Tackle China to tackle Climate Change

I do not write much about environmental issues for the simple reason that I am not an environmental scientist and, thus, know very little about them. That does not mean I do not think them important; it is simply that I prefer to choose subjects about which I am at least halfway informed.

However, there is one straightforward statistic about the share of global greenhouse emissions accounted for by each of the world’s three largest economies:

  • China 24%
  • United States 13%
  • European Union 9%

Of course, there are more people in China than in the United States and Europe combined – the United States in particular still emits more greenhouse gases per person than China does (although that is no longer true of the European Union). However, China’s economy is roughly the same size as the United States’ alone, or as Europe’s alone (i.e. all three are about equal size with each other), and yet China accounts for more harmful releases into our atmosphere than the United States and Europe combined. In other words, if China’s exponential economic growth continues and its (car-driving, factory-building, plane-flying middle class grows as expected by hundreds of millions), even its per capita emissions will come vastly to outstrip even those of the United States.

So the problem is not really ours, right? It is up to China to put its house in order?

Sort of. There is no doubt that China, and the Far East generally, will be much more dangerous to the environment than North America or Europe in decades to come. Any direct action taken by the West to limit climate change could be rendered almost irrelevant by Chinese growth. Yet it may still be decades before a burgeoning Chinese professional class is in a strong enough position both to recognise the problem and persuade compatriots to do something about it.

However, on what basis is the Chinese economy (and thus potential to damage the environment) growing? Well, by selling “stuff” to the West, in large part.

So, there is something quite obvious we in the West could do to protect the environment. We could stop buying this “stuff”. By doing so, we would limit the growth of the Chinese economy (thus giving more time to find a means to grow it without rapidly rising emissions from a country accounting for more people than North America and Europe combined), and we would even reduce transport costs.

That is a “win-win”, surely? Well, of course, it would mean the “stuff” we did buy would be made in Western countries with employee rights, health services and welfare systems as opposed to one where these basics do not exist. We would be doing our bit not just for the environment but also for human rights, but that “stuff” would, therefore, be considerably more expensive.

So, what about it…?


Perils of über-British/Irishness

An SDLP Councillor has a proposal for a civic dinner to be hosted by Belfast City Council for both Irish soccer teams upon qualification for the European Championship. Leaving aside the practicalities of running a £30/head dinner for lots of footballers during the season, this proposal, though dressed up as “inclusive” and “equal”, is actually bizarre.

This is the problem we run into with these two words. In fact, every single player in France next summer who is from the Belfast area and/or played for a youth team in the Belfast area will be playing for Northern Ireland. Belfast has a direct role – through funding and facilitating clubs and general development – in the success of probably more than half the Northern Ireland team, but only the Northern Ireland team. It is usual and practical for civic receptions to focus in an “inclusive” way on the area of the Council’s influence, and such a civic reception has already been held.

Even leaving that aside, the simple fact is that qualification (top of the group) by a team representing an area of 1.8 million people is a considerably more noteworthy accomplishment than qualification (through the playoff) by a team representing 4.5 million plus a significant diaspora (and much of whose team, unlike Northern Ireland’s, is actually drawn from that diaspora). Comparable countries to the Republic of Ireland, such as Croatia and Albania, qualified too – whereas only one of Northern Ireland’s size or smaller did so. So, for Northern Ireland, merely qualifying is an accomplishment of similar standing to winning the tournament would be for Germany, reaching the semis would be for England, or reaching the knock-out stages would be for the Republic of Ireland. The accomplishments, therefore, are not “equal” – and the Belfast proposal in terms of the Republic of Ireland team is vastly more lavish than any likely to be bestowed upon it by any council within the FAI’s jurisdiction.

(To be clear, because believe it or not there are politicians out there who like to misrepresent things, there would be no harm in some sort of joint event, nor in being creative about such things – a joint homecoming reception for both teams after a day’s joint training at the new Windsor Park next autumn would be a great message and befitting of the support both teams have within the city. The session could even be ticketed with proceeds allocated to a local charity. No such strong message would be sent out by a lavish dinner at ratepayers’ expense.)

What is the point here? The point is that the wrong “inclusive” and “equal” comparison is being made. The comparison, at best, has to be with what other Irish City Councils are doing for the Republic of Ireland team. To do otherwise is to embark on an adventure in über-Irishness, where Northern Nationalists spend far more ratepayers’ money on celebrating Irish achievements than their compatriots in the Republic.

