ten] but then dieciseis [ten-six] and diecisiete [ten-seven].)


These are literally random observations as a rusty Spanish speaker who recently spent some time in Italy. They are not designed to reach any particular conclusion.

Nevetheless, they do reinforce my long-held view that we are wasting our time teaching languages individually in schools, as if they all have to be approached separately from each other. The simple fact is that knowledge of Spanish is a vast advantage in Italy; and vice-versa no doubt. Yet it is also a frustration – you can come to think you can say and write more than you actually can; some basic grounding is still necessary.

The historical background is helpful to aid the switch from one to the other, as is the basic vocabulary linked to above. However, most important of all are the patterns which enable structures and vocabulary to be reasonably guessed at. Becoming familiar with those is like becoming familiar with the controls of a car while learning to drive – they look intimidating at first, but once you learn to use them they become second nature.

Most of all, adventures in comparing Italian and Spanish are adventures in the most prominent linguistic culture of them all, descending obviously as they both do from Latin. It is sometimes easy, sometimes frustrating, sometimes challenging – but always fun!

Want more money for public services? Have the guts to raise it…

Since the financial crisis started in late 2007, public spending in Northern Ireland has risen (even in real terms), and taxes have fallen (even in absolute terms). That is a straightforward fact.

“Austerity” is a word which has come to be much abused, because the seeds of that financial crisis were that we had become greedy in the Western World (and particularly in the Anglosphere), buying things we had not earned with money we had not got – in other words, we were not living austerely enough. Arguably most prominent among the parties challenging this greed were the Greens. They suggested most obviously that we use less fuel (thus not only drive and fly less, but also trade less, for example going back to eating solely in-season fruit rather that flying it around the world), but also that we live off our own resources (one member in North Belfast even grew his own tea in his house on the Ballysillan Road) – in other words, that we should live more austerely.

For whatever reason, “austerity” has come instead to mean a reduction in the balance between public spending and taxes raised. Many countries, such as Ireland, both reduced public spending and increased taxes – a clear case of “austerity” on this new, financial definition. However, here is the thing: Northern Ireland did not.

We should note again, as above, that Northern Ireland on the contrary had the precise opposite of austerity. Public spending has risen, no matter how measured, while almost every form of tax has fallen (Northern Ireland household taxes such as rates have been frozen, thus reducing markedly in real terms; UK corporation tax has fallen eight points; and UK income tax bands see the average earner paying £600 less in income tax each year now than eight years ago).

As The Detail and others have pointed out, what frustrates MLAs hanging out the begging bowl is that the amount of money they have, under NI Executive control, has fallen in real terms (though not, in fact, in absolute). That is true. The welfare bill in Northern Ireland has risen markedly (as it has elsewhere in the UK), and the money has to come from somewhere – if it is not coming from rising taxes, it will have to come in part from borrowing and in part from other services. Even in terms of current resource spending on public services, it should be noted that County Councils in England have had it much worse than Stormont or Holyrood have.

This brings us to the real point. If welfare spending is rising, the money has to come from somewhere; if you want welfare spending to rise even further for “mitigation”, as supposedly agreed at Stormont House, that is even more money which will have to come from somewhere. There are two options – it can be taken from other public services, or it can be taken in raised taxes.

Quite frankly, MLAs need to stop moaning. Firstly, we don’t have “austerity” by any definition. Secondly, we have a generous settlement. Thirdly, most of all, if you want more money for public services, have the guts to raise it!

Academia needs better grasp of real world politics

The argument has once again been made in a new book that the so-called “Peace Walls” should come down.

However, I cannot help but think such arguments are, both literally and metaphorically, academic. No Northern Irish people seriously believes “Peace Walls” are a positive thing, any more than Americans believe multiple weekly gun massacres are a positive thing. Yet more of them have gone up than come down since the so-called “Peace Agreement” of 1998.

It is frustrating that so many articles and books come out about the theory of such things, and yet so little effort is made to look at the practice. If “Peace Walls” are so obviously a bad thing (and it does not take a genius to work that out), why are they still up? Indeed, why has there been so little progress in taking them down? And let us be clear, anyone with a real knowledge of Northern Ireland knows there is no chance of their removal by 2023.

The fundamental reason for Peace Walls is, of course, not difficult to assess and does not require a book – there is a genuine fear underlying them. They are seen as direct protection for communities who simply do not trust their neighbours enough to do without them. Whether this fear and distrust is theoretically justified is almost irrelevant – fear and distrust are emotional, not rational.

There is a second fundamental issue here, which I touched on in yesterday’s blog. It is that local politicians follow; they do not lead. Why would they make genuine efforts to build bridges, reduce tensions and remove fear, when they actually thrive on (and get elected on the basis of) the status quo? It is an incredibly obvious point, yet academics and other external observers never address it. (As for the 2023 deadline, neither Mr Robinson nor Mr McGuinness will likely be around the be judged on it; and even if they are, they will play the standard blame game – why do people not get this?!)