Über-Irishness and über-Britishness (putting flags everywhere, singing anthems inappropriately, moaning about how “Team GB” isn’t “Team UK” etc etc etc) are what define Northern Ireland. From across the border and across the Irish Sea they look on bewildered, knowing fine rightly there are better things to spend money on than lavish expressions of national identity. Perhaps it is time we worked that out too?

See you at the Homecoming Reception…




NI politics, and why language matters

I kicked off a bit of a firestorm on Twitter the other day – it so happened in opposition to an MLA who is also a personal friend – on the SDLP’s use of the term “the north” in response to the UK Chancellor’s Autumn statement.

This is a subtle thing and some people thought raising it was churlish. I understand why they felt this, but I believe they are missing a fundamentally important issue. Language is about a lot more than pure, rational communication. Our daily language is littered with markers – of who we are and who we are not, of what we approve of and what we do not, of what our background is and is not, and everything in between.

“The north” is of course in widespread use by Nationalists to refer to Northern Ireland even when it is not clear from the context that Ireland is being referred to. It is of course a means of firmly positioning Northern Ireland within an exclusively Irish context (arguably while hinting at the assumed illegitimate and/or temporary nature of the jurisdiction), and hence it is used in this way only by Nationalists. Its use is a deliberate identifier, notably by Nationalist parties and the Irish News, of Nationalism and the user’s innate comfort with and preference for Nationalism. It identifies the “in group”, and thus the “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Nationalists (even if inadvertently).

This exclusivity is further marked by those defending the phrase being unable to identify its equivalent, which is not “Northern Ireland” (the official name) or “Norn Iron” (derived from the official name used often with reference to the football team).

Its equivalent, widely used by Unionists and the News Letter, is in fact “Ulster” (used to refer to six counties only). Like “the north”, “Ulster” is deliberately used to place Northern Ireland in a particular political context, in this case outside “Ireland” altogether. Like “the north”, “Ulster” is confusing out of context, as in other contexts (notably history and sport) it clearly refers to nine counties, not six. Like “the north”, “Ulster” thus identifies an “in group” and an “out group”, and is thus deliberately exclusive of non-Unionists (again, even if inadvertently).

Infrequent use of “the north” or “Ulster” to mean Northern Ireland is not a serious problem, of course, but users should be (and frankly are) aware that such terms always identify an “in group” and an “out group”, and are thus exclusive. Occasional use will be regarded (as one correspondent rightly suggested) as inoffensive, but determined use of such phrases will always be taken as deliberately exclusive and insensitive by those in the “out group” – and rightly so, because it is.

Most notably, those genuine about making NI work and carrying forward the required compromises around identity (as well as the required promotion of both British and Irish identity) cannot hope to do so if in their very phraseology promotes only one particular worldview and identity (placing is firmly Ireland or removing us entirely from Ireland) while ignoring all others. If even moderates cannot agree on the need for inclusive labels and phrases, there is simply no agreed, shared foundation on which to build an agreed, shared future.

It is notable that impartial organisations, most obviously the BBC and UTV, do not use either “the north” or “Ulster” for the very reason that they are loaded one way or the other. (For the record, the BBC dropped “the Province” to refer specifically to Northern Ireland some years ago for the same reason.)

Fundamental to this is an underlying problem with Northern Ireland’s still not sufficiently advanced community relations. Overuse, for example, of exclusive symbols by public agencies or councils is in fact illegal, monitored in the interests of inclusivity and fair play by the Equality Commission. Overuse of exclusive phrasing by political parties falls into the exact same area – it is at best carelessly exclusive, and at worst deliberately disrespectful. And telling people to ignore it, however liberally and politely, is just like telling them to ignore symbols.

That isn’t the aforementioned fundamental problem with community relations, however. The fundamental problem is that we remain, no matter how we refer to Northern Ireland, too willing to demand respect and legitimacy for ourselves, and too unwilling to offer that respect to others. Even moderates see fit to ignore the need to show the basic generosity necessary – for example by avoiding overuse of symbols or exclusive terminology – without demanding something in return. Language, like symbols, comes to define “in groups” and “out groups” – and denials of this obvious fact come across as frankly devious.

This is not exclusive (!) to Northern Ireland by any means. Across the UK, for example, use of “Europe” to refer to the Continent can be seen by some as irksome and is a clear hint at British exceptionalism. The predominantly German-speaking Italian province of South Tyrol is referred to in German as “Südtirol” (the rest of “Tirol” is in Austria) but in Italian officially as “Alto Adige” (to avoid the Austrian link; although interestingly since I was there in 2000 apparently many younger Italian speakers in the area now use “Tirolo del Sud” as a marker of regional solidarity). Referring to the Spanish language in Spanish itself as “Español” (from the name of the state) or “Castellano” (from the name of the originating region, and also the one used in the Spanish Constitution) is a marker of preference and grouping; as is the use of “Moldovan” or “Romanian” to refer to the official national language of the Republic of Moldova (which is identical to Romanian but referred to constitutionally merely as the “national language”). There are many more such examples – the point being that language is just as sensitive and symbols. If we are aware of this, we may well choose to use it as a tool to annoy a certain “out group” and emphasise our credentials within a certain “in group”. If we are not aware of it, we probably need to be…

We have a responsibility in our use of language, just as with symbols, to behave sensitively and not to place our fellow citizens in an “out group” (at least, if we are serious about making NI work for all its people). It is time we respected that responsibility – in the north of Ulster and elsewhere…

Nationalists need to show respect, not just demand it

I was accused the yesterday of “not respecting the aspirations of Nationalists”.

Which is odd, because on this blog alone you will find:

The really messed up thing is you will find none of those from actual Nationalists! You will struggle anywhere in all of the Internet to find any concrete, practical, detailed proposal or even debate-starting outline for any of the above from a Nationalist commentator, and certainly not from a Nationalist Party (random demands or proposals which involve Unionists waking up one morning and suddenly realising they are Irish count as neither “detailed” nor “practical”, for the record!)

I have even met representatives of Nationalist parties in a purely personal and voluntary capacity to discuss all of these, particularly the first two (deliverable as they are within the confines of the current Agreement) – and have happily done so anywhere from a leather-seated coffee house to the Felons’ Club.

As it happens, I also spoke strongly at a major conference in Dublin last month, attended by the Tánaiste and Scottish Minister for External Relations, of the legitimacy of Irish Government intervention during the EU referendum in defence of the interests of Irish citizens in the UK (most notably in Northern Ireland where citizenship is automatic) and of cross-border trade and leisure. My intervention was by invitation but, again just to be clear, was entirely voluntary. I may have missed it, but I don’t recall any actual Nationalists making this point publicly.

So I politely contend that I fully respect Nationalist aspirations, and indeed have acted purely in a voluntary capacity to try practically to fulfill them. Could it be, in fact, that it is Nationalists who are not so good at offering the same respect they demand?

Let’s end this Black Friday madness

Black Friday was something I only became aware of in the UK last year. I had some notion of the tradition in the United States around Thanksgiving, but since Thanksgiving does not exist on this side of the Atlantic I, like most here, gave no more thought to it.

Then the terror started.

Jostling on Black Friday turned into worse in shops like Asda last year, leading the store to stop marking it.

Jostling on Black Friday turned into worse in shops like US-owned Asda last year, leading the store to stop marking it in the UK. 

There are two reasons I was appalled.

The first is economic. All this grabbing, barging, jostling and outright fighting was a mad consumerist binge for “stuff”, which has no rational justification whatsoever. It does not buy children’s love, it does not buy family happiness, it does not buy general social wellbeing. In fact, fuelled by debt as it inevitably is, it leads to certain economic disaster, financial anxiety and in some cases genuine poverty. Just such a calamity befell us in 2007/8, and for some reason, within easy memory of that, we wanted to repeat the lunacy. For what, precisely?

The second is arguably less serious but also noteworthy: it shows not only that we have no sense of value but also that we have no self-respect. Black Friday is clearly, without dispute, an American tradition. It has nothing whatsoever to do with the UK. So why on earth would we meekly import it? For all the criticism of Tony Blair being “America’s poodle”, now we are all at it! Is that not pretty pathetic?

(Americans have many fine traditions, by the way – but they are theirs, not ours. They have no meaning here and should not be imported just so multinationals can make a quick buck from the hard-pressed worker.)

Self-respect is perhaps what this is all about. We need to have more self-respect than to think we can buy love or happiness; we need to have more self-respect than to think retail binges constitute a serious economic plan; and we need to have more self-respect than to copy cultural traditions from elsewhere without any rational justification.