There is a constant failing in broad academia to deal with the actual motivations of politicians and other “community leaders”. Such people simply do not read academic articles and think “Hey, I hadn’t thought of that; let’s do that!”

The very basic issue here is that people with little to lose will inevitably cling to a “community”, which gives them at least a sense of belonging and some feeling, at least, of strength in numbers. This is why, for example, immigrant communities spring up in new locations – as social networks designed to maximise the information flow and give members of the community at least some foundation in their surroundings. The standard example is the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” in New York – a means whereby new, Spanish-speaking arrivals in the metropolis could find both community and employment.

The problem is, however, that there comes a time when you have to move beyond that “community”; when in fact that community is limiting you. We are absolutely at that stage on either side of the “Peace Walls” and in other inner-city areas, as noted yesterday. It is understandable – up to a point at least – why people would come together to demand public services, community space and even cultural expression. None of that, however, especially when cast in a single-identity manner, actually moves the community forward. At best, it retains a status quo which suits politicians and other “community leaders” who are elected (or, well, appointed) on the back of it, but does not actually suit the community when looked at even vaguely rationally; at worst, it marginalises the community completely, making its members unable to take any of the opportunities available in the wider (diverse) society beyond the walls. This is exactly the same as the obvious point that there comes a time when a resident of New York aspires to more than speaking only Spanish socially to people dreaming of a distant island while driving taxis to get by; there comes a time when you realise you need to socialise in the main language of the city and to engage in knowledge and cultural exchange with a much wider group of people in order to get a better paid career – and thus, despite its initial value, the “Puerto Rican Taxi Drivers’ Association” becomes not a key to pulling you up, but a chain holding you down.

However, even all that is theory. After all, I or anyone else can write all we like about why the Peace Walls are a bad idea. Maybe it even serves to alleviate our Middle Class Guilt. However, actually doing the bridge-building at the interfaces is extraordinarily gruelling and largely thankless work, swimming in most cases against the local political and representative tide. It is not something I could do. I doubt it is something the authors of these wonderful books and academic papers could do either. The one thing we do need to do is to recognise that our external work will make not a jot of difference.

If they are to have any value at all, we need academics and civic actors to do much more than talk about how good an idea something would be; we need them to show us how it can be made to happen. Sadly, I see decreasing evidence of people even being prepared to take on that challenge, far less deliver on it.

“The community” isn’t always right

One of the things politicians often say to justify a position is that “the community wants [or does not want] it”. This is perhaps particularly so in Northern Ireland.

However, there is a problem with this. “The community” isn’t always right.

I could come up with no end of historical examples of where “communities” were wrong – often brutally and appallingly. However, let us just give three areas where “communities” are often fearful of change, even where that change is clearly for the long-term good, and are therefore “wrong”.

Firstly, in Health. Try to reform the system by re-allocating resources and facilities, and you will immediately find a “grass-roots” campaign backed by the “local community” to keep things as they are. It will be backed by politicians and presented as “saving” whatever the local resource or facility is. However, such campaigns are almost invariably flawed – causing vast amounts of money to be allocated to buildings which cannot possibly all host all the necessary health expertise. Rationalisation is necessary and wise – yet “the community” does not want to be necessary or wise… the community is wrong.

Second, in Education. Try introducing a new educational facility into an inner-city area, and you will find often find it rejected – even to the extent that children in existing facilities are taken out of their education to protest about a facility which would not be built anyway by the time they had left school. Again, this will be presented as “protecting” local schools – when in fact those schools suffer declining rolls, are increasingly dilapidated, and sometimes cannot even produce adequate numbers for sports lessons or such like. New, merged schools with the most up-to-date facilities (not least in IT) – particularly those which integrated people from different backgrounds to get them prepared in early life for the diverse society in which they will have to live – are hugely sensible. Even more than this, tackling educational underachievement through such facilities is vital to ending the intergenerational poverty trap – yet “the community” (backed by politicians who claim to care about it) apparently does not want to tackle the intergenerational poverty trap (far less prepared for the reality of a diverse society)… the community is wrong.

Thirdly, in Regeneration. Try introducing a new social development which brings people together, provides an economic hub, and promised to revitalise the local area by providing a place in which people would consider investing, and watch the sectarian fear take over. It is, after all, much easier for an inward-looking “community” to pretend that there is some bogey man out there trying to deprive it of opportunities, than to reform and regeneration into an outward-looking “community” in which opportunities would arise. The “community” thus looks inward and rejects progress, backed by local politicians – ensuring its own decline as the rest of the world moves on… the community is wrong.

For all the discussion about welfare and such like, this is the real reason the NI Assembly has been doomed to collapse from the outset. It is populated by politicians who believe only in protecting their (short-term) “community” interests, not by those who think and feel for society as a whole. That is what has to change.