Americans can keep Black Friday. At least until they import Boxing Day…

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Another day, another SF fantasy…

Sinn Fein activists got excited last week at a report from academics which suggested that Irish unification could boost the Irish economy by €35.6 billion. Of course, that was the headline – like any headline, it was not a totally fair representation of what the report said. It also failed to mention exactly who was behind it.

The report says that if Northern Ireland were to be incorporated into the Republic of Ireland – taxes, benefits and all – it could find its productivity increase to a similar level (i.e. from roughly 90% of the EU average to 130% – taking GDP figures from Eurostat) in 15 years. I am doing it a slight disservice there by slightly overstating and simplifying the figures, but that is the basic premise of the report and the subsequent commentary.

To be clear, the report is not without merit. If Northern Ireland became more like the Republic – considerably less reliant on welfare and public spending, in other words – it would indeed become more entrepreneurial and, in all likelihood, its GDP would rise. This is indisputable, and has been argued frequently on these pages. There are three pretty hefty problems here, however.

The first problem is that, far from being “independent” and “academic”, the report was in fact commissioned by friends of Sinn Féin in California and has not been peer-reviewed. Put simply, it is therefore neither independent nor academic.

The second problem – one raised frequently on these pages – is that neither Sinn Fein nor the SDLP actually offer the favourable scenario it purports to offer! In fact, since they first attained Ministerial office, they have very specifically sought to make Northern Ireland more reliant on public spending on welfare (and so it has become). Only the other day, an SDLP Minister specifically opened a grant programme to include only not-for-profit organisations; Sinn Fein is busily trying to deny it is decreasing the size of Northern Ireland’s public sector and introducing a lower level of corporation (ahem, profits) tax. This is the precise opposite of the route recommended in the report to generate this extra “unification” bonus they were getting so excited about.

The third problem is that we cannot know what the outcome of the adoption of the Republic’s economic and financial policies in Northern Ireland would be, but we can say with reasonable certainty it would not be as pretty as the report suggests (and indeed, even the authors say “could”, not “would”). The report is remarkably reliant on the suggestion that Northern Ireland would gain from adopting the apparently weaker (and actually less stable) euro currency, when in practice we have no idea what the medium-term exchange rates would be or how useful they are. We should also not forget that the tax regime it proposes this would actually mean:

  • abolition of a Health Service free at point of access (as it would no longer be affordable from the lower tax take);
  • additional to that, introduction of various other charges to align with the Republic (for roads, bins, fire call outs, etc);
  • lower income tax bands (thus the average earner and average professional would pay more income tax);
  • higher VAT (by three points, on current levels);
  • 100,000 public sector job losses…

Hold on, 100,000…?!

Well, of course. The Republic of Ireland employs around 280,000 public sector workers for a population of 4.5 million; Northern Ireland currently has 210,000 for 1.8 million. Proportionately, therefore, Northern Ireland has almost twice as many as it would have when matching the Republic’s policies as the scenario presented in the report suggests it would – and that is before you get to potential additional job losses or transfers to Dublin (the capital, presumably) and of course the alleged efficiency savings of doing things on an all-island basis (if those exist at all and are to be realised, they must involve the removal of bureaucracy and, thus, of bureaucrats – public sector workers, in other words).

On top of this, we have the obvious problem with the assumption that adoption of the same policies purely on the financial/economic side would immediately have the same outcome despite differing educational systems and training priorities (and historical government structures, and legacy of conflict, and infrastructure…). Even if it magically did, we then have to ask where the global companies are which are going to invest in Northern Ireland because it has adopted the same policies as the Republic of Ireland, but have not already invested in the Republic of Ireland. And then we have to recognise that if Northern Ireland wished to reach the same GDP/head levels as the Republic of Ireland, from the date of unification it would not just need a fair share of that investment on to the island, but in fact the comfortable majority (to make up the gap with the likes of Google, Intel and Apple already safely ensconced in the Republic). So for “could”, we should probably read “could theoretically in miraculous circumstances”…

That is not to say Sinn Fein activists should ignore what is, in effect, their own think tank’s report. On the contrary, they should read it carefully. It says what I have always said – the practical case for a United Ireland can only be made from the economic Right, not the Left.

But Sinn Fein, of course, isn’t really serious about a United Ireland. Indeed, the very first thing Sinn Fein said after the “Fresh Start” deal was that it did not commit them to supporting lower corporation tax. The very first thing the report says is that the generation of extra wealth for Northern Ireland depends on, er, lowering corporation tax. I don’t quite buy that myself. But then, I wasn’t the one commissioning a report and then getting excited about it on the pretence it was independent…

Subvention denial (and why GDP is a terrible metric)

The Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI), not known for its right-wing leanings by any means, recently put forward this very helpful piece.

It is particularly helpful in taking on subvention denial, which is the latest game being undertaken by the Nationalist Left, most obviously Sinn Fein. It is odd how they are obsessed by numbers around £700 million. Having previously had their figure of “£750 million out of the economy due to welfare reform” demolished (no one mentions it any more, and it would be good to hear people apologise for having put it about so carelessly), they are now trying to suggest Northern Ireland’s subvention is less than that, at only around £700 million. This is garbage.

This does, of course, lead us on to a real issue of what the “subvention” actually is. There, NERI is particularly useful, by defining something different but very relevant – the “net fiscal transfer”. It is in fact this which most people are calculating when they refer to the “subvention”, namely the gap (broadly) between what Northern Ireland raises in tax revenue and what Northern Ireland spends on public services and welfare – a gap which would have to be covered in extra expenditure by the rest of Ireland in the event of Irish unity, in order for Ireland to maintain a budget surplus (as the Republic currently does).

It is worth adding, however, one area where NERI is a little careless (although not strictly inaccurate). It bands around words like “poorer” based solely on GDP. It is far from unique in this – the European Union does likewise. To be fair, NERI itself warns that it is focusing on figures only.

Based on GDP, Northern Ireland is indeed considerably “poorer” than the Republic of Ireland. Northern Ireland’s GDP per head is around 10% below the European Union average; the Republic’s, on the other hand, is around 35% above. It is equally dodgy to equate the term “living standards” to GDP levels, as many do.

However, here is a pecular thing: despite GDP levels, household spending in the Republic of Ireland is in fact below the European Union average; whereas household spending in Northern Ireland is nearly 20% above the European Union average. This would explain why visitors to both parts of Ireland – on one side of the border there are more BMWs (and indeed cars generally) sold, more money spent on eating out and more money spent on household goods, and yet it is not the side of the border you would expect according to the GDP figures. So the word “poorer” requires care – it would be better to specify “lower GDP per capita”.

The problem with GDP is threefold. Firstly, it only measures product, not outcome – for example, it is surely beneficial if you have a neighbour who fixes your pipe (rather than a plumber) or a family member who looks after your kids (rather than a paid child minder), and yet these “benefits” will reduce GDP because they do not contribute towards an overall product in any calculable way (whereas an expensive plumber or child minder would increase GDP because they do). Secondly, albeit linked to this, it only measures product within the country at point of production, which is why the Republic of Ireland has such a marked differential between GDP (measured at point of production, a figure which for the past decade or so has been typically around 20% higher than the UK’s) and GNI (measured effectively at end of production – a figure which in recent years has typically been almost identical to the UK’s) – for example, if Apple produces lots of value in Cork this goes on to Irish GDP, but the profits in terms both of research value and straightforward money gained will still make their way back to the California where the company is based and thus be added to GNI in the United States, not Ireland). Thirdly, GDP is designed to be used at a national rather than a regional level – in fact, the UK’s Office of National Statistics does not even assess GDP at a regional level because it is too complex and almost redundant (for example, if someone buys something from Tesco in Northern Ireland, it is arguable whether that should be assessed as beneficial in Northern Ireland or where Tesco is based in London; if it is the latter, regions with lots of nominal company headquarters within them, not least national capitals, will almost always gain ludicrously on the statistics charts). The simple fact is also that most countries have a system of internal transfers designed roughly to equalise the actual living standards experienced across the country (although whether they do this perfectly is contested, of course); indeed, the nonsense of regional GDP is that it at once suggests Northern Ireland is the “poorest” region of the UK, but Belfast is the third “richest” city – neither of those can seriously be right, and as ever the truth in terms of the actual living standards experienced is somewhere in between.