“Living Wage” a meaningless term

I don’t like George Osborne, but he is a cunning operator. In the recent Budget, he stole the Left’s clothes by introducing a “National Living Wage”. Brilliant.

Introducing it was not the cunning move, of course. Redefining it was. Instead of the academically agreed figure of £7.80, he put it at £7.20. He then said he’d raise it to £9, more than Labour. Furthermore, he restricted it to age 25+.

His opponents inevitably struggled because actually here were the Conservatives shifting responsibility for subsidising low pay from the taxpayer to Tesco’s.

And then they fell into the real trap. “Ah, but given what he has done to tax credits, the real living wage is now £12″, screamed some.

Hold on.

Not everyone qualified for tax credits, and they come in different forms in varying amounts depending on age, income and dependants. In other words, tying the level of the “Living Wage” to tax credits is an admission that it too depends heavily on circumstances. And if it depends heavily on circumstances, it varies from individual to individual and from time to time, rendering the whole concept (at least when expressed as an hourly figure) meaningless.

This may be no bad realisation. Low pay is a huge economic scourge. The “Living Wage” was presented as a magic bullet when it isn’t. The real issue is low productivity (30% below Germany’s) resulting inevitably in low wages. Sorting that needs not a magic bullet, but a more fundamental structural change.

Greek listening lessons for Unionists too

The Belfast Telegraph rightly ran a few articles over the past week (I am sure others did too, but those were the ones I happened to see) noting that Syriza’s embarrassment at negotiations following its “anti-austerity” referendum contained “harsh lessons” for Sinn Fein.

This is true. Syriza ran a referendum asking its people to endorse its view (at that of its Neo-Nazi coalition partners, a lot of liberal lefties seemed to forget…) that it should be allowed to spend as much German, Slovak and Latvian (and, ahem, Irish) money as it liked without penalty. The Greeks endorsed this wholeheartedly of course (who wouldn’t?), but forgot to note that the Germans, Slovaks and Latvians (and, ahem, at least some Irish) might not be quite so keen on the idea.

The Greek Ministers (and people, frankly) made many mistakes but the core one was to believe that, in a group of 19 countries, only their own interests counted. They enjoyed taking to Twitter and CNN to tell us all about how they and their people saw it – but they forgot to consider even remotely about how the other 18 might see it…

The practical result was that the Greek Prime Minister was taken into a room and humiliated. He signed a deal which was worse that the one on offer before the referendum, which will break apart his own party, and which he will never be able to implement anyway. Having taken over a growing Greek economy on the road to recovery, he has merely succeeded in taking it in a distinct lurch south, in every sense.

The lessons for Sinn Fein on both sides of the border are obvious; but there are lessons for Unionists too. As with the Greek Ministers (and people), it is a notable feature of Unionist political comment that they discuss at length who they are, what they want, and how they feel. However, they take almost no time to consider anyone else.

Unionists represent, at best, 1.5% of the population of the UK; as I have written many times before, those ticking both “British” and “Protestant” in the census were just 48% in 2011, a minority of Northern Ireland’s population – and I was among them. Unionists have every right to tell us who they are, what they want and how they feel – but they have no more right to dictate to the rest of us than Greece had to dictate to 18 other fellow Eurozone members. Not just that, but Unionists (like the Greeks) would do rather better if they spent more time considering who others are, what others want and how others feel before making their fanciful demands from a minority position.

In other words, the Greek mistake was not just that they made ludicrous demands from a position of numerical and economic weakness; it was that they considered only their own position and objectives, not anyone else’s. There are obvious lessons there for Sinn Fein on both sides of the Irish border – but also, broadly, for Unionists in Northern Ireland.

Unionist leaders neither truly British nor truly Protestant

If Unionists are world champions at anything, it is manufactured rage.

Of course, the presence of paramilitary trappings at a funeral is outrageous. But then, the presence of paramilitary trappings on public property or at war memorials is outrageous. How about some consistency? Ah no, you see, it’s one rule for “usuns” and one rule for “themmuns”.

This July, as ever, has seen courageous public servants injured by mobs; an arranged fight between (ahem, female) kids in a busy shopping street; and even the export of paramilitarism by a Bangor man to Alice Springs where he plans to “tar and feather” Aboriginals. All of these hint that parts of Northern Irish society are fundamentally uncivilised – yet they drew scant comment from Unionist leaders who could do something about it.

As a British Protestant, I am fed up with seeing my national flag besmirched by its placing on public property alongside paramilitary flags; and I am fed up with seeing my religion besmirched with the ludicrous notion that burning an image of the mother of Christ or forcing co-religionists out of their homes is my “culture”.

The fact that Unionist leaders choose, at best, to do nothing about these things says more to their own lack of real understanding or both Britishness and Protestantism. This lack of understanding of what it is to be a responsible British citizen and compassionate follower of the reformed faith has much to answer for.


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