None of this, however, makes life any easier for people trying to wish away Northern Ireland’s fiscal imbalance, evened up as it is each year by the UK Treasury to the tune of (now) nearly £10 billion – the “net fiscal transfer”. This is made up of current public spending by the devolved departments (health, education, justice etc. – currently typically just over £10 billion), current infrastructure spending by the devolved departments (construction and upkeep of roads, hospitals, schools etc – just over £1 billion), social welfare spending (pensions, housing benefit, jobseeker’s allowance, etc.; in theory devolved by in practice from the UK Government – currently nearly £8 billion although by nature in varies from year to year), and UK-wide “non-regional” spending (defence, diplomacy, debt repayments, some Treasury spending such as tax credits, etc. – over £4 billion to Northern Ireland if assigned roughly equally across the UK) minus the tax revenue received from Northern Ireland (around £10 billion directly plus roughly another £3 billion in UK-wide tax take – this latter figure in particular is tricky to assign given individuals/companies operating across the UK, the nature of online purchases and even tax payments, etc.). This gives around £23 billion minus around £13 billion as a best guess (including £19 billion minus £10 billion in clearly regionally assigned expenditure and revenue).

It should be noted this is not all strictly “subvention” – despite “austerity” (or because, unlike in the Republic of Ireland, “austerity” has not been implemented anything like fully in Northern Ireland), the UK Government still spends more on public services and welfare than it receives in tax revenue, to the extent that all four countries of the UK actually receive a “net fiscal transfer” and thus the whole of the UK has a “subvention” from borrowed money. Welfare is also tricky because it is not budgeted, and is spent on the basis of need rather than prior calculation (the crux of the Conservatives’ current problems having specifically pledged to reduce it).

The truth around GDP only makes matters worse for Northern Ireland were it to leave the UK, because its low GDP figure is converted into a relatively high public consumption (household spending) figure by that net fiscal transfer – most obviously in the form of lots of extra public-funded jobs (not just in the civil service but also including the likes of most construction workers, most professional consultants, half of the voluntary/community sector) which would simply not exist without it, and thus whose salaries would not exist either. Even community grants, sports sponsorship and other types of aid are sought almost entirely in Northern Ireland from “the government” (or “the council”, or whatever) rather than from the private corporate sector as would be the norm elsewhere in the UK and (notably for the purposes of this comparison) Ireland. Thus Northern Ireland’s whole financial culture is abnormal and dependent on the net fiscal transfer which is itself dependent on remaining in the UK.

Northern Ireland is nowhere near paying its way, and that is what defines it economically and socially. Plainly, it is that which has to be resolved before any serious debate about its constitutional status can ensue. Subvention denial is not going to cut it.

And by the way, quite frankly, Northern Ireland needs more public spending the same way an alcoholic needs more drink. Those who seek to change its status should be the first to see that…

Solidarité – but with Beirut too

When three people were murdered in a terrorist atrocity in Boston, Twitter went in to meltdown. When 147 students were gunned down in Kenya in April, however, we just scrolled on.

This is something which is not completely irrational, but it should concern us.

"ISIS" also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

“ISIS” also carried out a massacre in Lebanon at the weekend. Where were the Lebanese flags in our profile pics?

Likewise, at the weekend Daesh (or “ISIS”) carried out attacks of unimaginable brutality in Paris and Beirut. The former got almost all the public attention.

This is understandable. More of us have visited Paris and were likely to know people currently in Paris than Beirut. Paris is also more like us – a Western city in an established democracy.

In the case of Paris, we in the West (many familiar with the city) were able to relate better to acts of inhumane brutality but also of astonishing kindness and heroism (and superb journalism too, not least by some of our own). We were genuinely shaken by such fear and terror so close to home in every sense. Of course we connected to it more closely than to the attacks in Lebanon.

However, it is also greatly disconcerting – or, at least, it should be. What we are saying really is either that we place an economic value on life (therefore people killed in the West are more important than people killed on the Developing World); or worse still that we care more about those who are like us. Or both. To emphasise: this is not irrational – but it matters.

The fundamental implication is that if we accept that we care more about those who are close to us or about those whose lives have economic value, we accept that social justice is impossible. Logically, we tell the rest of the world, even the best educated in poor countries, that in fact we do not care about them. They can burn hundreds at a time for all we care. How do we expect them to respond to that?

Worse, how does this notion that we care primarily about those who are like us play out even within our own homeland? Do we care more about those of the same class, or same locality, or same religion, or even same race? Is this not all on the spectrum somewhere? If so, we probably need to address it, at least to some extent.

To be clear, I had hardly noticed Kenya and I probably noted Beirut only because refugees from there were among my childhood friends. I am as guilty as anyone else. However, we do need to ask ourselves what the implications are of who we care about and who we don’t.

Non, ce n’est pas la guerre

I tweeted the other day that, frankly, I have no idea what to do about Daesh (or “ISIS”, as the terrorists themselves like to style themselves).

I do have a few thoughts on what not to do, however – sadly, France seems committed to doing most of them.

Firstly, do not declare “war”. This is not a war in any sense that the public will understand the term. 1939-45 was a war. What the US and assorted allies have been up to in the Middle East since 2003 is some sort of completely incomprehensible grubby conflict which has cost us lots of young lives but does not appear to have achieved an awful lot other than feed terrorism.

Secondly, do not declare endless states of emergency or periods of martial law or even constitutional changes. Restricting our freedoms is exactly what this is all about for the terrorists, who will revel in their ability to force a mighty power like France to change its constitution on their account.

Thirdly, do not say you are closing your borders. You will find some of the terrorists came from within your borders anyway; others will easily be able to skirt through them on fake IDs and such like; so again, the only freedoms you are restricting are those of law-abiding citizens – just as the terrorists would have it.

Fourthly, do not talk about wiping groups from the face of the planet. It is too easy for those of less virtuous aims to take that to mean entire sects, rather than specific terrorist groups. Again, the terrorists want to turn this into a “clash of civilisations” (so that as many people as possible gave no option but to turn to them) – the whole purpose of the response must be not to allow this.

Fifthly, do not talk about mercilessly annihilating groups which exist in the Middle East. The Middle East will never be democratic and will always be inherently unstable, short of Western powers intervening and engaging in decades of nation-building (or “colonisation”, as that would also be justifiably called). The terrorists want talk of “merciless annihilation”; it allows them to promote it on their side too. The objective, in fact, is containment (in many senses).

Sixthly, do not base strategic intelligence missions or military action in the Middle East on nation states. They have no meaning there. “Governments” there are themselves just sects; borders are irrelevant (and were mostly drawn in the wrong place anyway). Nation states are a European obsession. Get over it – the terrorists have.

Finally, do not base your response on an immediate emotional reaction to an attack. Again, that is exactly what terrorism is designed to achieve. Instead, respond in an inclusive, civilised and rational manner ensuring as few people as possible are inclined to turn to the marginalised extremism which feeds such attacks in the first place – all while remembering never to expect the same from terrorists.

Inclusive, civilised and rational – that is who we aspire to be, and at our best that is who we are. We must never let terrorists make us think otherwise.

SDLP has run out of ideas

SDLP Leadership contender Colum Eastwood describes a “United Ireland” (code, by the way, for a “United Irish Republic with no constitutional connection to Great Britain”) as the “greatest idea that we have”.

In so doing, he sums up the SDLP’s pointlessness in AD 2015.

Indeed, when asked straight out how those unconvinced might be persuaded of this “great idea” on television last week, one of his own Assembly colleagues literally had nothing at all to say.

If it were a “great idea”, people would be converting to it; practical debate would rage about it; indeed, anyone would be able to see the value of it and make a case for it. None of that is the case.

In fact, across the island, in the short and medium term (even in the long term given the current financial reality), this “greatest idea that we have” is a minority interest among all groups in both jurisdictions on the island of Ireland.

What would be a “great idea” would be the development of a welfare system which actually helps people out of poverty rather than trapping them in it. What would be a “great idea” would be a health reform which focused on patients not bureaucracy. What would be a “great idea” would be an economic development policy which created real jobs in high-value, export-focused industries. Suggesting that the “greatest idea we have” is a long-term constitutional change which may never happen is completely out of touch with those whose real interests are living standards, health and jobs.

The Nationalist parties received a lower vote share and 40,000 fewer votes in May than they did in the last equivalent election pre-Agreement despite “favourable demographics” – and even of those, the SDLP received barely a third compared to three fifths less than two decades ago. It is hard to ignore the obvious conclusion that broadly Nationalist voters are growing tired of politicians with nothing to say to them on real-life issues, and who keep harping on about a long-term aspiration which they may share but which does not affect their lives right now.

Why – versus a decade or two decades ago – are fewer people voting? Why, even among those still voting, are fewer voting Nationalist? Why, even among those voting Nationalist, are fewer voting SDLP? I have not seen a single one of these questions posed. It is hard to find the right answers if you haven’t even bothered with the right questions.

What people need are “great ideas” on reducing poverty, improving health, and creating jobs. Given by its insistence of focusing on a long-term minority interest, the SDLP has run out of them.


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